Jason C. Bivins responds to Kelly J. Baker’s essay, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy,” which is featured in the June issue of the Forum. Baker’s essay considers how discussions about racism—and white supremacy in particular—tend to treat it as a matter of belief, while there’s considerably less talk of how racialized hate becomes tangible and real. And yet, we know the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest hate group in the U.S., by their hoods and robes. Artifacts signal (and often embody) the racist ideology of the Klan, along with their particular brand of Protestantism and nationalism. Robes, fiery crosses, and even the American flag were all material objects employed by the 1920s Klan to convey their “gospel” of white supremacy. The Klan’s religious nationalism, its vision of a white Protestant America, became tangible in each of these artifacts, and each artifact reflected the order’s religious and racial intolerance. Nationalism (or “100% Americanism”), Protestant Christianity, and white supremacy became inextricably linked in these material objects. Examining the historical artifacts of white supremacy helps us to better understand how white supremacy manifests today and might also help us better identify and analyze the presence and effect of racism in American life and politics.
Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Baker’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.
- Jason C. Bivins (North Carolina State University), “What am I afraid of?“
- Randall J. Stephens (Northumbria University), “The Klan, White Christianity, and the Past and Present“
“What am I afraid of?”
by Jason C. Bivins
In the fifteenth chapter of the Quixote, while rationalizing one of many assaults on his person and his honor, Don Quixote de la Mancha announces with customary self-confidence that he has arrived at a castle whose splendor reflects his own self-regard, though it is just a pothouse. I regularly ponder this chapter in our moment of simultaneous density and immateriality, filled as it is with “alt facts,” fueled by social media and amplified by a Presidential administration that seems like the lovechild of Leo Strauss on steroids and the John Birch Society. This is a condition that has implications for the subject of Kelly Baker’s reflections, taking shape in ways bloody and material but also through the circuits of fantastical overdrive announced by the Quixote, which shows the dangers in “holding all this fantasy that he had constructed as solid fact.”
Baker’s “Artifacts of White Supremacy” is about material self-fashioning using the symbols and the bodies of others. We are confronted here with not just the specificity and blunt factuality of unsettling religion, but also with uncomfortable evidence of a racial formation that, given its abundant nationalism and domestic faith, cannot simply be written off as the lunatic fringe. Attention to material religion is always welcome, and Baker deftly unpacks the resonance of white robes and masks, the fiery cross, and bloodied flags. What makes this piece especially powerful, though, is her evocation of the Klan’s belief that it preaches for the sake of others, that its racial beliefs are expressions of concern, even love.
Baker intends her piece as a partial response to the idea that racism simply requires individual attitudinal adjustments. She notes that while racism is expressed largely in dog-whistles, overt, bluntly material racial formations remain. And, Baker rightly contends, there is no shirking our complicity in them. As I think through this piece, it strikes me that one way of conceptualizing the dynamic between silence and spectacle that has always characterized American racism is to examine the dynamic between materiality and immateriality. I mean here not just the black body and voice that vanish and materialize at the hands of conscious and unconscious racism, but the not-yet-ness of white racial anxiety that expresses itself in the languages of embattlement, in categories like “Muslim” that transparently do the work of “race,” and that fantasizes energetically about possible white ruin.
Clearly, the most obvious expression of the blunt racist materiality that concerns Baker is the ascendance of the chief Birther to the Oval Office. Let us think about the implications. The preponderance of racial discourse during Obama’s presidency needs little rehearsing here. But as Birtherism grew, what increasingly stitched together its concerns about birthrights and freedoms, about wrong religions and national identity, and especially about race, was guns. The fear was that Obama’s thugs would come first for our guns, to prevent good citizens from righteous revolt once the real attacks on Christianity began.
Armed, white citizens appearing in public came partly to define the Obama era and the resurfacing of aggressive white supremacy. Consider the Oath Keepers, made up of (mostly ex-) soldiers and cops formed as a kind of extralegal organization professing allegiance to the Constitution and not the newly-elected President. Groups held “open carry” church services and warned about Obama’s anti-gun conspiracy. In displaying such vehement opposition to a thing that had not (and has not) happened, one’s fearful anticipatory experience of its reality is commuted from immaterial to sensorily real. But more than this, the interiority of the almost-here event insulates its felt experience from critique (on the basis of drab reason and evidence) even as the material fact of those guns underscored the urgency of white anxiety about time, law, and racial identity.
As armed “patriots” convened at their local Starbucks, or protested against day laborers at a Home Depot, the outrage focused on Glocks and TEC-9s materialized another, more potent anxiety. Somehow the very fact that Obama did not impose Sharia law and seize guns was converted in the imagination to global violence or theocidal intent, agonizing and ongoing in its failure to manifest. One self-described patriot even wondered, “What am I afraid of? I do not know—but I feel far more comfortable knowing that I have my nine-millimeter in my car.”
Baker’s piece calls us to attend to the materiality of open carry racism, of hoarding bullets before Obama can tax them, of Birthers and Oath Keepers populating gun ranges or showing up at Black Lives Matters rallies, of the Americana littering uploaded Youtube videos, where faces purpled with rage inveighed against a backdrop of upside-down flags while sporting t-shirts emblazoned with “Don’t Tread on Me” or Founders quotes.
What seems equally salient, though, and ripe for our interpretation, is how the open materiality of racism that emerged from Obama’s election—that galvanic moment in the history of American racism—was everywhere complemented by fantastical allegations that his oath of office had rendered precarious other oaths, loyalties, and identities. The militias of the 1990s certainly publicized their belief that Bill Clinton was going to put people in camps too, and even some fevered left critics of George W. Bush listened anxiously to police radio after September 11, 2001, certain that right wingers would seize the moment to realize their longstanding desire to lock up all the radicals. Yet unlike more routine grumblings about state intrusiveness, the everyday, strip-mall suburban-ness of Obama’s armed patriot detractors lived between the materiality of the racial gun and the immateriality of the oath.
Turn away from the anxious white fantasy to the black body, which was omnipresent in this period when “patriot” groups and militias grew by nearly 250%. The Obamas’ bodies (and material representations of their bodies), especially, were displayed, defaced, hung in effigy, photoshopped, and made fantasy. There were also those other black bodies, too many assembled to ignore any longer, because too many black bodies had been filmed being felled by too many guns. Oath Keepers prowled the streets of Ferguson and elsewhere, policing black protests while armed to the teeth, their membership rolls cresting 30,000 as Americans gobbled up gun stocks greedily.
So there is fantasy. There is the intangibility of an oath, a counter-oath, and a birthright. And there is the material fact of guns, in all their racialized bluntness. While white racists, defined through imaginings of their own heroic resistance, indirectly acknowledge the precarity of their historic privilege, there are now also skyrocketing rates of African-American gun owners, gun clubs, and more. So the history Baker confronts us with has its immaterial resonances and also its recrudescence, inverted, in a materiality that will not conceal itself, that will not be swept under nostalgia’s rug. Perhaps we might think of these intersections as unexpected expressions of the Nietzschean theme in which victims become killers. Or perhaps, Baker seems to be leading us to consider how the material culture of white supremacy—which dots the field of our national self-image with markers, even gravestones— corresponds with what Judith Butler suggests is a “shared vulnerability” we cannot acknowledge. ♦
Jason C. Bivins (North Carolina State University) is a specialist in religion and American culture, focusing particularly on the intersection between religions and politics since 1900. He is the author of Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion, a study of the intersections of jazz and American religions in and across comparative themes/categories like ritual, community, and cosmology. Bivins has published most actively in the area of U.S. political religions, the subject of his first two books, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2008) and The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). He is currently working on his next monograph in political religions: Embattled Majority, a genealogy of the rhetoric of “religious bigotry” in conservative Christian politics since the 1960s (as this category is manifested in Christian textbook narratives, conferences such as Justice Sunday, and political organizations like the JCCCR) and of the varied responses to such claims.
* Header image: Holly R. Fisher became an internet sensation after posting several photos with the purpose to “piss off liberals” in July 2014. (@HollyRFisher | Twitter)