Books

Tracing the Origins of American Racism as a Path to Healing

THE HIDDEN ROOTS OF WHITE SUPREMACY: And the Path to a Shared American Future, by Robert P. Jones


When Joe Biden became the first sitting U.S. president to use the term “white supremacy” — in a 2021 speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre — he gave voice to the views of countless other Americans who share his concern about the country’s often forgotten histories of racial violence. “

As painful as it is,” Biden said, “only in remembrance do wounds heal. We just have to choose to remember.” Coming one year after the killing of George Floyd, Biden’s remarks — like much of his presidency — have encouraged national reflection and reassessment.

Robert P. Jones’s stimulating new book, “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy,” examines a series of such reckonings. In lucid prose and evocative detail, he contextualizes these attempts at racial healing within a broader, and much older, history of injustice and moral failure, suggesting that in order “to understand who and where we are, we need our ‘in the beginning’ to start much earlier.”

To his credit, Jones centers both African American and American Indian oppression, avoiding “the myopic Black/white binary” that silos much contemporary scholarship. “Upstream from the stories of violence toward African Americans,” he writes, “were the legacies of genocide and removal of the land’s Indigenous peoples.” Full of urgency and insight, his book is a compelling and necessary undertaking.

A religious studies scholar and president of the Public Religion Research Institute, Jones begins with an impassioned moral charge: Racism predated the arrival of African slaves on the continent, helped to fuel the rise of the United States and still pervades our society. This history is also at the heart of polarized conceptions of American identity, for which presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump provide opposing symbols.

Less focused on racial disparities in income or educational attainment than on cultural forces of resistance, including “white Christian nationalism,” Jones sees within contemporary America a pernicious refusal to accept “remembrance” of the form that Biden has promoted. The nation can never fully achieve its ethical and political aspirations while living with falsehoods about its past, Jones suggests; though American history may constitute a challenging battleground, it provides essential moral guidance.

Given the vastness of his material, he has chosen to focus on three communities grappling with a history of racism: Tallahatchie County, Miss.; Duluth, Minn.; and Tulsa, Okla. In all three places, the removal of Indigenous populations in the 19th century was followed by murders of Black citizens in the 20th. These latter acts have recently become subjects of commemoration by community leaders willing to confront the difficulties of historical “truth-telling.”

Mississippi, Jones’s home state, offers him his most impassioned and extended case study. The killing of Emmett Till, the acquittal of his murderers and the decades-long attempt at a public reckoning over his death are movingly recounted, serving as a distillation of the nation’s troubled race relations. Years of effort in Mississippi have failed to dislodge what Jones terms “the forces of white supremacy,” which hardened in 2022 when the state passed a law to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” — despite “no evidence that anything resembling critical race theory … was being taught in state primary and secondary public schools.”

One of Jones’s boldest suggestions is to locate the “roots” of American racism not in 1619 or other defining moments in the history of American slavery, but much further back, within religious practices developed in the aftermath of the

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