The terrifying brilliance of contemporary white supremacy is that its breathtaking uneven distribution of life and death operates under an epistemological structure of invisibility. Premature death is cloaked under the rubric of choice, obscured by stories of personal failure, and narrated into naturalness by discourses of inevitability. For example, from 1991-2000 nearly one million African-American deaths could have been prevented were they provided the same access to medical technologies as their white counterparts. These deaths were not the outcome of random chance. As the authors of a 2004 article published in the American Journal of Public Health observe, the U.S. health system focuses more on medical advances than equity in care. While advances in medical technology in the 1990s averted 176,633 deaths, the deaths of 886,202 black people would have been prevented had systems of medical care been equalized instead of improved. The magnitude of these “slow deaths” confounds response because it is difficult to say exactly what happened and who is responsible. There is no sovereign issuing decrees requiring the eradication of unwanted populations, no solider gone wild with racist rage, and no legal system mandating segregation, neglect, or maltreatment. These deaths are forms of killing composed of “an agentless slow death” where the everyday drifts toward a premature ending: stress leads to one more drink, poverty to malnutrition, overwork to an unexpected sickness, quiet neglect to a small pain in the chest. An unimaginable system of racialized power makes slow death follow a rhythm that seems natural. The deaths of nearly one million people become inevitable in their normality, and invisible in their banality. How does one undo, let alone comprehend, a system of such ordinary and dispersed yet targeted racial violence?
The power and urgency of the collection State of White Supremacy: Racism, Governance, and the United States, edited by Moon-Kie Jung, João H. Costa Vargas, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, becomes clear in this context. In an era when racism is imagined to be a relic of a past left behind by the enlightened progress of the post-Civil Rights state, the collection names white supremacy as a structural and animating logic to discursive, institutional, and interpersonal life in the United States. Perhaps most critically, the collection centers the state in its definition of white supremacy, which contributor Dylan Rodríguez calls an “internally complex, historically dynamic … substructure of social organization, state craft, and nation-building” (47-48). By understanding white supremacy as colluding with — but ultimately distinct from other analytics like heteropatriarchy and capitalism — the contributors explore how white supremacy affects immigration, education, popular culture, the war on terror, hate crimes legislation, and of course, the racial state.
The essays are divided into three sections: “Genealogies of Racial Rule,” “Politics of Privilege and Punishment,” and “Territory and Terror”; the first section on genealogy offers a foundation for the subsequent sections. As Rodríguez observes, the study of race is often abstracted from “its constituting logic of white supremacist social dominance” (48) produced by a past that is often wished away by dominant thought. The collection centers studies of race within the larger structure of white supremacy that spans time and space, ensuring that race does not become naturalized or normalized. To that end, the introduction by editor Moon-Kie Jung provides an outline for the project as a whole by analyzing the development of what he calls the “U.S. empire-state.” By centering Empire in a reading of the Dred Scott case, Jung observes that a ruling concerning the citizenship of black people led to a reconsideration of the governance of Native and Mexican peoples. As he writes, “The racial subjection of one was related to the racial subjection of the other, evidencing a common field of white supremacy” (13). Thus, settler-colonialism and Empire were central to the domestic management of racialized populations, while the domestic was also central to racial rule abroad. Although it is not always clear how the concept of “empire-state” connects to the concerns of many of the essays, the introduction nevertheless makes a powerful argument for the use of the concept, and provides a broader historical backdrop to the collection as a whole.
The first section builds off the introduction by continuing its concern with genealogy. However, the genealogies of racial domination outlined in the section’s three chapters lead to drastically different arguments. For example, Charles Mills argues that liberalism has always been a racial project and notes that for the concept to be recuperated, one must expose its racist foundations so that a “genuinely racially inclusive” liberalism can be reconstituted. In this way, a critical genealogy of liberalism that makes visible its intensely racialized logics can lead to a “revisionist liberalism” (45). Similarly, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Sarah Mayorga argue that, like liberalism, citizenship has always functioned as a racial apparatus for distributing material resources, safety, and belonging. For them, as long as the racial state exists, the citizen will bear “the mark of whiteness” (88). Like Mills, they call for the use of the category of citizenship in “the struggle for ultimate equality” where all “souls will truly become universal” (90). In contrast to these calls for reform, inclusion, and recuperation, Rodríguez offers a damning (and convincing) indictment of the category “human,” and implicitly, citizenship and liberalism. After offering a comparative analysis of Reconstruction-era testimonials of the Freedman’s Bureau and military testimonials concerning the colonization of the Philippines, Rodríguez argues that the death of the slave, the native, and the human Other is necessary to—and symbiotic with—the life of the white subject (or citizen and human). White supremacy continuously renders the deaths of the Other tolerable, acceptable, comfortable, and even joyful to liberalism, the citizen, and the human. Ending this relationship will not arrive by expanding the human, opening citizenship, or reforming liberalism. Instead, Rodríguez argues for the abolition of all three categories. If the citizen, liberalism, and the human are the products of white supremacy (and continue to reproduce white supremacy) then there is nothing to redeem. Instead of reforming technologies of subjection and subjugation, everything connected to white supremacy (or everything we know) must come to an end. Rodríguez’s call for a politics of abolition is complemented and extended by the essays in the second section, “Politics of Privilege and Punishment.”
Here, the first two essays discuss racial discrimination in education. George Lipsitz provides a masterful reading of U.S. court cases (including a powerful rereading of Brown v. Board of Education) concerning racial discrimination in education to highlight how racism continues under the names equality, desegregation, and protection. As Lipsitz observes, the wording of Brown allows school districts to declare non-discriminatory intentions without taking reparative action. In this way, the state uses laws intended to end white supremacy in order to preserve it. Thus, the law (like the citizen and the human) is a not a vehicle of liberation but a tool of subjection. Lipsitz’s analysis of legal white supremacy authorized by Civil Rights legislation is complemented by the work of Sanford Schram, Richard Fording, and Joe Soss on what they term “neoliberal-paternalism.” Neoliberal paternalism apprehends the ways contemporary forms of poverty governance resurrect older modes of population management in order to connect them to more recent neoliberal modes of governance. Past forms of racialized state violence become sutured to newer forms of control and punishment. As more and more poor people of color abandoned by neoliberal restructuring are captured by an unprecedented regime of incarceration, welfare has increasingly mimicked the penal sphere. We might add the education system to the massive network of racialized state power outlined by Schram, Fording, and Soss. This almost unimaginable regime of racialized management and control produces a system where, as Joy James writes, “Whites are to be protected, and Black life is to be contained in order to protect whites and their property (both personal and public or institutional)” (169).
These critiques of the state are powerfully extended by the work of Andrea Smith and João H. Costa Vargas in the book’s final section. Smith continues the collection’s critique of the law by observing that “genocide has never been against the law in the United States” because “Native Genocide has been expressly sanctioned as the law” (231). Like Rodríguez, Smith argues for a politics of abolition and undoing rather than reform and inclusion. In her analysis of hate crimes legislation, Smith argues that instead of making racialized and gendered violence illegal (given that racialized and gendered violence is already executed through the law in the prison, reservation, and the ghetto), we must make our organizing, theorizing, and teaching against the law. If the state is foundational to racialized, gendered, and heterosexist violence, then the state should not be the mediator of pain and grievance because “the state is now going to be the solution to the problem it created in the first place” (232). The work of João H. Costa Vargas complements this analysis by making clear the ways the law produces anti-black genocide. For Vargas, the black diaspora is a “geography of death” where the premature and preventable deaths of black people are authorized by a “cognitive matrix” that systematically renders black life devalued. Vargas would surely understand the preventable deaths produced by the medical industry as a form of genocide, namely because intent is not central to his theorization of the concept. Instead, creating or tolerating conditions that produce mass-based uneven vulnerability to premature death is genocidal, making white supremacy itself a genocidal project. Accordingly, genocide is at the core of our ethical standards, is foundational to modern politics, and is central to our cognitive apparatuses (269). To challenge genocide we must undo the epistemologies that support systems of value and disposability and make possible the slow deaths that are the “condition of possibility for our present subjectivities and modern politics” (269).
These important challenges to dominant (and leftist) understandings of race, subjectivity, the law, the state, and knowledge are what make this text significant, and are at the heart of its intervention into critical studies of race and power. However, the collection is inconsistent with the interventions it makes in contemporary critical scholarship. A number of the essays simply repeat well-known and well-worn arguments about race in the United States. For example, post-colonial and feminist scholars have long argued that liberalism is an intensely racialized and gendered project. Indeed, one of the collection’s most profound shortcomings is its inability to analyze white supremacy as always and already colluding with gender, sexuality, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. While the work of Smith, James, and Junaid Rana considers the complicities between race, gender, and sexuality, many of the essays treat white supremacy as analytically distinguishable from other formations of power. For at least the last 40 years, feminists of color have argued that race, gender, class, sexuality, and the state are interlocking and colluding mechanisms of power. Thus, women of color feminism names the ways multiply determined difference is simultaneously central to and yet incessantly disavowed in the production and reproduction of capital, the state, and the law. In other words, white supremacy is not, nor has it ever been, isolated or separated from the operations of gender, sexuality, and capital. The absent insights of these scholars, in addition to more recent work in queer studies that deploys queer of color critique, is a major shortcoming of the collection. Nevertheless, the collection could provide a powerful teaching tool for sociology, American studies, political science, and cultural studies, in addition to providing an urgent call for scholars to center white supremacy in their research and classrooms.
1. Woolf, Steven H. MD, MPH, Robert E. Johnson, PhD, George E. Fryer Jr, PhD, MSW, George Rust, MD, MPH, and David Satcher, MD, PhD, “The Health Impact of Resolving Racial Disparities: An Analysis of US Mortality Data,” American Journal of Public Health 94: 12 December 2004): 2078-2081l [↑]