Turning Points in History Series: Global Histories of White Supremacy

Caitlyn Foley

On Wednesday evening, the Global Histories of White Supremacy was made up of a panel of historians who discussed their responses to thought-provoking questions asked by discussion moderator Vincent Loyd. 

These conversations are important and necessary, specifically in today’s climate of increasing violence and tensions between people during pandemic time. During the panel, turning points in history were brought to the forefront of conversation, being defined by the significant change that they evoked. In these past 18 months, there have been many moments of significant change, which presses the question: Are we finally at a point of change when it comes to white supremacy? 

Kathleen Belew, Duncan Belle and Mae Ngai shared their perspectives on discontinuity, anti-black language and moments of transformation. Belew explored how white power activists created a movement. When viewing acts of violence such as those that occurred on Jan. 6 at the Capitol building, there is a unique sense of shock that many felt. She also discussed the Greensboro massacre, in which five members of the Communist Work Party, who were participating in an anti Ku Klux Klan rally, were killed in broad daylight on Nov. 3, 1979. What she found especially chilling was the response that these white men had, including one man saying: “We killed communists in Vietnam so why would we not kill communists in North Carolina.”

Another moment that transformed the way we talk about white supremacy in today’s world is the Oklahoma City Bombing. Belew pointed out that this is an example of the forces at work when one opposes white supremacy. The total number of people dead was 168, 19 of those being young children. Belew informed the audience that this was the biggest deliberate mass death that has occurred on American soil after Pearl Harbor and 9/11. There is a lot of evidence pointing to these bombings being a white power movement, but this was never officially proven. 

Ngai talked about her experience as an Asian American who has faced increasing racism in times of the pandemic due to the hateful and incorrect labeling of the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus.” She considers herself a very privileged member of the Asian American community, so when she was attacked on the streets of NYC because she is an Asian woman, she was shocked. 

When asked about the global reach of anti-blackness language, Ngai emphasizes that it is not enough to think about racism in general. One must think about racisms and how racism builds on itself and adapts to remain potent. If we attempt to understand racisms, we can see how white supremacy operates. 

Belle’s studies lie in the history of political thought and the role race plays in this. According to Belle, white supremacy is a global structure but has many different locational meanings. The meaning behind white supremacy and racial violence has changed and adapted throughout time and different countries. He also stated that he is not surprised that anti-blackness language appears everywhere and notes that this language attempts to create hierarchies of race. This issue of anti-blackness has existed for centuries, starting with Southern Europeans viewing themselves as superior to Northern and Western Europeans and escalating to the racial hierarchies that have become too prevalent today. 

These historians believe that the global histories of white supremacy have come in many forms, and today everything is more extreme. Tensions and attacks against minorities are harsher and sharper in this age of a pandemic. This is not a good thing. We must learn to disagree and build solidarities without resorting to violence. We must strive to end the repetition of these histories of white supremacy.