The term white supremacy has received a lot of play lately. White supremacists were prominent among the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff attributed the assault to “white rage.” Accusations of white supremacy surrounded the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis as well as the deaths of other African Americans. Vestiges of white supremacy surely animate some of the nostalgia for the “lost cause” of the Confederacy as well as the resistance to renaming military bases named for Confederate generals or the removal of statues honoring Confederate heroes.
The former president, whose political rise was fueled by false assertions that America’s first African American president was not born in the United States and therefore was an illegitimate president, speaks the language of supremacy with remarkable fluency.
White supremacy typically refers to white attitudes and actions directed against African Americans. And with good reason. Racism has often been called America’s original sin, and any responsible account of American history must grapple with the crucible of slavery, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott and Plessy decisions, the proliferation of black codes and government policies that made it impossible for Black Americans to secure mortgages in white neighborhoods.
But white supremacy has affected other groups as well. The Exclusion Act of 1882 targeted Chinese immigrants, mandating that “the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended.” The Reed-Smoot Act, signed by Calvin Coolidge in 1924, placed strict quotas on immigrants from Asia as well as southern and eastern Europe because they were thought to be genetically inferior. More recently, refugees from Latin America have been targeted by white supremacists, with the inference they are lazy or criminals.
One of the groups most affected by white supremacy is Native Americans, known in Canada as First Nations. The recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Reservation School, in British Columbia, and 751 at the Marieval Indian Reservation School, in Saskatchewan, underscores the tragic consequences of white supremacy.
From 1883 until 1998, the official Canadian policy dictated the forcible removal of First Nations children from their parents to be educated at special schools, most of them run by religious groups. There, Indigenous children were forced to cut their hair, change their names, convert to Christianity and wear European-style clothing. Under threat of punishment, they were forbidden from speaking their Native languages.
The unofficial motto was “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
The United States was equally complicit in cultural genocide. The Indian Removal Act, signed into law by Andrew Jackson in 1830, led to the displacement of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the name of what later became known as Manifest Destiny, the supposed right of the white man to occupy lands all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The most famous of these removals led to the Trail of Tears, where more than 5,000 Cherokees perished of disease and starvation during the journey from the Southeast to the “Indian colonization zone” west of the Mississippi. (In 1889, the Indian Territory was opened for a land run of white settlers, the Oklahoma “Sooners,” once again displacing Native Americans.)
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded by Richard Henry Pratt in Pennsylvania in 1879, employed many of the same prejudices and strategies as the Canadian schools. School instruction typically took up only half the day, so children worked at other times, a system that exploited their labor. So far, the graves of 186 students attending Carlisle during its 39 years of operation have been discovered.
“The civilizing process at Carlisle began with clothes,” Luther Standing Bear recalled. “Whites believed the Indian children could not be civilized while wearing moccasins and blankets. Their hair was cut because in some mysterious way long hair stood in the path of our development. They were issued the clothes of white men.”
The cultural genocide of Native Americans in North America, driven by white supremacy, led to further tragedies. On New Year’s Day 1889, a Paiute named Wovoka from the Mason Valley in Nevada had a vision during a solar eclipse. “The ancestors engaged in their old-time sports and occupations, all happy and forever young,” Wovoka recounted. “It was a pleasant land and full of game.” The world, he predicted, would be restored to its pristine condition, buffalo would once again roam the Plains and tribal ways would be restored to those engaged in the Ghost Dance.
Wovoka’s prophecies spread quickly among Native Americans, especially the Plains Indians. In the face of white supremacy, Ghost Dancers, many wearing special shirts they believed would protect them from harm, engaged in ecstatic dances to recover their Native ways. Some claimed to communicate with ancestors.
Then, during a Ghost Dance in South Dakota on Dec. 29, 1890, a minor skirmish between a young Lakota Ghost Dancer and a cavalry soldier triggered the Wounded Knee massacre, when soldiers unleashed their Hotchkiss guns on the dancers.
The sorry legacy of white supremacy continues to the present, evident in everything from policing to the effects of climate change, as any visit to the Navajo Nation or to Alaska Native villages will attest. African Americans have arguably borne the brunt of white supremacy, but other groups have suffered as well.