White Americans have long worshiped two gods who are seemingly incompatible with one another, white supremacy and democracy. The contrast between these two superordinate constructs in white American culture is clear. Many have referred to this contrast as the American Dilemma, rightly characterizing it as a fracture in our national identity. White supremacy and democracy are ultimately at odds with one another in a multiracial nation.
While the contrast is obvious, white cultural practices have sought to obscure this same contrast from view. In the political arena, this obfuscation of white supremacy and democracy has, historically, taken the form of a Herrenvolk democracy.
So, what’s that?
“Herrenvolk democracy is a system of government in which only a specific ethnic group participates in government, while other groups are disenfranchised. […] The German term Herrenvolk, meaning “master race”, was used in 19th century discourse that justified colonialism with the supposed racial superiority of Europeans.”
Historian Edmund Morgan’s landmark study, American Slavery, American Freedom, maps the creation of a Herrenvolk democracy in colonial Virginia during the first century of European settlement. From there it spread, combining with Yankee culture to create the cultural amalgamation commonly known today as American. Or, to put it more accurately, white American. The co-existence of white supremacy and democracy was etched deep into white America’s cultural bones over 300 years ago in the form of a Herrenvolk democracy. That is to say, democracy for white people, and no democracy at all for Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color.
When we understand the historical reality of Herrenvolk democracy here in the United States, we gain the use of a powerful analytical tool for understanding what is going on in our country in the present moment.
The Herrenvolk democracy is dissolving and we’re becoming a multiracial democracy.
It’s been a historical trend. So much so that a good number of people even today are confident the Herrenvolk democracy will continue to dissolve, pretty much on its own. That number of people is dwindling now. More and more it’s becoming apparent that some people value white supremacy more than they value democracy.
These two contrasting frameworks have mapped themselves onto our political understanding. We contend with one another for a future that is either a multiracial democracy for all, or a Herrenvolk democracy that only includes white people and those Black, Indigenous and other People of Color who have assimilated to white cultural practices and who promote white cultural interests. It’s a choice, for everyone.
White supremacy may not dissolve, even if it has been diminished in the recent past. Those who hold to white supremacy more dearly than to multiracial democracy are pushing back against that historic trend and putting energy into setting their own, more favorable, trajectory for white supremacy in the here and now. Generally, these folks are white people.
Supporters of multiracial democracy come in all colors, but often we do not fall on the same page. It’s a complex affair and there is a lot to sort through. Racial identity factors into one’s experience and whether one is white or Black, or Indigenous, or another Person of Color, makes a difference in that experience.
The Center for the Study of White American Culture has proudly operated as a multiracial organization for more than 25 years. We wish to be clear on this point. We support multiracial democracy, passionately, unambiguously, and with determination.
These times call for clarity.