In December 2016, A&E announced the January 10 premiere of Generation KKK, an eight-part documentary series aimed at examining the lives of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members and their families. Mere hours after the network’s announcement, various celebrities took to Twitter to lambast the network for “normalizing the KKK” and for “giving a platform to hate groups.” While such critiques are understandable in our current political climate, they expose a misguided mainstream assumption about the nature and foundation of white supremacy — namely, that the ideology of white domination resides near the outskirts of the American political landscape. Such an assumption is both false and dangerous.
Despite the fact that the series will never air — the network recently cancelled the show after discovering producers were paying Klan members for on-camera interviews — the basic thrust of popular critique surrounding the show’s probable content is valuable for what it reveals about how the political mainstream conceptualizes white supremacy and strategies for its elimination.
Rather than existing at the recalcitrant edge of US politics, white supremacy is central to the US nation-state–a political entity whose very kernel rests on exclusionary practices, policies, and laws that racialize national belonging. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” underscores this point. King writes that he has
almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.
In Whiteness of a Different Color, historian Matthew Frye Jacobson echoes King’s analysis, rejecting the assumption that white supremacy is peripheral to the American political ethos. Rather, he argues that white supremacy is the very “guarantor” of US democracy through the frameworks of slavery, race-based immigration statutes, “anti-miscegenation” laws, racialized criminalization, and de facto and de jure segregation and disenfranchisement.
To be sure, mainstream US politics — perhaps best represented by the Office of the President — is a racial project marked by nearly uninterrupted intergenerational appeals to white dominance. Irrespective of political party and historical epoch, mainstream US politics itself has normalized — and continues to normalize — white supremacy more powerfully than A&E’s Generation KKK ever could. From indigenous genocide to the enslavement of black people to scientific racism and our current era of colorblind racism, US politics — and the Office of the President — has ratified white supremacy with brutal uniformity.
Indeed, thirteen men who would become US Presidents enslaved black men, women, and children at some point in their lives. Beyond the “peculiar institution,” however, many presidents have themselves “normalized white supremacy” and served as “platforms for hate” by virtue of their words and deeds.