The “New Definition” of “White Supremacy” is Actually the Original Definition

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve heard people bemoan the fact that the “definition of ‘white supremacy’ has been changed recently.” This can’t be further from the truth. In fact, “white supremacy,” both as a concept and as a term was likely coined by those who racialized themselves as White.

For example, John H. Van Evrie (1814–1896) frequently uses “white supremacy” to not only defend slavery but to also explain why he believed the U.S. was successful in comparison to other nations. In fact, his book “White Supremacy and Negro Subordination” (1868) provides many paternalistic reasons for the subjugation of Blacks, the supremacy of Whites, and an entire pigmentocracy for all other non-White peoples and cultures. Van Evrie was likely not the first to employ “white supremacy” in this way, and OED actually mentions several preceding uses of “white supremacy” all the way back to the early 19th century.

What this very brief historical look into the term “white supremacy” tells us is that a narrow definition of “white supremacy” as being only extremist expressions of it (e.g. Neo-Nazis, KKK, etc.) is actually a modern redefinition, not the original definition of the term. In other words, “white supremacy” as referring only to the KKK is a late redefinition from the 20th century.

The so-called “new” definition of “white supremacy” is actually an attempt to bring back the definition to its historical usage and origins. And, in fact, its historical usage and origins were from those who racialized themselves as White and subjugated all others as non-White. “White supremacy” defined as whiteness is right, default, normal, and neutral is what Van Evrie and many others before and after him believed and constructed a society around.

Lastly, you cannot help but read Van Evrie’s work and realize that he appeals frequently to the Bible for his views. Not only that, but you can also see his views reflected in many writings of his contemporaries who were Christian leaders, including those from the North. White supremacy was a cultural project that the church in America was deeply invested in creating, maintaining, and protecting.

Associate Editor for Faithfully Magazine. https://faithfullymagazine.com/author/timothy-i-cho/