Steve King, a Republican congressman from Iowa who supports Donald Trump, thinks that White people deserve credit for everything that’s good about “Western Civilization.” During MSNBC’s coverage of the Republican National Convention, King had this exchange with Chris Hayes, after another panelist made a comment critical of White people at the convention:
King: “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”
Host Chris Hayes: “Than white people?”
King: “Than Western civilization itself. It’s rooted in western Europe, eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”
In two sentences, Steve King elevated White culture above others, while negating the contributions of other cultures. Given King’s history of rhetorical inflammation, his bon mot du jour is not surprising. He has said terrible things about immigrants, women, and gay people. He made a public celebration out of voting to deny federal disaster relief funds to the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The reaction to his off-the-cuff declaration of White cultural superiority has been one of swift repudiation, and some news sources went so far as to use the words “White supremacy” in their headlines.
I hold my breath when I see the term “White supremacy,” for the same reason that I cringe when I hear something described as “racist.” Both racism and White supremacy are institutional phenomena, but many people use both terms to describe personal behaviors. When your prejudiced uncle (sorry, nation’s uncles) uses “the n-word,” you might say, “Dude, that’s so racist.” The shitty thing your uncle said is “prejudiced,” and by calling it “racist” you’re obfuscating the fact that racism, as defined by scholars, is actually an institutional system of racial advantage. That system of oppression requires that intergroup prejudices are codified in law, policy, and formal government structures. Some scholars shorthand the definition as “prejudice plus power equals racism.” What your old uncle said is definitely prejudiced, but it’s not technically “racist.”
The same principle applies to labeling a person, or his beliefs, as White supremacist. Steve King believes that White people are superior to people of color, and the fact that he is an elected official gives his personal belief system a disproportionate, and scary, amount of legitimized power. What he’s saying is rooted in prejudiced, misinformed beliefs, but Steve King’s terrible and demonstrably false belief system is different than the fact that the United States Constitution defined Black people as three fifths of a human, while conferring a coterie of inalienable “human rights” to White people. When we call Steve King a “White supremacist,” it obfuscates the fact that our criminal justice system, electoral processes, schools, and housing policies still contain vestiges of a national foundation that formalized White supremacy in an interlocking set of state institutions.
Your shitty fictional uncle and Steve King are both prejudiced bigots. The institutions that reinforce their beliefs, on the other hand, are racist and White supremacist. Labeling individual actions as “racist” or “White supremacist” lets other folks, particularly other White people, off the hook for dismantling those systems. If we treat racism and White supremacy as moral infections, which we can contain by ostracizing their most vocal individual adherents, we will ignore the critical work of undoing the myriad formal and statutory representations of those dangerous beliefs.