The MYTH of White Supremacy

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Proud Boys members and supporters holding up the white power hand symbol, Fayetteville, Arkansas, August 2019

The HistoryMaker

Wow! During the first night of the 2020 Presidential Debates, President Donald Trump would not condemn white supremacists, telling the all-white male group the “Proud Boys,” to “stand back and stand by,” although he reluctantly retracted it, claiming “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. You’ll have to give me a definition, because I really don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down.” For the African American community, this call to action harkens back to a time of extreme unsafety. This issue has also been brought home by the police killings of 2020. White supremacy is defined as a “historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.”[1]

Psychologist Na’im Akbar described how we live in a society where white always has been, and still is the norm: “The inescapable reality is that we have lived as African people in a white supremacist, Eurocentric culture. That is that we live in a culture that has been established to affirm the acquisition of the highest human potential of people of European descent. The culture’s been structured that way. That is that access to education, the definition of heroines and heroes, the definition of competence and power builds on the way to help European Americans continue to excel in world leadership and in… achieving excellence for their humanity. Our history in the Western world has not been geared towards the acquisition of those things. So whereas every white child learns their story of America as being the place that [Christopher] Columbus discovered is a very strategic way to build a kind of sense of psychological ownership of Europeans of America… The fact that there is no place where African Americans learn their connection with America means then that we never get that kind of ownership.”[2] Lawyer and civic activist Adjoa Aiyetoro pointed out that this system of white dominance became structural in order to preserve it over time: “This badge of inferiority… and this myth of white supremacy… people know are false so that they develop structural impediments to keep the myths alive… it was a crime to free enslaved Africans and give them nothing… the crime was compounded by the continuing impediments that were placed on us… They continued to keep us back. And, then the argument then becomes, you’re there because of your own fault.”[3]

Educator Barbara A. Sizemore (1927 – 2004), explained: “Its two sides of the same coin… white supremacy is one side, imputation of black inferiorities is the other. They work hand in hand. They go together. When you find one, you find the other.”[4] Minister Louis Farrakhan provided an instance of this in his own childhood, where a white teacher, raised in privilege, made baseless, racist assumptions: “We are ego starved… That’s the sickness of what happens under the white supremacy. It produces in its wake, black inferiority. And so when I found out that I could play the violin and my friends in school admired me and my teachers admired me–and I never will forget this… in the sixth grade [at the Sherwin School, Boston, Massachusetts], my teacher asked me, ‘Louis, what would you like to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘You know, I would like to be a doctor.’ She said, ‘Oh, Louis… if you became a doctor, my people would never come to you for treatment, and your own people would not trust your ability, but you play the violin beautifully…’ You go read the autobiography of Brother Malcolm [‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ Malcolm X and Alex Haley]. He’s growing up in Lansing, Michigan, and he’s in the eighth grade. And his teacher asks him, ‘Malcolm, what would you like to be when you grow up?’ He said, ‘I wanna be a lawyer.’ And the same thing that my teacher said to me in the sixth grade, his white teacher said to him in the eighth grade. That’s not an accident. That’s a conspiracy to keep young, black men from ever being in any discipline that could threaten white supremacy.”[5] Sociologist Iva Carruthers remembered her experience at a predominantly white junior high school, where white supremacy showed itself through an ignorant school nurse: “I excelled, and in the process of getting ready to graduate, I was one of the high honor students, and I was practicing for the ceremony, and I started having heart palpitations; as a result of that, the school nurse determined that I was probably on drugs… because you know, a black child just couldn’t have heart palpitations out of anxiety or nervousness; that wouldn’t fit. And so… she advised the principal that that was her suspicion. Needless to say, my parents got her fired, and it was a clear call to me, though, about… the systemic nature of racism and white supremacy in this country.”[6]

Boys in class with their teacher, Osage School, West Virginia, c.1940s

Scholar and activist Angela Davis was lucky enough to have teachers that helped dispel the idea of white supremacy as opposed to ingraining it: “I think that this emphasis on the accomplishments of black people… I see it as a survival mechanism. It was so important for us to learn that we, as black children… were much more than what the prevailing authorities represented black people as being; mainly inferior. We were barred from the white schools, we were barred from most aspects of society in Birmingham, so that I utterly appreciate the fact that so many of my teachers must have been thinking very consciously about subverting that sense of inferiority that might well have become entrenched.”[7]

Angela Davis as a young girl

Yet, the idea of white supremacy is instilled from very early on, both inside and outside of school, resulting in white privilege becoming a subconscious belief within white people. Political activist and dentist Dr. John Cashin (1928 – 2011) remembered the end of friendships with two white boys while growing up in Huntsville, Alabama: “The white members of our gang [of friends] were sorely deficient so far as education is concerned. As a matter of fact, Herschel [a friend, Herschel Cashin] and I used to wait on them to come home from school ’cause Herschel and I would do their homework for them… Dick McCullough [Richard McCullough], who was the son… of the grocer on the corner. The other, James Euclid [ph.], we called him Squirt… at age twelve Herschel [Herschel Cashin] and I were confronted with this racist image that they were white and we were black and if we’re going to keep this thing together, we gonna have to call… Dick and Squirt mister… that announcement was made by Shelby McCullough [Dick’s father]… These idiots couldn’t draw a straight line without referring to me and Herschel and here we have to call them mister. Where did they get this from? Heck, the only place they could get it from was from the white supremacists… And these people actually believed that crap (laughter).”[8][9] Civil rights activist Reverend B. Herbert Martin, Sr. similarly recalled in his 2003 interview how he saw the Ku Klux Klan indoctrinate children in Mississippi: “My playmate… was a white boy on the plantation… little William Peacock. We played together, all right. But then I happened to stumble up one day on a Klan rally… taking place in the woods. And little William Peacock, along with the rest of the white boys who were being initiated into the Klan. That was an awesome moment to me… I went back to Mississippi as an adult, about five or six years ago, William Peacock was running for the [Mississippi] State Senate… Now, as to whether he kept his connection with the Klan or not, I’m not sure.”[10] Social activist and comedian Dick Gregory (1932 – 2017) pointed out: “Most white folks don’t understand white supremacy. And few black folks understand it. See, I heard my mama [Lucille Gregory] say to me, if it wasn’t for these redneck, nigger hating potbelly, snuff dipping southern white crackers and one day it dawned on me, they don’t determine public policy;” it is people like William Peacock—or President Trump, for example—who grow up in a world where they are told they are better because of their skin color, and later hold influential, decision-making positions in society.

A child at a Ku Klux Klan gathering, undated

The Honorable Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, remembered his father explaining to him and his brother how to navigate living in a white world: “[He explained] Nazism to me and to refute white supremacy… and my daddy used to say… ‘Don’t get mad, get smart.’ ‘You can’t be just as good.’ If you and the white boy are just as good, he’s gon’ get the job. You gotta be so much better that there’s no question that nobody can do the job as well as you can.”[11] Judge Teri L. Jackson recalled the steps her father took to protect her and her sister in San Francisco, California: “The reason my father worked at night is because he did not want my sister and me to walk home ‘cause he was frightened the kids would jump us, particularly teenagers. So he wanted to pick us up from school, drive us home and he just wanted to make sure that we were within earshot if there was any problem.”[12]

Mayor Andrew Young

On a lighter note, civil rights lawyer Gary Gayton laughed jokingly with the memory of his being assigned the defense of a white militia group, the Minutemen, in the eastern part of the state of Washington: “They were… right of the Ku Klux Klan… they hated their mothers, Catholics, blacks, everybody (laughter)… they were stashing weapons and all that… they asked the marshal’s office [U.S. Marshall Service]… who should we get to represent us. And he said, ‘Well, I’d get Gary Gayton, one of the marshals.’ And so they came in. And I charged ’em double what I normally would charge everyone else ’cause I didn’t really wanna represent ’em. And anyway, we went to court and they were found guilty. And so in their paper, in east Washington, came out, ‘Nigger Attorney Turns Against’ (laughter). But what was so funny, prior to that… one of the Black Panthers [Black Panther Party] sitting in the office, saw the guy. And he came in the office. He said, ‘Hey, Gayton, you know that guy’s the head of the Minutemen. How do, how come you, how can you represent him?’ I said, ‘He pays better than you guys’ (laughter).”[13] Journalist Vernon Smith also found humor in recalling, at the age of five or six, when he realized white supremacy must be a myth: “This incident… made me aware that white folks weren’t superior… every afternoon during the summer… this white girl–she was a teenager… would come down to the bottom of the hill… there was a telephone pole there, and she would go there and just sort of butt her head against this telephone pole. And… it always stuck in my mind as I got older, when people started talking about… white supremacy and black inferiority… that was kind of like an anchoring sort of moment whenever I would see these signs that said white only… hear these people railing against (laughter)… the mental inferiority of black people… I would always sort of chuckle (laughter) at that.”[14]


Mountain Minuteman displays a hand gun he uses while on patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border, 2018. The Southern Poverty Law Center designated the Mountain Minutemen as an anti-immigrant hate group

But, in all, the issue of white supremacy evokes much anger and frustration within the African American community. Lawyer and litigator Leo Branton, Jr. (1922 – 2013) spoke of his encounters with white supremacy: “I wasn’t taught anything about being proud to be a Negro or resisting white people. It was just an innate thing within me… when I was very, very young I resented the white Metropolitan [Life Insurance Company] agent coming around and calling my grandmother [Effie Wiley] by her first name. I resented that deeply… also when I was very young… I was maybe fifteen at this time. My dad used to… buy all of his cars from the F.T. Smart Chevrolet Company [Pine Bluff, Arkansas]… And there was a head mechanic there that they called Slim. And I would go with my dad to have some work done on the car. And my dad would say, ‘Mr. Slim, such and such a thing.’ And he would say, ‘Well Leo, such and such a thing.’ So I asked him, I said, ‘Dad, you are a businessman giving business to these people. This man is a common ordinary little mechanic. And you’re calling him Mr. Slim? Slim is a nickname… And he calls you Leo. How do you tolerate that, dad?’ And he said, ‘Well… we have to live with it, son. That’s just the way it is.’ My dad accepted his segregated way of life. But I even at that age… rebelled against it. And nobody taught me that. It was just that I became furious about that kind of thing.”[15] Civil rights leader Julian Bond (1940 – 2015) too, was very serious when presented with the idea that some think white supremacy is a little more “diffuse” than before: “Do the people who turn down black people who want an apartment or a house–that’s not diffuse. The banker who turns down the credit-worthy person for a loan, that’s not diffuse. The car salesman who charges black people more money for the same car than white people–that’s not diffuse. This is something happening all over the country, all of the time. And we need to fight it… some people say, ‘Well you’re just playing that old victim thing…’ Don’t take my victimhood away from me. I have a right to be a victim. And I’m not wallowing in it. But its part of what energizes me and makes me know that there’s a tremendous evil at large in the country and we gotta fight that evil.”[16]

Leo Branton, Jr.’s mother and father, Pauline and Leo, Sr., Pine Bluff, Arkansas, c.1920s

In the face of white privilege and these myths continuing to be spouted, including from our nation’s highest office, we must keep combatting them by calling it out when we see it, further educating ourselves and others, and using our power of the vote.

Black Lives Matter rally, 2019

[1] Elizabeth Betita Martinez, definition by the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop. “What is white supremacy?” Catalyst Project, accessed September 30. http://www.pym.org/annual-sessions/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2017/06/What_Is_White_Supremacy_Martinez.pdf

[2]Na’im Akbar (The HistoryMakers A2002.048), interviewed by Samuel Adams, April 22, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 1, Na’im Akbar discusses cultural differences among blacks and whites.

[3]Adjoa Aiyetoro (The HistoryMakers A2003.165), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 23, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 3, Adjoa Aiyetoro describes how the legacy of slavery and the failure of Reconstruction shaped an oppressive American system, pt. 2.

[4]Barbara A. Sizemore (The HistoryMakers A2003.070), interviewed by Adele Hodge, April 9, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, Barbara Sizemore explains why she transitioned into the university setting.

[5]The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan (The HistoryMakers A2010.111), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, November 29, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan remembers being discouraged by a white teacher.

[6]Iva Carruthers (The HistoryMakers A2003.308), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 12, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Iva Carruthers recalls experiencing instances of racial discrimination in school.

[7] Angela Davis (The HistoryMakers A2003.124), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 7, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Angela Davis details her immersion in black history as a child.

[8]Dr. John Cashin (The HistoryMakers A2007.158), interviewed by Denise Gines, April 24, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Dr. John Cashin remembers his childhood friends.

[9]Dr. John Cashin (The HistoryMakers A2007.158), interviewed by Denise Gines, April 24, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Dr. John Cashin recalls the end of his relationship with his white playmates.

[10]Reverend B. Herbert Martin, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.294), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 11, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 5, Reverend B. Herbert Martin, Sr. recalls seeing a childhood playmate initiated into a white supremacy group.

[11]The Honorable Andrew Young (The HistoryMakers A2005.209), interviewed by Ed Anderson, August 27, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, The Honorable Andrew Young talks about the role of sports in his childhood.

[12]Teri L. Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2011.007), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 6, 2011, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Teri Jackson discusses early experiences with racism.

[13]Gary Gayton (The HistoryMakers A2007.307), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 6, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 9, Gary Gayton remembers representing a white supremacist organization.

[14]Vernon Smith (The HistoryMakers A2005.182), interviewed by Paul Brock, August 2, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Vernon Smith remembers an incident that disqualified the myth of racial inferiority.

[15]Leo Branton, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2001.004), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 27, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Leo Branton recalls his home life as a child and his anger at the white supremacist status quo.

[16] The Honorable Julian Bond (The HistoryMakers A2000.008), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, April 21, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 4, Julian Bond points out the continued racism in 1990s America.

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