For much of its history, the South was full of white supremacists. It still has some, I’m sorry to say. But I want to stay with history for the moment. As history records, there were acts of white supremacist terrorism against blacks in south. The violence was widespread and came in a myriad of forms, many too disturbing to dwell on. At the same time, the vast majority of white supremacists never committed terrorist violence against black people. For this essay, I want to focus on the implications of this fact for thinking about how to think about oppressive ideology.
Would those of us who believe in justice and equality accept this line in the defense of white supremacy, that only a minority of white supremacists carried out terrorist action? Is it not still true that it was the ideology of white supremacy that moved some white people to violence? White supremacy taught southerners that the virtue and integrity of their group, their right to live as they wished, apart from black people, was worth fighting for – worth committing violence over. This was their heritage. It was part of their identity. When a black woman was brutalized at the hands of a lynch mob, or a black man was hunted down by a gang of racial zealots, it was white supremacy that killed them – the noose and the bullet were its instruments.
White supremacy didn’t just kill people. As part of the warp and woof of southern culture, white power guided almost everything – and it wanted more than that. It guided who sat next to each other in schools, from which water fountain a person could drink, which clothes a person could wear, and with whom persons could have sex and enter into marriage. Violence was a way of keeping black people down, reminding them of the culture and ideology that hung over their head – a sword of Damocles.
White supremacy was an ideology in which members of one group were deemed inferior and subordinate to members of the other group. The oppressed group was judged to be incapable of fully participating in the social and economic life with the oppressor group, a society of whites. The white oppressors cleverly dressed up their cultural and social superiority by claiming that what they did they did for black people. It was the good of everyone. After all, they raised the black man and woman up out of their pagan ways and Christianized them. However rough it could be, white supremacy was a great advance over the barbarism that stood outside it. White supremacy was the source of moral rights and wrongs. It was the source of civilization and innovation. It was analogous to a religion. And religion had a lot to do with it.
Yet, at the same time, blacks were systematically mistreated. Their bodies shamed. Their movements restricted. Indeed, throughout much of southern history, blacks weren’t allowed to leave home without an escort. They had to wear uniforms that marked their inferiority. They had to behave in prescribed ways, especially in expressing their sexuality. They had to greet their white superiors with proper deference, eyes cast downward. Behind the white rationalization of paternalism were beatings and other humiliations.
We can speak honestly about it now. But there was a time when to speak this way about the oppression of blacks was criticized and condemned. Criticism of white supremacy was a form of blasphemy. Those who deviated from the ideology were heretics. Nobody was allowed to be apart from the system; apostasy was really not an option. Blasphemy, heresy, apostasy could get even your throat cut or a bullet in your heart. So few people said anything. As they say, sometimes all it takes for oppression to prevail is for good people to be silent.
There are two lessons we can derive from this history. First, it is not how many members of a group commit violence, but the character of the ideology that provides the motivation for violence and how deeply group members are indoctrinated with that ideology. The more people cling to a divisive and hierarchical ideology, and the more intensely they are devoted to it, then the more likely violence will have at its back some piece of that ideology. This is why we oppose the ideology. It is why we hope to save the people caught up in it. Second, terrorist violence is almost always a small part of the many oppressions associated with divisive ideology. Far more common are the systemic injustices, the everyday oppression. No matter how well fed the oppressed are. No matter the degree of comfort of their abode.
“Don’t attack ideology X on account of the bad things a few people do for its sake. Most people who believe X are good and decent people.” Being as charitable as one can possibly be, this argument couldn’t miss the point any wider. If people do bad things for the sake of an ideology, then we must be concerned about the ideology. We’re not talking about people doing bad things “in the name of” ideology. If the belief system does not contain commandments to carry out unjustifiable and despicable acts, then it cannot be the actual motivation for unjustifiable and despicable actions. We’re talking about people acting on the basis of what their ideology commands. Members of a community who kill a gay man because their ideology commands them to do this terrible thing are acting for the sake of ideology. And everybody who claims that ideology, whether they throw stones or not, is responsible for the consequences of their ideology’s commandments. If you claim white supremacy, you own all of it.
We cannot say those who fail the test of their faith aren’t our problem, that they aren’t relevant examples of anything. Why should we care how nice racists can be as individuals? That they don’t do bad things doesn’t make their ideology good or tolerable. The ideology that commands people to do bad things would have great trouble persisting if good people didn’t claim it.
It doesn’t matter how much a person’s beliefs mean to him if these beliefs move him to oppress others. Justice calls us to liberate society from the influence of divisive and hierarchical notions of human social organization. When we say “No Gods, No Masters,” this is what we mean.