Photo by Mark Dixon, Flickr CC

Neo-Nazi swastikas, explicitly racist chants and slogans, and public demonstrations with hoods and torches, as seen recently in places likes Charlottesville, are what signal white supremacy for many Americans. Yet, for over a decade, activists and policy makers have used the phrase “white supremacy” in different ways, moving beyond extremist ideologies and individuals’ bigoted beliefs to focus on the deep historical structure and institutional dimensions of racial inequality in social life. Perhaps not surprisingly, sociologists have been at the forefront of parsing out this broader usage and meaning of white supremacy.

Rather than focusing solely on explicit prejudice and organized hate groups, recent sociological uses of the term describe how the very nature of American society inherently privileges white people, white identities, and the status of whiteness. This includes how white people fare better in economic terms, as well as how white people experience superior outcomes in other ways, such as education and health, and how all of these systemic inequalities happen through established institutional arrangements, cultural norms, and public policies. For scholars with this emphasis, America is a “white supremacist” nation — not because individuals or the law are explicitly prejudiced, but because white privilege is central to American social life.
This is not to suggest that sociologists and other social scientists have neglected the study of extremist white groups like Neo-Nazis or the KKK. In fact, sociologists have continued to track how more traditional white supremacists have evolved alongside changing social backdrops and history. These scholars have documented how white supremacist movements in the 21st century have been shaped by whites’ perceptions of victimhood following increased immigration, globalization, and diversity in America.

With all of these different strands of research and interpretations of white supremacy, it is imperative for all of us — activists and analysts alike, as well as everyone in between — to be thoughtful and cautious about how, when, and in what company we use the term “white supremacy.”