White Supremacy and Racism; Social Class and Racialization

In this chapter I critique from a Marxist perspective two of CRT’s central tenets, namely the favouring of the concept of ‘white supremacy’ over racism, and the prioritising of ‘race’ over class as the primary form of oppression in society. Next I offer my own wide-ranging definitions of racism and the Marxist concepts of racialization and xeno-racialization, arguing that these formulations are better suited in general to understanding and combating racism in the contemporary world, than is the CRT concept of ‘white supremacy’.

Tenet I: ‘White Supremacy’ Rather than ‘Racism’

In 1989, bell hooks noted:

As I write, I try to remember when the word racism ceased to be the term which best expressed for me the exploitation of black people and other people of color in this society and when I began to understand that the most useful term was white supremacy (hooks 1989, p. 112).

Eight years later, Charles Mills (Mills 1997), following on from the European social contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth

This chapter draws on and develops Cole (2009a). For Mills’ response to Cole (2009a), see Mills (2009). For my reply to Mills, see Cole (2009b).

© The Author(s) 2017

M. Cole, Critical Race Theory and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95079-9_3

centuries (Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau), and more contemporaneously and more specifically Carol Pateman’s (1988) Sexual Contract,1 set out to explain how and why people of color in the modern era are treated unequally in relation to white people. The book opens with the following statement:

White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the world what it is today (Mills 1997, p. 1).

In chapter 2 of this volume, I looked at Chang and Gotanda’s (2007) analysis of LatCritTheory and Asian Jurisprudence. It should be pointed out here that one of their primary concerns about differentiation between minority communities was that ‘White supremacy often gets lost’ (Chang and Gotanda 2007, p. 1017), since for them, ‘[i]n the American context, one must never lose sight of White supremacy’ (ibid., p. 1019; see also pp. 1020, 1021, 1023, 1027).

For Mills, ‘white supremacy’ is ‘the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years’ (1997, p. 1.) and ‘the most important political system of recent global history’ (ibid.). The Racial Contract, according to Mills (1997, p. 33) ‘designates Europeans as the privileged race’. To underline the point that Mills sees ‘white supremacy’ as a political system in its own right, and that the Racial Contract is both ‘real’ and ‘global’ (ibid., p. 20), Mills asserts:

Global white supremacy ... is itself a political system, a particular power structure of formal and informal rule, socioeconomic privilege, and norms for the differential distribution of material wealth and opportunities, benefits and burdens, rights and duties (ibid., p. 3).

However, according to Mills (ibid., p. 32), it is the economic dimension of the Racial Contract which is the most salient, since it is ‘calculatedly aimed at economic exploitation’. In command of the Racial Contract is the ‘white-supremacist state’ (ibid., p. 82).

Arguing in the same vein as Mills (1997), influential UK Critical Race Theorist, David Gillborn (2005) reconceptualizes ‘white supremacy’ not in terms of ‘the usual narrow focus on extreme and explicitly racist organizations’ (pp. 485-486), but in terms of ‘a central and extensive form of racism that evades the simplistic definitions of liberal discourse’ (p. 492), one that ‘is normalized and taken for granted’ (p. 486). For Gillborn

(2008, p. 35) white supremacy relates to ‘the operation of forces that saturate the everyday mundane actions and policies that shape the world in the interests of White people’. ‘White supremacy’ signifies ‘a deeply rooted exercise of power that remains untouched by moves to address the more obvious forms of overt discrimination’ (Gillborn 2005, p. 492) to which the concept of ‘racism’ usually refers. In other words, Gillborn believes that ‘white supremacy’ should replace the concept of ‘racism’ because the concept of ‘racism’ tends to put the focus on overtly racist practices that ‘are by no means the whole story’. The concept of ‘racism’ thus ‘risks obscuring a far more comprehensive and subtle form of race politics’ (ibid., p. 491)—that which he believes is captured by his articulation of ‘white supremacy’. As he explains in relation to education, ‘white supremacy’ involves ‘the routine assumptions that structure the system’ and ‘encode a deep privileging of white students and, in particular, the legitimization, defence and extension of Black inequity’ (ibid., p. 496).2

Namita Chakrabarty and John Preston, also prominent in UK Critical Race Theory, (2006, p. 1) have ascribed ‘white supremacy’, along with capitalism itself, the status of an ‘objective inhuman [system] of exploitation and oppression’. In a similar vein, Gillborn (2006, p. 320) has commended Ansley’s (1997, p. 592) definition of ‘white supremacy’ as ‘a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources’ (my emphasis).

I would argue that there are four significant problems with the term ‘white supremacy’. The first is that it can direct critical attention away from modes of production; the second that it homogenizes all white people together as being in positions of power and privilege; the third is that it inadequately explains what I have referred to elsewhere (Cole 2007a, p. 13) as ‘non-colour-coded racism’; and the fourth that it is totally counter-productive as a political unifier and rallying point against racism. I will deal with each in turn.

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