The global ways of white supremacy

Trump's tweet repeating white nationalist propaganda about land reform in South Africa shows that white supremacy has consistently relied on an international receptivity and interdependence.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Image credit Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

White supremacy has never operated in isolation. While it has always asserted its malevolence in local and national politics, it has consistently relied on an international receptivity and interdependence, whether formal or informal. Activists and intellectuals cited such connections time and time again during the 20th century. Consider, for example, what Nelson Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom (1994), when comparing the South African situation to Algeria, remarking, “The situation in Algeria was the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority.” Or consider an observation by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), as if in an imagined dialogue with Mandela, when he concludes, “The colonial subject is a man penned in; apartheid is but one method of compartmentalizing the colonial world.” Or, in the American context, consider Malcolm X and his geographically expansive “Message to the Grassroots” speech—ranging from Bandung, to Kenya, to Cuba, to Detroit—delivered in 1963, in which he states:

We have a common enemy. We have this in common: we have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator. But once we all realize that we have a common enemy, then we unite—on the basis of what we have in common. And what we have foremost in common is that enemy—the white man. He’s an enemy to all of us.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt attempted to pull together this dispersed racialization and its political effects into a single framework, outlining how the roots of authoritarianism and the Holocaust in Europe during the Second World War were not, in fact, European alone, but could be located to the colonies—in part, the “race society” that had been constructed in South Africa. In her words:

South Africa’s race society taught the mob the great lesson of which it had always had a confused premonition, that through sheer violence an under-privileged group could create a class lower than itself, that for this purpose it did not even need a revolution but could band together with groups of the ruling classes, and that foreign or backward peoples offered the best opportunities for such tactics.

Aimé Césaire drew a similar conclusion several years later in Discourse on Colonialism (1955), forcefully writing that:

before they [Europeans] were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.

Both referred to this malignant intercontinental circulation of white supremacy as a “boomerang effect.”

Scholars have built upon this argument for interdependence in different ways. George Fredrickson pioneered an approach of comparative history between the United States and South Africa in his tersely titled White Supremacy (1981), a three-hundred-year revisionist history of the two countries from Jamestown to the Soweto Uprising. Neither country was “exceptional” as claimed by their founders, but instead based on interrelated patterns of settler colonialism, the displacement and extermination of indigenous peoples, dependence on slavery, and the segregation and exploitation of black labor as part of a process of “modernization.” Tiffany Willoughby-Herard has more recently examined the exchange of scientific racism and “segregationist philanthropy” between both countries through the activities of the American Carnegie Corporation—in particular, its financial and technical support for addressing the “poor white problem” during the interwar period—in Waste of a White Skin (2015).

Inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s enduring assertion that the problem of the 20th century was “the problem of the color line,” Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have embraced a larger imperial scale, tracing the emergence of a transnational whiteness specific to the late 19th and early 20th centuries that formed as a defensive reaction to what an Australian politician called the rising power of “the black and yellow races.” Among many cases in their book, Drawing the Global Colour Line (2008), is the collaboration and friendship between US President Woodrow Wilson and South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, two arch-segregationists who shared common ground ideologically and politically and, as a result, ultimately limited the possibilities of self-determination through the League of Nations, in which both were involved. In his statistic-laden Replenishing the Earth (2009), James Belich has taken this global approach further back, describing what he calls the “Settler Revolution”—a historical shift akin to the Industrial Revolution—in the American West and the British West (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa) during the 19th century, occasioning the creation of what he calls (chillingly, to my mind) the Anglo-World.

Against this backdrop of scholarship and activism, the specious absurdities of Tucker Carlson and the Trump administration last week are less surprising, but no less threatening. In Critique of Black Reason (2017), Achille Mbembe has written that “the fantasy of Whiteness” is never spontaneous; it has been “cultivated, nourished, reproduced, and disseminated by a set of theological, cultural, political, economic, and institutional mechanisms” that have evolved over centuries. As such, whiteness has been transformed into common sense, but also into an object of incessant desire and unremitting fascination. AfriForum and its international correspondents, whether the Alternative for Germany (AfD) or the French Rassemblement national (formerly the National Front), understand this perverse enchantment and its potential for political mobilization, as do members of the Alt-Right in the US. (Although it should be stressed that AfriForum is far more marginal in South Africa than these parallel dangers in Europe and the United States.)

The ways of white supremacy are neither local nor episodic, but recurrent and international. Over a century after his original injunction, we still inhabit Du Bois’s world.

Further Reading