State of white supremacy: racism, governance and the United States

Steve Garner

Research output: Contribution to journalBook/Film/Article reviewpeer-review


Book review: Moon-Kie Jung, Joao H. Costa Vargas, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (eds.), STATE OF WHITE SUPREMACY: RACISM, GOVERNANCE AND THE UNITED STATES, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011, 340 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Scholarly critiques of the State that explicitly position ‘race’ at their heart are few and far between. Apart from Omi and Winant, and Goldberg's Racial State, as well as Angela Davis’ assault on the US prison-industrial complex, there is (in the European context) the multinational work of Ronit and Alana Lentin, and Ronit Lentin and Robbie McVeigh on Ireland. We could also include Harold Wolpe's work on South Africa, as well as that of Anthony Marx. States of White Supremacy (SoWS) sits comfortably alongside these studies, while clearly occupying a different space. SoWS confidently affirms that the contemporary US ‘racial’ State, in its numerous guises, is a valid object of analysis.

A combination of established stellar voices and newer scholars provide a multidisciplinary frame of critical engagement with the US state's practices across a broad spectrum of arenas; from a fundamental critique of the idea of the USA as a ‘nation-state’ at all, through racial profiling of Muslims and Latinos, to racialized patterns of educational provision and welfare sanctions via supreme court decisions on affirmative action.

In a collection with a uniformly high standard, there are a number of exemplary sections. Charles Mills’ customary economy of style and precision make his contribution on the white underpinnings of the state readable and rigorous; Lipstiz's forensic deconstruction of the bias of supreme court decisions around affirmative action; Romero's very accessible narrative style hides the sophisticated endeavour of portraying the impacts of state actions on real people's lives (in this case, racially profiled Latinos in Phoenix) and gives us an insight into the precise interactions between state representatives and people that racialize the latter; Andrea Smith's emphasis on the paradox of the State's historical monopoly of violence whilst portraying itself as women's protector against gendered violence enables us to see that the State constructs itself as post-racist while simultaneously re-producing racism.

This collection is engaging because it is not only about different groups of people (Latinos, Muslims, African-Americans, etc.), but also about particular functions of State (education, welfare, security, etc.), and contains both theoretical and empirical work.

There are many positives in this collection. The US state's position as a nation-state according to contemporary understandings of that term is queried: it is problematized instead as an imperial state producing multiple oppressions. The normative notion of citizenship as the point at which discrimination ends and equality begins is critiqued. The racial profiling of Muslims (moving between the USA and other countries) is, by juxtaposition, linked to that of other groups, such as Latinos (subject to border control more than 100 miles from the geographical border). Racial profiling then emerges as a technology of power, operationalized differently to procure similar results. Above all, the contributions suggest there are contours and patterns that need more scrutiny, research and precision to be worked through. In short, the collection opens a portal, making connections that were not always obvious. My feeling is that ideally, there should be a short and explicit overview essay that does only that work, but we are intelligent enough readers to join the dotted lines.

Is there too much variety? It is always hard to juggle that, as an editor, while still keeping the contributors interested in writing about what they feel is important. However, the discursive linking of violence, genocide, border policy, racial profiling and the activation of ‘race’ as an ideological ‘depth charge’ (in James’ account of the 2006 Massachusetts gubernatorial election) apposes topics that are habitually addressed in a more fragmented way, enabling the reader to access a more complex map of the State than any one of these chapters could do alone.

I found the radical scholarship and framing of the issues stimulating and thought-provoking. It is in some ways a redundant exercise to say what is missing: there are only a certain number of topics that can be covered. However, maybe the next volume could also deal with state surveillance and its interaction with radical social movements; more explicitly with Asian-Americans in the contemporary USA (although Rodriguez's historical development of the Philippines is appreciated); state responses to Katrina and the rebuilding of New Orleans; science and the genome; and possibly contemporary cultural representations of the US state (there is a proliferation of these, identified in recent work by Hamilton Carroll, for example).

SoWS promises to be an agenda-setting work, establishing a base for radical scholarship concerned with ‘race’ and the state for decades.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1510-1511
Number of pages2
JournalEthnic and Racial Studies
Issue number8
Early online date15 May 2012
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2012


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