White supremacy is a tricky concept to talk about, because for most people it calls to mind very specific images: plantations, burning crosses, lynchings, the Klan. But white supremacy isn’t just about violent oppression. It’s a strategy so enmeshed in American history and policy and culture that we often don’t recognize the mechanisms which ensure not so much the dominance of whiteness but the subjugation of blackness. It is a consequence of cycles of poverty and the criminal justice system, and of active decisions made over time.
“I never owned slaves” is a common rejoinder of the unknowing white supremacist: in declaiming their lack of prejudice such a person illuminates only their own ignorance. Each of us stands as inheritors of the past, and unless we seek to actively dismantle systems in place then we – by accidentally or by intention – end up perpetuating what has gone before. It is one of the less flattering truths of the human condition that what has gone before is often ugly and brutal, and even in trace amounts – slavery transformed to race riots transformed to minimum sentencing laws – we inflict the same injuries, again and again.