American Essentialism: White Supremacy and Collective Violence in the United States

Article excerpt

The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching, by Michael J. Pfeifer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011, x, 143 pp., $40.00 US (cloth).

State of White Supremacy." Racism, Governance, and the United States, edited by Moon-Kie Jung, Joao H. Costa Vargas, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011, x, 340 pp., $75.00 US (cloth), $24.95 US (paper).

In the fall of 2011, I taught a seminar titled "Race and Violence in Arkansas" for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. (I wanted to call the course "White Supremacy and Collective Violence in Arkansas," but the department chair warned about having skinhead students thinking that it was a how-to course.) Probably the most significant obstacle I encountered during the semester was a worldview--not always explicitly expressed--on the part of my students which mirrored the sort ofAristotelian mindset ever present in medieval debates over the nature of the Eucharist. Just as the "essence" of the Eucharist was the actual, physical body and blood of Christ, while the "accidental" properties were the bread and wine one could see, so was the United States of America held to be, in essence, a fundamentally beneficent force in the world, both for its own citizens and for those of other nations; the record of genocide, slavery, terrorism, racial cleansing, and violence constituted only the accidental properties of its history and should not be allowed to call into question the country's fundamental benevolence. By contrast, I was presenting a worldview which held such events as the Elaine Massacre of 1919--during which armed mobs and federal soldiers indiscriminately killed an estimated 200 African Americans (and perhaps many more) after several met to form a sharecroppers' union--or the Harrison Race Riots of 1905 and 1909-during which African Americans were expelled from a northern Arkansas railroad town, mirroring expulsions that occurred across the nation and created all-white municipalities known as "sundown towns"--as normative events for the course of American history, not exceptional in the slightest. (1)

At the risk of sounding too Freudian, I told my students at the end of the course that violence--especially racial violence--is to American history what sex is to our daily lives. In the average Hollywood action film, sex between the main, male lead and the woman of his choice is rather disconnected from the rest of the storyline, occurring only because classical narrative conventions depend upon some kind of romantic subplot and the titillating flash of flesh. By contrast, sex in our daily lives is more often imbued with some context and precedent, from little flirtations at the office to getting the dishes done and the children put to bed early. Though studies have not been done on the subject, probably very few couples on the run from Mexican drug lords or cyborgs sent from the future on a mission of assassination feel up for an invigorating roll in the sheets after narrowly escaping their own deaths. Likewise, said I to my smirking students, do we need to see the instances of violence we had been studying not as events that happen out of the blue but rather events that occur within the particular political and cultural context of white supremacy.

Unlike the varied manifestations of fascism, the global system of white supremacy, concomitant to the colonial projects of American and European nations, has not yet come under the easy condemnation of those scholars who study political extremism. For example, in one recent work, Origins of Political Extremism." Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, political scientist Manus I. Midlarsky interrogates numerous cases of extremism--including German National Socialism, Japanese imperialism, and radical Islam--but, aside from very brief mention of Latin American troubles, leaves the Americas untouched by his analysis, as immaculate as it is held to be by the most rigid adherents to the doctrine of American exceptionalism, despite a history of genocide, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and racial oppression (to speak only of ostensibly "internal" developments, rather than any history of military intervention in other nations). …