White nationalism remains a flammable poison in the midst of US society.
Any notion that the United States is a post-racial society, or that racism was no longer an important issue, was dispelled by the eruption of anger at the spate of racist police killings in that country. Protesters demanding accountability of the police officers involved have taken to the streets. The mobilisations have been multiracial, reflecting opposition to racism from across the ethnic spectrum of society.
While I will not focus exclusively on this latest upsurge of protest, it is instructive to learn from a related incident just how deeply white supremacy infects every level of American society. The killing of George Floyd was not an aberration, but the latest chapter in a long, painful experience of black America with white supremacy.
Last month, US President Donald Trump, when touring a Ford factory plant in Michigan, made a remark which indicated the depth of his white nationalist outlook. He was at the motor company factory to praise Ford’s cooperation with General Electric, to produce ventilators and face masks. Departing from the prepared script, he declared that the Ford company’s director had ‘good bloodlines‘.
Henry Ford, the historic founder of the company and automaker, was a vicious anti-Semite and racist who used his financial power to promote racist literature and pro-Nazi views in American society. Trump’s remarks were not the first instance of his reference to good genes as evidence of superior intellect and achievement. He has spoken, for instance, of possessing ‘good German blood’ in explaining the reasons for his ostensible success in life.
Such sentiments correspondent to the worldview advocated by the late Henry Ford.
Trump’s words of praise were racist, but not unusual in the context of American white supremacy. In fact, it would be delusional in the extreme to place the entirety of blame for white racism on Trump’s shoulders. His white nationalist views did not arise out of nowhere, but constitute a continuation of white supremacist ideology deep in American society.
Since the end of the American civil war, white supremacist ideology, backed by significant sections of the ruling class, has fought a revanchist war of revenge, seeking to dispossess African Americans through various alternative economic and political measures. Racialised violence has periodically exploded to maintain and extend a functioning capitalist system.
The systemic racial vengefulness of the American capitalist system has manifested itself since the end of the civil war through poverty, degradation and legalised exclusion of the black American community. A neo-Confederate history of white racial terror provides the backdrop for police violence against people of colour. Police and state troopers provided the vector by which the virus of white supremacy spread.
Nostalgia for the Confederacy is not just a harmless, academic exercise in sustaining historical memory. The flag, statues of Confederate generals and soldiers, the symbolism and myths of ‘kindly Southern gentlemen‘, are all part of a campaign to rehabilitate and update white nationalism for modern purposes. The New York Times editorial board stated it plainly – when the US military names its bases after Confederate generals, they are honouring racist traitors.
There is still a statue in honour of Confederate general and racist traitor Robert E Lee in Richmond, Virginia. Earlier this year, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves declared April to be Confederate history month. Mississippi was one of the first slave owning states to secede and join the white supremacist Confederacy. Dylann Roof, the white racist killer who shot dead nine black American people in Charleston, South Carolina, was wearing the Confederate flag.
Prior to World War 2, the United States was a world leader in one crucial area, which provided inspiration for European white supremacists – the implementation of race laws. The Nazi party, while objecting to what they perceived as America’s weaknesses, were nevertheless inspired by the system of legalised racial segregation.
Adam Serwer, scholar and expert of race relations, wrote in a thoughtful article that:
The seed of Nazism’s ultimate objective—the preservation of a pure white race, uncontaminated by foreign blood—was in fact sown with striking success in the United States. What is judged extremist today was once the consensus of a powerful cadre of the American elite, well-connected men who eagerly seized on a false doctrine of “race suicide” during the immigration scare of the early 20th century. They included wealthy patricians, intellectuals, lawmakers, even several presidents.
Black deaths at the hands of the police are not flaws or mistakes, they are the logical end product of racialised white supremacist capitalism. That is the conclusion of an article by Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP. Whether it is access to education, employment or housing, or the higher rates of COVID-19 deaths among African Americans, racism is the underlying condition of capitalist America.
The civil rights movement, the election of a black President, and the symbol of Dr King, have been turned into a kind of false finish line under the problem of racism in the United States. The recent spate of racially motivated killings must help us readdress what we do not want to acknowledge – that racism is the norm in American society, not the exception.