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Timothy McGettigan on the Rise of White Supremacy

In this article Timothy McGettigan, co-author of A Formula for Eradicating Racism, discusses the rise of white supremacy in the USA and what this means.

With Donald Trump in the White House, white supremacists have become alarmingly emboldened. The August 12 violence in Charlottesville illustrates that white supremacists are far from just another interest group. For centuries, white supremacists – both in the US and around the globe – have relied on violence to promote their hate-based agenda.

The threat that white supremacists pose is real. Hitler was a joke among Germans until he secured the Chancellorship. Once installed, however, no atrocity was too horrific for Hitler to advocate. While it is unlikely that anything so dreadful could ever happen again, white supremacists admire Nazism so much that the notion of a Fourth Reich is not an idle threat.

Where does this hatred come from? In A Formula for Eradicating Racism, Prof. Earl Smith and I explain that white supremacy is more at home in the US than most Americans realize. Painful as it is to admit, the US was founded as a white supremacist nation. Glance at any image of the Founding Fathers and the white supremacist roots of American democracy become obvious. When the Founding Fathers composed the Constitution, they did not request input from women or people of color: from its e beginning, American democracy was an exclusively white male club. The vestiges of white supremacy still taint the pages of the US Constitution. What is the Three-Fifths Compromise if not an open declaration of white supremacy?

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons (Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution. Emphasis added).

Historians often characterize the Three-Fifths Compromise as a heroic exercise in democracy-building. The Three-Fifths Compromise has certainly played an important role in building a lasting union. However, that long-enduring nation has always promoted the interests of white men over subhuman Others: …excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

Many would argue that the Three-Fifths Compromise is innocuous, but most of those people are probably white men. If the shoe were on the other foot and the Constitution declared that white men were to count as Three-Fifths of a human being, white men would be outraged. White men would never endorse a Constitution that dehumanizes white men. However, dehumanizing people of color enabled white supremacists to create a democracy that privileges white men and persecutes people of color: slavery, lynchings, genocide, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration, etc. As long as the Three-Fifths Compromise remains woven into the Constitution white supremacy will occupy a place of honor in the United States.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, as Prof. Smith and I have detailed in A Formula for Eradicating Racism, people have the power to create and destroy racism. Indeed, via the power of suggestion, authorities create and destroy racism almost routinely. For decades, Jane Elliott has created and destroyed “eye pigment racism” in her Angry Eye exercises. Also, when the US declares war authorities dehumanize wartime enemies – in much the same way that the US dehumanizes people of color – so that the US war machine can murder enemies du jour without quarter. When wars end, authorities rehumanize wartime enemies and (most of) the public dutifully follows suit.

After D-Day heroes murdered Germans.
After VE Day only murderers murdered Germans.

Of course, there are always dead-enders who refuse to alter their opinion of formerly dehumanized enemies. But, thanks to the power of suggestion, the majority usually permits capricious policy shifts to determine their perceptions of friends versus foes: Americans loved Saddam when he attacked Iran and hated Saddam when he attacked Kuwait. Because of the public’s susceptibility to authoritative suggestion, we could dissipate a great deal of white supremacist racism by purging the Three-Fifths compromise from the US Constitution.

Americans have the power to dump the Three-Fifths Compromise and white supremacy into the dustbin of history. The choice is ours. We can stand by and allow white supremacy to reclaim the heart and soul of America, or we can terminate white supremacy and push the US closer to the principled democracy that it has always dreamed of being. We will never create a perfect world. Some dead-enders will always harbor hate no matter what. Still, we can make the world a better place by eliminating the white supremacist Constitutional language that has justified far too much racism for far too long.

As long as the Three-Fifths Compromise remains embedded in the US Constitution, white supremacists will have a safe, secure home in the USA.

Tim McGettigan is Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo, USA.