Opposition to this framing has varied, from conservatives who decry a tendency of liberals to see the hidden hand of racism in gosh darn everything, to those on the left who feel Coates downplays materialist analysis and unduly elevates Trump’s danger above that of other racist presidents. But one of the thought-provoking sets of analyses comes from those who roughly agree with Coates that Trump’s primary appeal has been racial—perhaps, racist—but disagree with labeling his ideology as “white supremacy” or with Hill’s assertion that he is an obvious white supremacist.
There are several shades of gray to those objections, but a column from Jonathan Chait in New York sums them up best. Chait does not agree with an expansive definition of white supremacy that would capture say David Duke, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump, writing that “to flatten the language we use to describe different kinds of right-wing politics is to bludgeon our capacity to make vital distinctions.” Chait sees this labeling as a kind of language creep that in casting a wide net simultaneously cheapens some of America’s cherished institutions and in turn might tend to encourage radical acts against them.
This criticism of a broad definition of white supremacy isn’t new. Last November, Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum decried the “faddish term” wielded against members of the left and the right, and placed the genesis of that connotation with Coates himself. Jesse Singal, also of New York, and a frequent interlocutor of mine, tweeted yesterday expressing concern about the flexibility of the term as used by activists. “Don't understand the utility of labeling a huge swath of things ‘white supremacist’ or ‘Nazi’ that simply aren't,” Singal said. Our resultant conversation is threaded on Twitter and became the genesis of this essay.
To perhaps unfairly flatten these three arguments, which constitute the best of this school of objection, they tend to agree that the modern expansive definition of white supremacy is, well, modern. But that proposition is limited. The school of critical race theory, championed by scholars such as bell hooks, has been around in academic circles for at least 30 years, and its definition of white supremacy has long animated black activism. To quote scholar Frances Lee Ansley (taken here from a passage from David Gillborn, also, a critical-race-theory scholar):
“By ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”
The provenance of that definition of white supremacy does not alone guarantee its usefulness, and 30 years is still relatively new in the academia-to-modern parlance frame. Also, as my colleague Conor Friedersdorf noted last November, the critical-race-theory definition could very well be “the vernacular of a tiny, insular subculture,” one which is contested and has not reached the level of consensus.