State of White Supremacy: Racism, Governance, and the United States

State of White Supremacy: Racism, Governance, and the United States

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The deeply entrenched patterns of racial inequality in the United States simply do not square with the liberal notion of a nation-state of equal citizens. Uncovering the false promise of liberalism, State of White Supremacy reveals race to be a fundamental, if flexible, ruling logic that perpetually generates and legitimates racial hierarchy and privilege.

Racial domination and violence in the United States are indelibly marked by its origin and ongoing development as an empire-state. The widespread misrecognition of the United States as a liberal nation-state hinges on the twin conditions of its approximation for the white majority and its impossibility for their racial others. The essays in this book incisively probe and critique the U.S. racial state through a broad range of topics, including citizenship, education, empire, gender, genocide, geography, incarceration, Islamophobia, migration and border enforcement, violence, and welfare.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804772198
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 03/07/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,185,598
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Moon-Kie Jung teaches sociology and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. João H. Costa Vargas teaches Black diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is Professor of Sociology at Duke University.

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State of White Supremacy


Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7219-8

Chapter One


Liberalism is hegemonic. The antifeudal political philosophy of individual rights and freedoms that emerges in the modern period in opposition to absolutism and natural social hierarchy has unquestionably become, whether in right-wing or left-wing versions, the dominant political outlook of the day. Poststructuralism, communitarianism, multiculturalism, and other bodies of political thought may flourish in the radical academy. But in terms of influencing public policy and mobilizing political players in the real world, liberalism is certainly the main (if not the only) game in town. The seeming collapse of socialist ideological-political alternatives has made a liberal framework the central normative reference point for claims about the justice or injustice of the social order, whether by appeal to free-market or social-democratic ideals.

What then does liberalism have to say about racial oppression? Racial oppression is, after all, the distinctive injustice of the modern world. This follows from the simple fact that—at least according to the consensus of scholars—it is only with modernity that race even comes into existence as a category of identity and as a social reality. Class oppression may date from the period when technological advance creates a social surplus that makes slavery possible; gender oppression may go back even further, to the sexual division of labor in hunter-gatherer societies. But the advent of race and social orders structured around race is a very recent development in human evolution. Moreover, by modern standards race is distinctively horrific insofar as it facilitates enslavement and genocide at the very time when human equality is supposed to have been established as a dominant norm. Whether as a self-owning Lockean appropriator or a self-directing Kantian being, the liberal individual is supposed to be protected by the liberal state, and any infringement of his or her rights corrected for. And what more flagrant violation of the liberal ideal of the rights and freedoms of the individual could there be than people's reduction to chattel status or mass killing merely because of their "race"? One would expect, therefore, that liberal moral theory and liberal political theory would historically have made the analysis and condemnation of racial injustice and the correction of racial oppression a priority, since liberalism and racism developed in the same historical period.

But these expectations would be disappointed. Far from being in principled opposition to racism, as a blatant infringement of individual rights and freedoms, liberalism has too often been complicit with it. The origins of both in modernity have tended to be manifested more in symbiosis than contradiction, with the liberal individual being so conceptualized that whiteness is a prerequisite for individuality. And the liberal state, correspondingly, has historically functioned as a racial state, the Lockean sovereign denying self-ownership rights to people of color and the Kantian state treating nonwhites as subpersons incapable of self-rule. In effect, liberalism, far from being colorless, has been a racialized white liberalism, in which both descriptive assumptions and prescriptive norms have been shaped by race. If liberalism is to be reconstructed to become the vehicle of an effective program of racial justice, a prerequisite must be an acknowledgment of this history and a self-conscious rethinking and self-purging in light of it.


Let me begin with a brief sketch of the standard narrative of the origins of liberalism. In the orthodox account, liberalism develops in opposition to the political absolutism and social hierarchy of the medieval world. By contrast with the central categories of this sociopolitical system, liberalism makes the morally equal individual its theoretical focus rather than the social estates of feudalism and, before that, antiquity. Both descriptively, in terms of how we think of the genesis of the polity, and normatively, in terms of moral ends, the individual is supposed to be the central reference point. So conceived, liberalism obviously represents a sharp break with the political assumptions of the thousands of years that preceded it. As Paul Kelly (2005: 17) writes, "Equality ... is a peculiarly modern value," one that "[p]re-modern world views such as those of Plato, Cicero or St Augustine have little place for," linked with "the idea of the modern individual emerg[ing] as a distinct bearer of ethical significance." Rather than hierarchically ordered social groups, we have morally equal individuals whose rights must be respected by a state that owes its legitimacy to their consent. We get a periodization that looks like this:

Liberalism and Modernity: The Standard Narrative ANCIENT SLAVERY social estates (citizens/slaves), social hierarchy, moral inegalitarianism, nonliberal ideology, nonliberal state

MEDIEVAL FEUDALISM social estates (lords/serfs), social hierarchy, moral inegalitarianism, nonliberal ideology, nonliberal state

MODERN MARKET SOCIETY individuals, social equality, moral egalitarianism, liberal ideology, liberal state

The shift from the premodern (ancient, medieval) to the modern thus involves a major change in the conceptualization and justification of the sociopolitical order, the understanding of the polity, and the view of the human beings who inhabit it. In political theory, the main conceptual vehicle of this change is social contract theory. Social contract theory urges us to think of society and the political order as if they had been voluntarily created by presocial, prepolitical human beings (Gough 1978; Lessnoff 1986; Boucher and Kelly 1994). We know, of course, that such creatures never existed. Human beings are always in societies and are always regulated by some kind of political system. The societies may be small, technologically undeveloped, and politically egalitarian, but they are still societies and not the "state of nature." Anthropology 101 gives the lie to social contract theory. But while false as a historical account, contractarianism nonetheless captures, metaphorically, two important truths, one being factual, the other, normative.

The first important truth is that society and the political order are in fact human creations (though not creations ex nihilo). They are not divinely ordained systems or natural organic growths but are "artificial." As such, the metaphor historically played a valuable role in (partially) demystifying the conservative, naturalistic, and frequently inevitabilist views of the sociopolitical order inherited from antiquity and the medieval world. Humans created society and the polity; humans can recreate society and the polity. The second important truth is that the human creators of society and the polity are morally equal, so this moral status should be reflected in the social structures and political institutions they bring into existence. These structures and institutions should not embed social hierarchy and political oppression. In the words of Murray Forsyth (1994: 37), "The emergence of the notion of the social contract is hence linked intimately with the emergence of the idea of the equality of human beings." So the metaphor also historically played a valuable role in (partially) discrediting the ideologies of natural hierarchy inherited, again, from antiquity and the medieval world. Contra Plato, Aristotle, and feudal ascriptive hierarchy, egalitarianism was the appropriate norm for the contractors' political relations with one another.

The significance of the contract metaphor as expressing two key claims of modernity central to liberalism should therefore be obvious. Yet in both cases, as I have emphasized, its revisionist scope was only partial. The Whiggish picture in the standard narrative above is fundamentally misleading in that the "contractors" were conceived of not as raceless but as white (more precisely, as white men). The potentially radical and far-reaching implications of a liberalism and an accompanying contract theory that included everybody were thus severely truncated. White men were deemed fully capable of creating the sociopolitical order, but white women and nonwhite "savages" and "barbarians" were not. White men were represented as morally equal to one another, but white women and nonwhites were depicted as morally unequal. Thus the hierarchy actually targeted by the contract was not at all general but limited to only one dimension of the overall system of domination. What was really seen as illicit was that some white men, on the grounds of their superior birth, should rule despotically over other white men (the absolutist political ideology of Sir Robert Filmer, Locke's [1988] main adversary in the Two Treatises of Government). It was hierarchical white male social estates that were denied validity. As feminist theorists such as Carole Pateman (1988) have shown, gender "estates" were not even seen as sociopolitical but natural, taken for granted. The natural inferiority of women, far from being challenged, was in fact inscribed in the contract through a rewriting of gender relations. And the social categories of white and nonwhite, racial "estates" that had not even existed in the pre modern period, were now, with modernity, established. White male natural hierarchy was discredited at the same time that white-nonwhite natural hierarchy was introduced. White-male-over-white-male despotic rule was repudiated at the same time that the despotic rule of white males over everybody else was legitimized. The famous free and equal individuals of social contract theory were not sexless and colorless but universally male and usually white.

From the beginning, then, liberalism developed as a political philosophy that was both gendered and (largely) racialized. The qualification is necessary because liberalism's record on race is less uniformly exclusionary than its record on gender, a manifestation of the relative historic recency of white supremacy as a system of domination in comparison to thousands of years of patriarchy. Both Sankar Muthu (2003) and Jennifer Pitts (2005), among others, have argued that there is a white liberal tradition of anti-imperialism and antiracism. But other scholars (see, for example, Trouillot 1995; Bernasconi 2001; Sala-Molins 2006) have been more skeptical about some of the theorists Muthu cites as supposed exemplars (Diderot, Kant), and the point of Pitts's book is to trace how, by the midnineteenth century, "imperial liberalism" does become the norm. At the very least, then, one could say that if there has ever been a consistently anti-imperialist and antiracist strain within white liberal theory, it has generally been subordinate. And certainly on the level of practice, in the policies of the actual liberal states of the period, it was not effective. I conclude that the conventional chronological and normative mapping of the transition from the premodern to the modern depicted above needs to be replaced with a more realistic picture, which takes both gender and race into account, thereby covering the entire human population and not just the white male minority:

Liberalism and Modernity: The Actual Story

ANCIENT SLAVERY social estates (citizens/slaves, men/women), social hierarchy, moral inegalitarianism, nonliberal ideology, nonliberal state

MEDIEVAL FEUDALISM social estates (lords/serfs, men/women), social hierarchy, moral inegalitarianism, nonliberal ideology, nonliberal state

MODERN MARKET SOCIETY (white male) individuals, social estates (whites/nonwhites, men/women), social hierarchy, moral inegalitarianism, liberal (racial-gendered) ideology, nonliberal (or racial-gendered liberal) state

Note how dramatically this conceptual shift alters our perception of both liberalism and modernity. Instead of seeing liberalism as breaking sharply with the hierarchical political philosophies of the ancient and medieval worlds, we now see it as significantly continuous with them. Instead of ignoring the racial exclusions of modernity, or treating them as aberrational, as is standardly done, we now identify them as constitutive of the new variety of racial social estates that joins the (enduring) social estate of gender. Instead of assuming moral egalitarianism as the actual norm, we acknowledge the reality that the sociopolitical order remains a hierarchical one, though the ideological rationale for hierarchy and for demarcating particular sets of human beings as superior and inferior has somewhat changed. Above all, instead of theorizing as if all humans come to count as "individuals" in modernity, we recognize that there are racial and gender prerequisites for attaining this status that exclude the majority of the population.

Liberalism, then, is really nonliberalism, at least if measured by the (unrealized and unintended, though proclaimed) ideal of actually being predicated on the personhood of all humans. Alternatively phrased, liberalism is the exclusionary hierarchical ideology of the racial-gendered system established by modernity: racial patriarchy (Pateman and Mills 2007: chap. 6). And the role of the state—as in the sociopolitical orders of premodernity—is to privilege a minority of the population (white males) at the expense of the majority.


The obvious question then becomes, If this is indeed the actual nature of liberalism, how has it been successfully concealed all these years? What conceptual sleights of hand, revisions and rewritings, strategic silences and darknesses have made such obfuscation possible? In what follows, I will focus on race, the theme of this book, although the gender exclusions that make actual liberalism a gendered as well as a racialized ideology are of course equally important.

The starting point is what could be termed the principle of "racial opacity." If the modern epoch is continuous with the ancient and medieval periods in being founded on social hierarchy, it is discontinuous both in the pretense that this is not the case and in the emergence of the concept of the individual. The two developments are in fact interconnected. Transparency in government becomes one of the central values of the liberal contractarian tradition since the government now has to be justified to equal individuals. Thus in the most famous twentieth-century text of that tradition, A Theory of Justice (1971: 16), John Rawls emphasizes that the "principles of justice" regulating an ideal society must meet "the condition of publicity": "It is characteristic of contract theories to stress the public nature of political principles." By contrast with premodern states explicitly and unapologetically founded on natural hierarchy, the liberal contract polity is supposed to arise from the freely given consent of human beings having equal natural rights. So the contractors would have no motivation to agree to principles that did not safeguard those rights. They choose rules that protect everybody, and everybody knows what the rules are. The ideal of transparency seeks to ensure that "Society is not partitioned with respect to the mutual recognition of its first principles" (582). If an occasional gap between theory and practice opens, this shortcoming is contingent rather than structural, a result of unhappy circumstances rather than a systemic dynamic. The normative basis of the polity is the recognition of the Lockean-Kantian personhood of its members, and this commitment to the just treatment of all should pervade the transactions of everyday life. We are supposed to see others as our moral equals, expect to be seen by them the same way, and should conduct our interactions in the light of the norm of reciprocal respect (133). The Lockean-Kantian Rechtsstaat is an "ethical commonwealth" regulated by norms able to withstand the light of day: "No right in a state can be tacitly and treacherously included by a secret reservation" (Immanuel Kant, cited in Rawls 1971: 133 n. 8).


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Constituting the U.S. Empire-State and White Supremacy: The Early Years Moon-Kie Jung 1

Part 1 Genealogies of Racial Rule

1 Liberalism and the Racial State Charles Mills 27

2 White Supremacy as Substructure: Toward a Genealogy of a Racial Animus, from "Reconstruction" to "Pacification" Dylan Rodríguez 47

3 On (Not) Belonging: Why Citizenship Does Not Remedy Racial Inequality Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Sarah Mayorga 77

Part 2 Politics of Privilege and Punishment

4 The Best Education for Some: Race and Schooling in the United States Today Amanda E. Lewis Michelle J. Manno 93

5 Separate and Unequal: Big Government Conservatism and the Racial State George Lipsitz 110

6 Neoliberal Paternalism: Race and the New Poverty Governance Sanford F. Schram Richard C. Fording Joe Soss 130

7 The Case of Ben LaGuer and the 2006 Massachusetts Gubernatorial Election Joy James 158

Part 3 Territory and Terror

8 Not a Citizen, Only a Suspect: Racialized Immigration Law Enforcement Practices Mary Romero 189

9 The Language of Terror: Panic, Peril, Racism Junaid Rana 211

10 Unmasking the State: Racial/Gender Terror and Hate Crimes Andrea Smith 229

11 The Black Diaspora as Genocide: Brazil and the United States-A Supranational Geography of Death and Its Alternatives João H. Costa Vargas 243

Notes 273

References 287

Contributors 325

Index 329

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