The psychological dimensions of white supremacy

by William P. Muhammad

The CNN cable news program Anderson Cooper 360˚, recently aired a four part series devoted to the subject of race in America. The program, “Black or White: Kids on Race,” featured a new study based upon the research of Dr. Kenneth B. Clark’s infamous doll test of the 1940s and ‘50s. In the new study, young people were given illustrations of other children, ranging from White to Black, and were asked to identify which picture best depicted the smart, not smart, good and bad child.

The results, a shock to some, yet not a surprise to others, both revealed and verified what Black leaders, Black scholars and other Black consciousness oriented activists have been saying for years: that regardless of age and in spite of the social advancements Blacks have made in America, white supremacy is so deeply engrained, it has become a virtually involuntary reflex. Requiring a remedy that goes to the root of this problem, it is more than obvious that symptom oriented solutions will not do in eliminating the mutually destructive mindsets of white supremacy and black inferiority.

Among the dozens of Black and White children tested in this new study, a significant majority identified whiteness with likeability, success, intelligence and good behavior, while identifying blackness with non-likeability, failure, a lack of intelligence and bad behavior. As these results spurred angst, shock and worry not only from the parents, but also from among the program’s commentators, missing from the equation was consideration of the racist nature of Western culture itself and its subtleties concerning color consciousness.

Regarding the history of political Christianity, after its spread from the Middle East into Europe, changes and a new consensus occurred not only in its accepted teachings by the fourth century, but also in how its central figures were portrayed. Later, during the Middle Ages, good and holiness was associated with whiteness, while evil and the unholy was portrayed as blackness. With Jesus, his mother and the angels depicted as white, while demons, devils and wicked people were often shown as black, prejudices would likewise reflect these associations as conflict with darker skinned people, colonialism and European hegemony became the order of the day.

For example, as Western cultural heritage encompasses, as part of its legacy, the history of Mediterranean based events, cultures and myths, the narrative that depicted dark skinned or swarthy complexioned people as pale or white, occurred with the shifting of the region’s social, economic and political dynamics. As innovation and change was accepted and mastered in Europe, the artistic depiction of those who brought such knowledge also changed.

For instance, as Islamic Spain grew and developed from the social, cultural and political influences of Africans, resentment of them grew in Europe until war forced the Moors off the Iberian Peninsula. Downplaying, if not ignoring, non-White contributions to Europe’s Renaissance Period, to this day hostility remains, albeit in the form of socio-religious dialectics, secular globalism and sentiments against what is currently viewed as Euro-American hegemony in the non-White world.

Regarding the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the conquering of the Western hemisphere’s indigenous people, further propelled the myth of white supremacy. As justification for slavery and continental expansionism was often made through religious argument, pseudo-science and a general belief in “the White man’s burden,” the Americas was developed at the expense of the Black and indigenous peoples. However, as Blacks and other people of color eventually conformed to the established order, and defined themselves through the prism of European culture, the present symbiosis between white supremacy and black inferiority was sealed in the West.

Nevertheless, with the emergence of Black pride and Black consciousness oriented movements, a remedy to these poisonous mindsets was formulated through sacrifice and struggle. In the United States, for example, with the Honorable Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), The Nation of Islam under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the eventual emergence of Black Nationalist movements in the 1960s and early 1970s, in spite of the US government’s vigorous opposition, efforts were made to defeat the mindsets of white supremacy and black inferiority.

Accordingly, as far as the masses of Black Americans are concerned, and based upon CNN’s four part series, not much has changed regarding perceptions of self and others since Dr. Clark’s doll test in the 1940s. As the new study proved that both Black and White children have a bias in favor of light skin color, solving the problems of supremacy and inferiority will require a renewed effort among Whites and Blacks alike to confront the legacy of America’s ugly history.

Today, as the few voices that cry in the wilderness for freedom, justice and equality continue to press for redress, the psychological dimensions of white supremacy cannot be overlooked or dismissed. While it may be uncomfortable for Whites to recognize their privileged position came from the systematic dehumanization and degradation of the Black man, America’s redemption lies only in her willingness to atone for what she has done and to break up the twin mentalities of white supremacy and black inferiority. Anything less is disingenuous and any solution that fails to recognize racism’s root will not be successful.