Toward the end of Spike Lee’s staggering new film, BlacKkKlansman, there’s a revelatory sequence in which two speeches are placed in juxtaposition.
One is an oration by David Duke (Topher Grace), then grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as he initiates a number of new members into the organization. The other is a haunting recollection of the real-life lynching of a young black boy, Jesse Washington, as told by weathered activist Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) to a riveted audience at the Colorado College Black Student Union.
The camera intercuts between the two speeches — Duke declaring the need for racial purity, Turner describing the devastation the policing of that spurious purity has caused — and serves, as much of the film does, to offer a lucid appraisal of the violent boundaries of whiteness, and the sucking, vacuous nullity at the center of that concept. “White power,” as championed by Duke, is the urge toward violence for the sake of the preservation of unearned dominance. “Black power,” as spoken by the young activists in the film, is the reclamation of strength stolen by an oppressive state, a celebration of physicality denigrated as undesirable, degenerate. That much hasn’t changed in the decades since the incidents that inspired the film took place in 1979. But in a time of social upheaval, the grim little soldiers of white power have re-emerged emboldened.
It has been just over one year since the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which one counterprotestor was killed and several more were injured; an anniversary event organized by the same white supremacist who led last year’s rally, Jason Kessler, fizzled into infamy last weekend. But all over the web, in the fetid corners where race theorists gather, the ideologues for whom whiteness is the only source of pride have been gathering for years. Since Donald Trump’s emergence on the national political scene, with his persistent and undeniable denigration of Latinos, immigrants, and black people, these running hounds of whiteness have been howling. In the havoc of a tempestuous presidency, the dogs of race war are ready to sink their teeth into the flanks of anyone they hate — and their hatred is broad and immense.
As a researcher on extremism, I’ve learned the ins and outs of how whiteness is both constructed and defended online, through bad-faith campaigns on social media, and on sites and message boards devoted to the amplification of hate. I’ve studied the white supremacist candidates running for GOP seats all over the country, a group whose numbers extend well into the double digits. But it’s worth examining the concept of whiteness beyond our explosive moment, as it has existed throughout American history.
The idea of a “Caucasian” race dates back to the late 1700s, when the German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach examined the skulls of Eastern Europeans to build a taxonomy of the races, dividing humankind into five groups; white Caucasian, yellow Mongolian, black Ethiopian, red American, brown Malayan. Although Blumenbach himself didn’t posit a hierarchy of the races, his work was used as the basis for racist pseudoscience that emphatically did, such as that of the Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper and the American doctor Josiah Nott, who sought to create a scientific basis for the inferiority of those with nonwhite skin.
This scientific veneer served to prop up a status quo that was already violently racist; the Middle Passage slave trade that trafficked in African bodies had been prospering for centuries. The slavery that allowed the early American economy to flourish as a producer of textiles was based on a thin scrim of justification that drew on both race science and the Bible — Africans were descendants of Ham, a cursed son of Noah — and was driven by greed. Human bondage was the economic engine of early America; race science, and the violent rhetoric of racism, was the grease that allowed the bitter machine to function. Slavers purposely separated Africans from the same town and culture, who spoke the same language. In this way they created blackness: By thieving individuality and heritage from those whose bodies they exploited, they created a category of people who could only be identified by the color of their skin. There were many who did not survive the onslaught of white greed and the terror that upheld it; but those who did, did so together, in solidarity.
When the Civil War ended, racist terrorism — the lynching and brutality white Southerners called “the Redemption” — and the quieter but no less consequential racist policies of the North conspired to maintain a status quo of black poverty and white supremacy.
For all the rigidity with which its bounds are policed, whiteness has been a surprisingly elastic category. Immigrant groups — Irish and Italians in particular — who were initially cast as ethnically inferior found themselves assimilated into whiteness over the course of the twentieth century. Whiteness expands and contracts as necessary to police its bounds, and keep its enemies subjugated. Even Jews, in the last decades of the twentieth century, found themselves conditionally admitted. The elasticity of whiteness is rooted in its essential lack of substance, its existence as a negation of the other.
At its hollow core, whiteness is nothing in particular: It’s an airless vacuum, bereft of any affirmative quality. To be white in America is merely to benefit from the absence of racial discrimination. To be white in America is to walk a path that contains no hurdles based on the color of one’s skin, one’s name, one’s outward presentation to the world. To be white is to benefit from a history of slavery, theft, and colonization that transpired before you were born; it’s to reap the harvest, without any effort on your own part, of centuries of religious and intellectual justification for violence. It’s playing life, like a video game, on the easiest setting. There’s no shame in being born white, but there’s no pride in it either, because it is by definition a category bereft of specificity.
Whiteness exists to punish blackness; whiteness exists to hurt those who are not white; whiteness exists to exert its own supremacy, in a great feral and bitter taunt against those it loathes. Whiteness has no language of its own; whiteness has no homeland, no cuisine, none of the markers that distinguish a culture worth celebrating. “White pride” — the notion that whiteness itself is something to boast about — is rooted in this vacuity, and that’s why it manifests as violence. White pride is a license to patrol the boundaries of whiteness, to inflict violence on those who seek to live, as white people do, unencumbered by racial prejudice. And the “White Power” of David Duke and his contemporary analogues is precisely this power: the power to inflict harm and to create fear. That’s what Spike Lee hammers home so well in BlackKlansman: If black power is about the reclamation of a stolen history, a stolen sense of self-esteem and worth, white power is about perpetrating that theft over and over again.
If you are white in America, you have nothing to apologize for — but you have much to learn. If you wish to celebrate yourself, to feel part of something bigger, to express pride in a heritage, you can do better than the cruel sucking nullity of whiteness. Surely you were born somewhere; surely your ancestors came from somewhere; surely your hometown has a history you can plumb; surely there is music in its annals. Perhaps you can be an American; or you can be a Pole or an Irishman, a Scot, a German, a Finn, or bits of each rolled into a delicious composite that is you. Love your family, love your ancestors. Love where you live and your neighbors.
White pride and white power seduce by means of an easy solidarity, a call to arms against a formless threat, an appeal to inchoate anger. But they are essentially empty; they have nothing to give you but rage, and in this world rage is bountiful enough.
Work toward justice, and center yourself in the movement to create a better world, so you can be proud of the work of your hands, and not merely their color.