The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: and the Path to a Shared American Future by Robert P Jones

The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: and the Path to a Shared American Future cover imageSummary: Changing how we think of the starting date of US history can help us see different patterns. 

The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy is the third book by Robert P. Jones that I have read (The End of White Christian America and White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in Christian America.) More so than the other two books, this is narrative-focused and less demographically focused. Jones is known for his work in polling and demography, and that number-heavy writing style is essential for making the case for current shifts in culture. But The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy is primarily a book of history, not demographics, and the writing style is more narrative.

The book opens with a discussion of the 1619 Project and how Nicole Hannah Jones has shifted the conversation to include a greater focus on slavery in developing the US as a country. Jones is not debating the 1619 Project as much as suggesting that an earlier date also needs to be included as part of the discussion. That date is 1493 when Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull, “Inter Caetera.” This papal bull and several earlier bulls are jointly known as the Doctrines of Discovery and are still important precedents to international law.

The Doctrine of Discovery is not just a theological and legal justification for European Christians to take possession of land (already occupied and controlled by others) but also justified the enslavement of those viewed as “pagans.” The book’s central thesis is that the Doctrine of Discovery undergirds much of American history because it was responsible for the European understanding of colocalization, land possession, and the enslavement of Native American indigenous people and Africans. Jones rightly notes early on in the book that the Louisiana Purchase is usually framed as one of the best real estate deals in history. Jones reframes the purchase not as a real estate deal but as the selling of the right to take possession (a subtle but vital distinction) directly rooted in the doctrine of discovery. The US, which was derived from Protestant England and officially a secular country, still recognized the legal authority of the Catholic Pope as an international lawgiver when it suited them.

After the introduction of the concept and the history, Jones moves on to three case studies of how traditional stories of anti-Black racism (Emmit Till, a lynching in Duluth, MN, and the 1921 Tulsa Riots) can be understood more fully by understanding the prior role of white supremacy (in the sense of racial hierarchy) concerning Native American land theft and violence that contributed to later anti-Black racism. With each case study, the narrative of the history leads into a more recent history of how various people came together to bring the repressed history of racial violence into the light and deal with the long-term implications of that history.

I was aware of the Doctrine of Discovery and all three incidents because of prior reading. Mark Charles and Soon Chan-Rah’s Unsetting Truths is also about the Doctrine of Discovery. And in the comment section of the interview with Jones on the Holy Post podcast, many people recommended that book. Jones cites Unsettling Truths in the bibliography and notes and includes a note that I think is unnecessarily antagonistic:

“For reflections on the Doctrine of Discovery from a somewhat narrow and at times defensive evangelical Christian perspective, see the recent work of Mark Charles (Dine) and Soong-Chan Rah. While they denounce the Doctrine of Discovery, their commitment to defending a version of evangelical Christianity leads them to turn the term “colonization” into a metaphor as well as some tortured conclusions, such as the claim that legal abortion is “furthering colonialism.” Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumamzing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2019), 94.”

Within the Evangelical world, Unsettling Truths was the first book that most people came across that discussed the doctrines of discovery. Jones does not help the case he is trying to make that we need to do the long and hard work of coalition building and truth-telling to get to the shared future he is writing about in hopeful ways. That does not mean I think he has to ignore the differences that he has. I understand that he no longer identifies as a Christian, although he speaks frequently about growing up within the Southern Baptist Church and his theological education. I also have many disagreements with the SBC; however, accusing the one evangelical book trying to accomplish a similar task that Jones is also trying to work toward shows how hard it is to have shared purposes across the lines that divide us. And at least Jones limited his comment to an endnote that most people will never see.

The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy shows Jones’s skill in balancing broad history and individual stories. Both are important to contextually understand how to think about the historical roots of white supremacy. There are also no rose-colored glasses when looking at the current efforts at truth-telling. Those efforts are fraught with problems. The attempts at truth-telling often are not as complete as it would be hoped that they could be. As with the example of the Till Museum being staffed by a Black inmate at the local jail, there are often problems with how we tell stories of the past. There are good nods to contingency of how things might have happened differently.

I wrote on Twitter about my ambivalence about white authors telling these stories of racism and white supremacy. I think Jones is doing good work in these three books that I have read and at PRRI. Many historians and theologians give essential context to the history of white supremacy that has led us to where we are today. But as Jones rightly notes, many Native Americans have been writing about the doctrine of discovery for years, while most people have been unaware of the history and legal realities (Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited the doctrines of discovery in 2005 in her Supreme Court decision to deny the right of Oneida Indian National the ability to buy land to include within their sovereignty rights of the reservation.) I have not previously read any of Vine Deloria‘s many books about the doctrine of discovery. And most people do not understand Native American history or the history of racial violence and lynching. But because most white people tend to mainly read other white people, white authors like Jones play an important part in the truth-telling that is a necessary part of changing our racial reality. But there is also the reality that this upholds the racial hierarchy because it takes white authors to tell stories for white readers to pay attention.

The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy is a helpful contribution to the literature that seeks to complicate and expand our racial history. Moving back the start of the discussion to 1493 makes a lot of sense. Jones is a talented writer, and whether you read this in print or audiobook, there is real value to the stories told here. But my ambivalence remains.

The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: and the Path to a Shared American Future by Robert P. Jones Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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