Book note: White Supremacy Culture

A SELF-CONFESSED WHITE SUPREMACY CULTURE: The Emergence of an Illiberal Left in Unitarian Universalism by Anne Larason Schneider (2019)

In 2017, the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees took the unusual step of declaring that the UUA was part of a “culture of white supremacy,” and declaring that its mission was to root out this culture.

The UUA is, by some definitions, the most liberal religious movement in the USA. So why would its leaders would describe themselves in words formerly applied to neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan?

It makes a little more sense if you realize that “white supremacy culture” is something more vague and insidious than plain white supremacy. White supremacy is an ideology that says that white people have a right to conquer, enslave, drive out or kill off non-white people.

“White supremacy culture” is defined as a set of traits and attitudes that are common to white people, including nice well-meaning white people, and not shared by nonwhite people.

At worst, it is claimed that these attitudes are detrimental to non-white people and maintain white dominance. At best, they exclude non-white people. Either way, the “whiteness” of even well-meaning white people is believed to be harmful, and needs to be overcome.

A Unitarian-Universalist named Anne Larason Schneider, a retired political science professor, took it on herself to research whether there is any basis for belief in white supremacy culture, and such related concepts as white privilege, implicit bias, micro aggression and white fragility. The results are in this book.

She found that the most commonly-used description of white supremacy culture comes from a 2001 article by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. A Google search shows the article is still widely quoted, including by Unitarian Universalists.

Jones and Okun said white supremacy culture is marked by (1) perfectionism, (2) sense of urgency, (3) defensiveness, (4) quantity over quality, (5) worship of the written word, (6) only one right way, (7) paternalism, (8) either/or thinking, (9) power hoarding, (10) fear of open conflict, (11) individualism, (12) “I’m the only one,” (13) progress is bigger and more, (14) objectivity and (15) right to comfort.

One notable thing about the Jones-Okun article is that race, racial groups and racial prejudice are not mentioned except in the title and opening and closing paragraphs. Take them away and it would be a typical critique of business management practices. It is almost as if such a critique had been retitled and repurposed.

Another thing that struck Schneider is how the alleged traits of white people fit in with historic racial stereotypes.

Are white people perfectionists? If so, does that imply that black people, Hispanics and American Indians are sloppy? Do white people have a sense of urgency? If so, does that imply that non-white people are habitually late?

Do white people worship the written word? If so, does that imply non-whites are only semi-literate? Do white people value objectivity? If so, does that imply that non-white people don’t care about facts?

Would non-white people benefit if white people become less individualistic, perfectionist, objective and so on? Schneider said there is no evidence and no logical reason to think so.

The important question is whether there is any reason to think that whites and non-whites are divided along these lines. Or are “power hoarding,” “fear of open conflict,” or belief in “a right to comfort” traits found in all human beings?

Schneider found a survey showing that whites were on average a little more individualistic that blacks, Asians and Hispanics, but only by a few percentage points. Other than that, she found no empirical data either supporting or refuting the essay. It is mere assertion.

Because White Supremacy Culture ideology cannot be defended on rational grounds, it can only defended based on appeals to emotion, attacks on motives and exercise of authority.

One example of this is the campaign against Schneider’s friend, the Rev. Todd Eklof, to whom she devotes a chapter.  This is bad news for Unitarian Universalists who believe in historic principles of freedom, reason and tolerance.


White Privilege and White Fragility

Non-Hispanic whites in the USA are, on average, much better off than blacks and Hispanics in income, wealth, health and many other measures. There is plenty of evidence that racial discrimination still exists.

Schneider referenced a survey that indicated that applicants with white-sounding names got 50 percent more callbacks when they responded to help-wanted ads than did applicants with black-sounding names.

This is widely acknowledged.  A Pew Research poll found that 84 percent of blacks and 54 percent of whites say racial discrimination is a major reason why black people can’t get ahead.

However, Schneider wrote, there is no clear evidence that workshops on “white privilege” result in a reduction in racial prejudice. In workshops on “white privilege,” white participants tend insist they’ve earned what they have, and deny they are “privileged.”

Part of that may be due to the use of the word “privileged.” Someone who has worked hard for what they have may realize they are better off than a black person in equivalent circumstances, but do not think this means they themselves don’t deserve what they have.

Some studies indicate that “white privilege” workshops make liberals more sympathetic to poor black people, but more contemptuous of poor white people.

White privilege workshops rarely present data on racial discrimination and, according to Schneider, “can easily produce angry, defensive responses that tend toward creating a ‘culture of victimhood,’ and actually reduce sympathy among liberals / progressives for affirmative action” and other policies to reduce discrimination.

Such reactions may be evidence of what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” Maybe it is. Maybe it is the natural reaction of people who think they have been unjustly accused of being racists or white supremacists. Either way, it shows there are better approaches than holding “white privilege” workshops  to reduce racial discrimination.

Implicit Bias and Microaggressions

Most people have unconscious prejudices that can be different from their conscious beliefs.  Pew Research found that 48 percent of whites have an implicit bias favoring their own race and 25 percent favor blacks, while 45 percent of blacks have an implicit bias in favor of blacks, and 29 percent in favor of whites.  But there’s no research that shows implicit bias has a significant impact on behavior.

Even if unproven, it’s possible that implicit bias produces what is called “microaggression”—- all the tiny little things that tell black people and other minorities that they don’t fit in.

Examples could be the flying of the Confederate battle flag, or a white person touching his wallet when a black person walks by, or a native-born Asian-American being told she speaks good English.

All these microaggressions individually are merely microgrievances, but cumulatively, they can wear people down. Schneider referred to a study of black graduate students that showed that they suffered significant stress and depression from microaggressions, including underestimating personal ability, suspicion of criminality and social isolation.

The question, Schneider said, is what to do about it. There probably is value in education to help white people understand when they may be unknowingly demeaning minorities. There possibly is value in calling people out when they are unknowingly doing this. But there is a danger in making white people feel so fearful and self-conscious that they are afraid to do anything.


White Supremacy Culture ideology and much diversity training is harmful because it locks people into racial categories. The better answer, Schneider said, is to find ways to get people of different races to work together for common purposes.

She said we Unitarian Universalists need to find ways to find common grounds rather than harden lines between groups.

We need to inspire rather than discourage.  We need to offer hope rather than guilt to white people and hope rather than resignation to black people.


Unitarian Universalist Association web site.

White Supremacy Culture by Tema Okun for DIsmantling Racism Works.

Rev. Thandeka

Why Some Anti-Racist Programs Will Fail and Others Will Succeed by the Rev. Dr. Thandeka to the 1999 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.  An analysis of White Supremacy Culture ideology before it had a name.

Cerberus and the Current Unitarian Universalist Racial Crisis by the Rev. Dr. ThandekaThe complete series of her Cerberus blog posts.  An alternative antidote to racism and racial prejudice.

The First Annual Convocation of the Unitarian Universalist Multiracial Unity Council.  YouTube playlist.  Another alternative.

Fifth Principle Project – Every Voice Deserves a Vote.

Truly Open Hearts and Minds – helping liberal religion live up to its promise.

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3 Responses to “Book note: White Supremacy Culture”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    By defining white culture one way the author automatically defines non-white culture in the opposite direction thereby taking away the agency of both.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. davidgmarkham Says:

    I recommend Caste by Isabel Wilkerson who describes the social structure in the United States as a caste system from its founding.

    Participating in a caste system is not an individual decision but the result of socialization and conditioning. When the description of the caste system is provided it is hard to argue that the United States from its founding is not a racist country. It was founded on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. The residual beliefs, values and practices are still very much a part of American life.

    The approach to amelioration must be systemic and structural. raising individual consciousness does very little to change structural dynamics,

    The approach to dealing with racism in my church was primarily to raise consciousness and does not involve any efforts at meaningful structural and systemic change. Much of the effort was misguided and a waste of resources if true change is the goal.


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