Guest Commentary

‘This is unacceptable’: What do we mean when we talk about white supremacy?

Gavriela Geller is Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee
Gavriela Geller is Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee

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MLK Day 2019

This year marks the 33rd national observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Monday would be his 90th birthday.

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Invoking the term “white supremacy” can completely shut down a conversation. Yet it is crucial that we move past this discomfort to create a real dialogue about racial injustice.

Historical memory associates white supremacy with the hooded robes and burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan, just as it links racial justice with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Using these definitions, most white folks place themselves firmly outside the camp of white supremacy.

But today, white supremacy has taken on a different meaning. It does not accuse all individual white people of being white supremacists. Rather, many now use the term to describe the structures that reinforce the economic, cultural, and political power of those with white skin. Through this lens, it is irrelevant whether an individual personally harbors racial animus. It references the system in which communities of color in America continue to face drastic inequities in income, housing, education, and healthcare, while being overrepresented in every part of the criminal justice system.

Dr. King understood that the systems of white supremacy infiltrate every part of society. Despite the successes of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, he knew they did not address the challenges of economic and social equity. “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter,” he asked, “if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

Using white supremacy to describe these systems is intentionally provocative. These are violent systems that demand urgent attention. In Kansas City, a person living in one predominately black zip code will live on average 15 ½ years less than a person living four miles away in a predominately white zip code.

This is unacceptable.

As a white Jewish leader, I have come to appreciate the distinction between white supremacists and the current systems of white supremacy. The former poses a real and specific danger to my entire community. Even before Pittsburgh, and before Charlottesville, our own Kansas City community experienced this horrific manifestation of white supremacist hate when three people were murdered by a KKK leader outside of our Jewish institutions.

Yet my experience as a white Jew is drastically different than that of a Jew of color. While we are both at risk praying in a synagogue, only one of us faces systemic discrimination due to the color of our skin.

We must not let our reactions to certain words shut down the conversation before it can start. Those who are uncomfortable with the term white supremacy do not have to use it. But they should seek to understand what others mean when they say it, and move the discussion on towards impact and solutions.

We cannot waste time being angry at the use of the phrase white supremacy while innocent black men are shot on the street. Instead, we must focus on enacting actual institutional, political, and cultural changes, led by people of color, that will dismantle the ways in which racial inequity and injustice affects people’s lives. Only then will we truly honor Dr. King’s legacy.

Gavriela Geller is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee.

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