American Essentialism: White Supremacy and Collective Violence in the United States
Lancaster, Guy, Canadian Journal of History
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). (2) Neither does Midlarsky interrogate the European propensity for mass murder--and ideologies which bless such--outside of the well-worn tracks of fascism, anti-Semitism, and communism, echoing the popular understanding of extremism. After all, Nazi Germany in the popular mind constitutes such an exemplar because it was suffused with an ideology that made scapegoats of select people on the basis of race, religion, sexuality, and physical and mental abilities, and these people were thus exterminated, with the energy and materiel devoted to their extermination exceeding the bounds of apparent logic. By contrast, someone like Leopold II, King of the Belgians, is held to be no equivalent to Adolf Hitler, perhaps because he did not directly order the murder of an estimated 10 million Congolese during the years when he oversaw the Congo Free State but rather merely demanded a level of profit that led those under him to pursue a regime of murder, mutilation, rape, and terror that just happened to pile up enough bodies to outrank several acknowledged genocides of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (3) Or let us consider the British Empire, for which popular culture still expresses a sweet nostalgia. During the years of 1876-1879 and 1896-1902, the British Empire oversaw in its colony of India two famines which killed between 12.2 and 29.3 million people total. Even while these famines raged at their worst, colonial administrators actually oversaw the shipment of grain from famine-plagued regions because it would sell for more on the global market than it would locally; in addition, they also passed laws prohibiting private relief donations, out of fear that such could negatively affect the fixing of grain prices, and continued to push through a restructuring of society away from relations of patrimonial obligation and toward an upward redistribution of wealth and integration into the capitalist world economy. Dubbing this policy genocidal, Christopher Powell writes,
In the more familiar types of genocide, perpetrators commit mass murder or impose lethal conditions on a group in order to undermine its institutions, disrupt the collective life of the group, and sever the network of relations that holds a community together. In India, under the viceroys, the converse happened: severing a particular cluster of relations--the moral economy that maintained food entitlements during relative shortages--had the structural consequence of producing mass death. These deaths were not intended, but neither did they persuade the architects of empire to alter their designs. (4)
If we want to label these actions as the actions of extremists, we need to define our terms. Are we critiquing white supremacy or global capitalism, or are the two somehow so intertwined that they cannot be so easily separated? And can we call such systems "extremist" if, by that word, we imply specifically those ideologies and actions that are non-normative? Indeed, Midlarsky's theory on the origins of political extremism is designed specifically to analyze those movements that are discontinuous …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: American Essentialism: White Supremacy and Collective Violence in the United States. Contributors: Lancaster, Guy - Author. Journal title: Canadian Journal of History. Volume: 47. Issue: 2 Publication date: Autumn 2012. Page number: 379+. © 1999 Canadian Journal of History. COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.