The Artifacts of White Supremacy | by Kelly J. Baker
The June issue of the Forum features Kelly J. Baker’s essay, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy.” 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 on the Forum site.
- 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“
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Kelly J. Baker is the editor of Women in Higher Education and the author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture, and Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces. She’s also a freelance writer with a religious studies Ph.D. (American religious history) who covers religion, higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, and popular culture. She’s written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, Chronicle Vitae, Killing the Buddha, Religion & Politics, Washington Post, and Brain, Child. When she’s not wrangling two kids, a couch dog, and a mean kitty, she writes about zombies, apocalypses, and other bad endings.
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.
Randall Stephens is an Associate Professor and Reader in History and American Studies at Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. He is the author The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Harvard University Press, 2008); The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, co-authored with physicist Karl Giberson (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011); and editor of Recent Themes in American Religious History (University of South Carolina Press, 2009). His current book project is The Devil’s Music: Rock and Christianity Since the 1950s (under contract with Harvard University Press). Stephens has written for the Atlantic, Salon, Raw Story, the Wilson Quarterly, Christian Century, the Independent, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and the New York Times. In 2012 he was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway.
*Image: “The City” by Vincent Valdez. The featured image is comprised of the middle third of Valdez’s six-panel, 43-foot-long black and white painting titled “The City.” He painted it over 11 months between November of 2015 and September of 2016. In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Valdez said of the painting, “It’s almost too predictable, too easy, to portray these very menacing, overly aggressive, these guys who are snooping around, up to no good. I was much more curious about presenting them as, underneath those hoods, they’re everyday Americans, working jobs, picking up their kids from school, paying their taxes. Just hanging out, like most families would do on a Sunday. But once they put these masks on they completely change their persona, their vision. In this case, they are strategizing, planning, plotting to continue to keep a stranglehold on the city.”
The Martin Marty Center's Religion & Culture Forum is an online forum for thought-provoking discussion on the relationship of scholarship in religion to culture and public life. Each month the Marty Center, the research arm of the University of Chicago Divinity School, invites a scholar of religion to comment on his or her own research in a way that "opens out" to themes, problems, and events in world cultures and contemporary life. Scholars from diverse fields of study are invited to offer responses to these commentaries.
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The Religion & Culture Forum is edited by Joel A. Brown, Divinity School PhD student in Religions in America. Emily D. Crews, Divinity School PhD candidate in the History of Religions, was the previous editor.