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The American republic of white supremacy 

Protests over the police killing of George Floyd highlight centuries of social, political and economic oppression of blacks in the US
A demonstrator holding a US flag kneels by police in Anaheim, California, on 1 June, during a peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd (AFP)

The United States is a country built on the genocide of natives and theft of their lands and homes, and on the backs of Africans abducted from their homes and brought to the "Land of the Slaves" as property. 

Yet, rather than repent their sins, many white Americans - the heirs and ongoing beneficiaries of this legacy - claim, and force non-white Americans to claim alongside them, that their country is the "land of the free and the home of the brave", as the US national anthem famously insists, though the more accurate "land of the slave and the home of the brave" rhymes much better. 

Indeed, the racist lyrics of the national anthem, written in 1814, have ignited a debate in recent years over its support of slavery, even and especially when it alleges that the US is a “free” country. 

White-supremacist 'democracy'

Notions of freedom, liberty and independence for the white male colonists of the 13 American colonies (whether they were slave-owning or not) essentially meant little more than safeguarding their property (including slaves) and businesses from the encroachment of Britain and its taxation, which to them seemed like a form of “slavery”. 

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During the Revolutionary War, Virginia, the two Carolinas and Georgia offered white volunteers land and slaves for joining the revolution to establish white-supremacist “democracy”. Black slaves were conscripted to fight for their white masters’ “freedom” from the British. Still, many other white colonists, called Loyalists, supported the British against American independence; around 100,000 of them fled the US as refugees, and took with them their 15,000 slaves.

In housing, education, work and social services, let alone the criminal justice system, blacks were persecuted and targeted for discrimination

Thousands of slaves joined the British army, who promised them freedom if they fought on the side of the British. They, along with the white Loyalists and their slaves, were evacuated on British ships to the Nova Scotia colony and to Britain after the British defeat in 1783.

Soon, the British decided that the best solution to their own freed blacks and the freed American slaves was to have them colonise West Africa and Christianise the African “heathens”. This is how Sierra Leone was born as a black settler-colony by the British at the end of the 18th century. 

Back in the newly independent US, its slave-owning Protestant “founding fathers” began to hatch their own new projects of what to do with freed blacks. The idea of “returning” them to Africa had emerged in some publications in the early 18th century, but the idea dominated discussions of slavery and race in the US between the revolution and the civil war. 

The deportation of free blacks was supported by many slave owners and anti-slavery northern conservatives, as well as Protestant evangelical missionaries and prominent politicians, including US Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, and later President Lincoln. In 1816, the American Colonization Society was founded to arrange for the deportation of freed blacks. This is how the black settler-colony of Liberia was founded in the 1820s. 

Battery of racist laws

Though some freed blacks came to support this effort, most black intellectuals and activists, including Frederick Douglass, opposed black colonisation in West Africa and saw it correctly as a way of deporting free black people while maintaining slavery at home. Others advocated for emigration to Haiti, which had freed itself a few years earlier from French slavery and colonialism and invited the enslaved blacks of the US to flee to its shores.

Abraham Lincoln, lionised in nationalist US history by white liberals and conservatives alike as a defender of blacks, insisted in 1854 that “my first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia - to their own native land”, were it not for the high costs involved. 

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As late as 1858, the anti-slavery, yet anti-racial equality Lincoln insisted that “what I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races”. In 1861, as president, he urged Congress to find funds to aid black emigration and colonisation, and suggested they acquire a new territory for the purpose. One Washington newspaper suggested that the proposed black settler-colony be named “Lincolnia”. 

While the slave system was updated after the civil war in the southern US with Jim Crow laws, in the north, a battery of racist laws and institutional practices governed the lives of free blacks. In housing, education, work and social services, let alone the criminal justice system, blacks were persecuted and targeted for discrimination. 

In the wake of World War II, white-only towns called “the suburbs” were built, and regulations for good education depended on property taxes in “school districts”, which ensured excellent schools for the white middle class and substandard ones for poor blacks. 

Discrimination and mass imprisonment

After the massive black revolt, known as the civil rights movement, erupted, new practices would be introduced to end the semblance of discrimination, including busing students from their school districts to others to curtail the apartheid system of segregation. It was not only southern racist whites who opposed busing; so did northern “liberal” whites across northern cities, including Boston in the mid-1970s, and Joe Biden, who led an effort in the Senate to end busing in Delaware.  

While discriminatory labour laws had to be scrapped, the racist system was able to maintain itself through granting privileges to “seniority” on the job, which exclusively benefited whites, as was done with the “seniority” exemption to Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts.  

Police use tear gas to disperse protesters on 29 May during a demonstration in Minneapolis, Minnesota, over the death of George Floyd (AFP)
Police use tear gas to disperse protesters on 29 May during a demonstration in Minneapolis, Minnesota, over the death of George Floyd (AFP)

The post-war GI bill extended benefits to all Americans, but in practice it excluded blacks, while the exclusionary racist covenants for home ownership prevented blacks from living in white neighbourhoods. This was in addition to massive discrimination in university and college admissions.  

After the assassinations and mass imprisonment of black leaders and activists in the 1960s and early 1970s, the New Jim Crow - a system of brutal policing, punitive welfare and mass incarceration - was institutionalised to replace the old Jim Crow that had just been dismantled. It was not only supported by white conservatives and liberals, but also by the small elite of middle-class blacks elected to political office across local and federal government. 

The new black politicians, what the online news magazine Black Agenda Report accurately calls the Black "misleadership", would reap the benefits of the racist US system while selling it to the Black electorate as a “free country” with some racial problems that could be remedied within the “democratic” system.

This background propelled Barack Obama to the forefront of political power in the 21st century.

Embracing 'soft' racism

Celebrated as the first black president, Obama has been a hero to white liberals who always welcome black officials who parrot the “soft” racism of white liberals by embracing the rhetoric but not the politics of the civil rights movement. 

He sang the praises of the slave-owning white supremacist “founding fathers” in his inaugural speech and many times afterwards, and consistently praised today’s “hard-working Americans” (the racist US code for white people, as opposed to “lazy” blacks), chastised absent black fathers (perhaps forgetting that most of them were languishing in racist prisons), and admonished black university graduates, while during his eight years in office Obama's Department of Justice indicted one lone white cop for killing a black man and did so during Obama's final months in office, it did not indict numerous others, including most famously the white cop who choked Eric Garner to death in 2014; his last words, like those of George Floyd, were “I can’t breathe”.

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The white police killer of an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, a few weeks later in Ferguson, Missouri, was also not indicted. The Ferguson uprising erupted on Obama’s watch, but true to the expectations of the class of corporate blacks and black politicians, many of whom are collaborators with the US white supremacist system, he brought no justice to black Americans. 

US President Donald Trump did not bring about the country’s white supremacy, even if he celebrates its “greatness”, which he wants to restore to its olden days of glory. Indeed, Trump is no more than an heir to the country built by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. 

The path towards change

That Obama has not had his fill of exploiting the Black electorate while bathing in wealthy luxury on yachts and in his new $12m mansion on Martha’s Vineyard, is the latest symptom of his scoundrelish behaviour all along. Obama’s new plan is not to let the ongoing Black American uprising go to waste. It seems that he wants to impose his wife, Michelle, on the American people as future president for eight more years of Obama rule, or longer if she is chosen as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s vice president.  

Obama’s declaration this week condemning the current uprising and urging people to believe in the country’s racist justice system is hardly unique. We see it echoed by others among the black "misleadership", including the black mayors of Atlanta and Washington. Such calls are celebrated by white liberals and the US media. 

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Unless white Americans and the black misleadership express utter shame about the history and present of their white supremacist republic and its founding fathers - and repudiate the racialised social, political and economic privileges and differential rights it grants them - nothing will change. 

Until white Americans, liberals and conservatives alike, join African Americans, Native Americans, Latinx Americans, Asian Americans, and all people of colour in replacing this white supremacist system with an anti-racist republic, politically and economically, the revolts of African Americans and their allies against the American Republic of White Supremacy will continue for the foreseeable future.   

This article has been corrected to clarify that only one white cop had been indicted for killing a black man during President Obama's eight years in office.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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