The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy

Robert P. Jones

The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future

Simon and Schuster, 2023

387 pages, notes, bibliography, index, and appendix (“Recommended reading related to the Doctrine of Discovery”)

In August 2019, the New York Times Magazine published the first pieces of “The 1619 Project,” a collaborative work of long-form journalism in which Nikole Hannah-Jones and others argued that structural, or systemic, racism—a social arrangement built upon the subordination of people of color by Whites—was a foundational part of American history starting from the arrival in Jamestown of the first enslaved Africans in 1619. More recently, an important new work by Robert P. Jones pushes the genesis of systemic racism back much further, to 1493, the year that, in response to news of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, Pope Alexander XI issued a series of Papal bulls that came to be known as the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine declared that “European civilization and western Christianity are superior to all other cultures, races and religions” (Jones 2023, 13) and therefore that it was not only proper, but also desirable, for some people to occupy and exploit lands belonging to others, so long as the occupiers were White Christians and those they occupied were non-Christian people of color. 

HAR readers may be familiar with the Discovery Doctrine from legal and historical Indigenous studies (Williams 1990; Dunbar-Ortiz 2014) or Wynter’s (2003) theoretical treatment of the Doctrine’s redefinition of man as a secularized, rational being with varying capacities for self rule. For centuries, Europeans had appropriated Old World lands and peoples, but New World peoples could not be subjugated on the same theological grounds (they were not conquest-worthy pagan idolators who had refused the Gospel, as they had never been preached the Gospel at all). The Doctrine of Discovery is what began to sketch an alternative rationale for appropriation and subjugation within a new “vision of all humankind united under a rule of law discoverable solely by human reason” (Williams 1990, quoted by Dunbar-Ortiz 2014, 4). Now racial inferiority was a key rationale: the Doctrine declared that the non-White New World peoples were innately inferior and should therefore accept conquest, as it would expose them to beliefs and behaviors superior to their own. What Jones’s new book does is place the Doctrine’s racist rationale at the beginning of a long—and enduring—history of White Christian Supremacy, an ideology first directed at Indigenous (Native) Americans and later at enslaved Africans. More recently, it has become embodied in “White Christian Nationalism,” a movement that plays an active part in US politics.

The book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future, is not Jones’s first foray into the analysis of White Supremacy. Jones, who has a background in religious studies and theology, and who is the president and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, has written two previous books on the topic in 2016 and 2020—one focused on the demographic forces feeding our current moment, and one taking this ideology back to nineteenth century roots. (You can read more about Jones and his work in a short interview available at the end of this article.) This book is different both because of its deeper reach into history and because of its unique structure. I found its combination of painstaking historical documentation and firsthand observation in relevant sites to be extremely persuasive. In particular, it has much of value to teach students of anthropology about early attempts to explain variations in human behavior, the ways in which many of those attempts were shaped by notions of White Supremacy, and how others forged a science of mankind free of that school of thought.

In order to illustrate how the Doctrine influenced events in US history, Jones focuses on three incidents: the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy in Mississippi in 1955; the lynching of three Black men in Duluth, Minnesota in 1920; and the Tulsa Race Massacre in the Black community of Greenwood in Oklahoma in 1921. In each case, Jones takes pains to show how anti-Indigenous attitudes, supported by the premises of White Christian Supremacy, were well-established in these areas before Blacks arrived, and were readily adapted by many to justify Black subjugation as well. [1] Jones makes it clear that not all White and/or Christian people supported these ideas, and that some worked actively to oppose them, sometimes at great cost.

The discussion of each incident begins with a “Before” section that traces the background that laid the groundwork for the incident, giving particular attention to the ways in which the Doctrine justified the conquest and colonization of Indigenous people in that region; then Jones moves on to a detailed description of the incident itself, including the ways in which the Doctrine was adapted to justify enslavement of, and discrimination against, Black people; and he concludes with a “Commemoration and Repair” section, in which he documents the ways in which the incident has come to be remembered in its community and how genuine reparations have been actively undertaken. 

The first and second sections are likely to sadden and anger the reader, but the third sections give the reader hope by pointing to the courage with which modern communities have confronted “the sins of their fathers” and channeled significant resources into restitution. In the concluding section of Jones’s book, “The Rivers Before Us,” he explains his own intellectual journey, as a White Christian from Mississippi, to a full understanding of just how long the Doctrine’s arc has reached and just how desperately reparations for its damages still need to be made today. His personal reflections there (and elsewhere), together with his clear and propulsive writing style, give the work an air of immediacy and sincerity that make it accessible and appealing to a wide audience.

But why, if at all, should the history of the Doctrine of Discovery and the White Supremacy it justified matter to students of the history of anthropology? In my view, there are two main reasons. First, its widespread influence explains why some early nineteenth-century anthropologists contended—contrary to any evidence—that persons possessed of white skin were inherently more intelligent than those of other “colors,” and therefore uniquely suited to leadership positions. These were the anthropologists who advocated what is now called “scientific racism” (but whose “scientific” credentials were questionable at best). Second, it was the research and reflection of other anthropologists—especially those educated and practicing in the United States—that ultimately debunked the validity of the “scientific racism” the Doctrine had inspired, and we need to be aware of their important work and “give credit where credit is due.”

As purely religious and philosophical explanations for natural phenomena became gradually less dominant in Western academic circles and more and more thinkers turned to science—an empirical, nomothetic and replicable mode of inquiry and analysis—those seeking to explain variations in beliefs and behaviors between human groups followed suit. They ceased to directly invoke Papal bulls and the like as their frameworks in favor of secular approaches, but the concept of White Supremacy continued to shape their assumptions. Included in their number were Josiah Nott (1804-1873) and George Glidden (1809-1857), collaborators on the influential Types of Mankind (1854), in which they argued that the size of the human cerebral cortex revealed the size of the brain, and that brain size was largest in the White peoples of Europe and North America and descended in correlation with the amount of “color” in the bearer’s skin. Since brain size was assumed by them to determine intelligence, they concluded that the darkest people on earth—sub-Saharan Africans—were least able to invent, lead, or otherwise develop and sustain complex society, and were therefore best relegated to fields like slavery for their own good as well as that of their masters. (It may come as no surprise to the reader than Nott, a South Carolinian slaveholder, used his theory to justify that position to any who might question it). In their view, variation in beliefs and behaviors from one human group to another could be best understood as reflections of each groups’ average intelligence; hence, one could expect to find marble sculptures in a White European cathedral, but only “simple” cave paintings among African foragers—no matter that the foragers had no marble in their environment, and no need for occupational specialization in their economy.

Madison Grant (1865-1937), author of The Passing of the Great Race (1916), self-identified as an anthropologist (among other things), and, as an active member of the newly popular eugenics movement, argued for “Nordicism”: the idea that the light-skinned people of Northern and Western Europe were superior to the darker-skinned people of Eastern and Southern Europe (and by extension, the people of the rest of the world). As evidence, he pointed to what he considered the advanced quality of the political systems, economic systems, artistic production, and other creations of the North and West. Nordicism implied both that “Nordic” people were justified in ruling over other nations and that immigration to the US should be encouraged for those of Nordic background, while discouraged for others. Variations in belief and behavior from one human group to another could be explained by genetic differences—ones which (conveniently) could not be fully demonstrated yet, but one day would be, Grant assured. (It should be noted that in most instances, these “scientific” writers fell short of what we would consider science today. For example, Samuel Morton was known to have falsified data on cranial capacity (see Gould 1981), and many race scientists conflated correlation with causation, e.g., white skin “causes” the production of complex marble sculpture, rather than being correlated with it.)

It is highly likely that those who perpetrated the murder, lynchings, and massacre of Black people in Jones’s account had been steeped in the idea that people of color were inherently, biologically less intelligent, less capable, less moral than their White neighbors, and hence deserved domination, or even annihilation, as those neighbors saw fit, whether that idea came to them from the Church, from scientific racism, or both (surely a powerful mix). The plausibility of this is suggested by Jones in his treatment of how the 1921 Tulsa massacre was preceded by the “Reign of Terror” in which Osage people in the region were subjected to falsehoods, economic exploitation, and killings by some of the most esteemed members of the White community, justified to themselves in religious and/or racist terms as depicted in David Grann’s novel Killers of the Flower Moon (2017). Jones describes the defense teams’ appeals to white supremacy in the run-up to the Emmett Till trial; in Duluth, he shows how the lynchings were preceded by new versions of the Doctrine promoted by both Catholics and Protestants and by discrimination against both Indigenous and African-American populations in a “white supremacist new normal” (140).

We might hope that by today, the study of human behavior would have purged itself of the racism which characterized it during the eras of the Doctrine and its heir, scientific racism. Sadly, this is not the case. Rightly repelled by the abuses and bloodshed that marked early encounters between Whites and the peoples of color they found in the Americas and elsewhere, some anthropologists (e.g., Gough 1968; Asad 1973; Pels 1997; Gupta 2021; Gupta and Stoolman 2022) have condemned their own discipline as being part and parcel of those historic conflicts, “a colonial science, the product of a settler colonialism uniquely focused on the study of the languages, history and biology of non-Europeans seen as ‘primitive’ or ‘ancient’ all around the world” (Department of Anthropology, Univ. of Pennsylvania 2021). Certainly, their case can be made. However, others, like Lewis (2022) and Stoll (2023)—and I count myself among them—highlight the role anthropology, especially in its US incarnation, has played as a challenger to the Doctrine of Discovery and its offshoots. Many anthropologists of the late nineteenth and twentieth century built their careers on bringing that improvement about, a phenomenon which made a non-inherently racist science finally available to students of human behavior and its variations.

Much of that improvement can be attributed to the British anthropologist Edward Tylor (1832-1917), who gave the world its first clear definition of “culture” as being composed of learned beliefs and behaviors acquired by people as members of society, rather than bestowed by genetics (or “race,” then regarded as a biological trait) or by divine beings as some form of invisible “grace.” The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) went further by focusing on technology production and mode of subsistence as crucial factors in explaining differences and similarities between human groups, rather than either race or faith. This insight would inspire the now widely used theoretical framework of cultural materialism, embodied in the work of Leslie White (1900-1975) and later Marvin Harris (1927-2001). Also, through his extensive study of the Iroquois, Morgan established their importance as part of the human family, helping to erode anti-Indigenous bias and expand the range of cultures deemed worthy of attention.

Perhaps the most influential figure in establishing American anthropology as a science free of racial or religious bias was Franz Boas (1858-1942). It was Boas who made the clearest and most influential assertion of “the independence of race, language and culture” (Boas 1940). After Boas, it became impossible for anyone who respected science to claim that “Whiteness” or “Christianity,” separately or together, denoted superiority or were essential to human progress or well-being (see Lewis 2022). Also, by urging his many students to do ethnography in a wide range of world cultures, he encouraged the idea that all cultures were important and worth studying, including those previously labeled “inferior,” ”primitive,” or “barbarian.” From there, it was only a short step to his other great contribution to dismantling scientific racism: the idea of “cultural relativism,” or that cultures should not be ranked as “inferior” or “superior” at all, but rather understood on their own terms and within their own contexts (see Stocking 1974). [2] Though Boas was the first to fully articulate and apply the concept of “cultural relativism,” the term itself was actually coined by the African-American philosopher Alain Locke (1885-1954) in 1924. The fact that Boas himself was Jewish may account for why he was not attracted to theories of human behavior based on Christian church doctrine.

Boas’s students, including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, Paul Radin, and Alfred Kroeber, saw that his contributions were reinforced and popularized (see King 2019). Their work in widely differing locations around the world demonstrated the discipline’s commitment to the idea that every culture is worthy, and through successful bestsellers like Patterns of Culture (Benedict 1934) and Coming of Age in Samoa (Mead 1928), they brought the general public a new awareness of alternative ways of life, at least slightly eroding the idea that the White “West” is inevitably “best.” The contributions of non-White anthropologists such as Beatrice Medicine, Zora Neale Hurston, William Montague Cobb, Sarat Chandra Roy, and St. Clair Drake by the mid-twentieth-century showed how anthropology would include diverse perspectives in its shared commitment to science free of both racial and theological determinism. Today even colleagues who view our discipline as once having been seriously tainted by White Supremacy concede that significant progress has been made (Beliso-De Jesús et al. 2023), even as more and more of us engage in studies that seek to understand the dynamics of White Supremacy itself (e.g., Smalls et al. 2021).

But the racist ideology underlying the Doctrine of Discovery lives on today, and its offshoot, modern White Christian Nationalism, appears to be on the rise (see Jyoshi 2020; Lud 2020; Teter 2023). Therefore, in the interest of science and, more broadly, mutual respect between human groups, we need more historians like Robert P. Jones to remind us of its origins, and more anthropologists like Herbert Lewis (2022) and David Stoll (2023) to remind us of our discipline’s crucial role in debunking its specious claims, even as we remind ourselves that our work still isn’t done (see, e.g., McKinson 2020). As Jones states in his conclusion, a true democracy “will require joining the work already underway to repair the damage done by this malignant cultural legacy. Through that transformative engagement, we might finally illuminate the path that leads to a shared American future” (310).

Author Q&A

Conducted by Karen L. Field (KLF) with Robert P. Jones (RPJ) over email in February 2024

KLF: What was it that initially impelled you to study White Supremacy, and what accounts for your continuing interest in that topic?

RPJ: My central interests have been understanding the entanglement of white supremacy with American Christianity. I grew up in the Deep South, with a childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, and roots that go back six generations into the red clay of middle Georgia. My family was at church often five days a week, and one of our most prized possessions is a family Bible that dates to the early 1800s. That Bible contains the genealogical records of my slave-owning family just after their migration from Virginia to Georgia, where they received free plots of land from a government-run land lottery after the Cherokee were forcibly removed and marched to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. Drawing on sociology, theology, and history, my interdisciplinary work over the last decade has been focused on understanding the contradictions between the narratives of innocence that white Christians have told about and to themselves, and the plain historical record of white Christian justifications of the genocide and displacement of Native Americans and the enslavement and oppression of African Americans.

KLF: In your new book, you give special attention to three infamous examples of the kinds of violence to which White Supremacy can lead; no doubt, in your research, you discovered many others. Is there one that particularly continues to haunt you, and if so, why that one?

RPJ: In the book, I focus on episodes in three states—Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Minnesota—but I could have easily written 47 additional chapters. Here, I’ll focus on one from my home state. Medgar Evers, the Mississippi civil rights leader, was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in his own driveway, which was only nine miles from mine, a place where I spent hours shooting basketball as a kid. And yet, when I graduated as the valedictorian from my high school in 1986, equipped with all the knowledge that Jackson Public Schools thought was important for a young adult to hold, I had never heard the name Medgar Evers.

The murder of Evers is so chilling because of its connection to some of the most prominent white Christian churches in Mississippi. The last direct-action campaign Evers was leading when he was killed was the attempt to integrate First Baptist Church and Gallaway Memorial Methodist Church in Jackson, the home churches of the governor and the mayor respectively. The white man who fatally shot Evers was Byron De La Beckwith Jr., an active member of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Greenwood, who had previously stood on the steps of his own church in the Delta with a pistol when he heard rumors that some Black people might try to worship there. And at De La Beckwith’s trial, Governor Ross Barnett—who also served as the director of the large men’s Sunday School class at First Baptist—personally appeared in the courtroom, shaking hands with Beckwith in full view of the all-white jury, which subsequently failed to issue a conviction. These disturbing religious details are often left out of the Evers story, even today.

KLF: In your new book, you make it a point to detail efforts at “commemoration and repair” that followed each of those events, and no doubt, in your research, you discovered many others. Is there any one commemoration effort that stands out to you as especially effective, and that could serve as an example for others to follow? Any one effort at “repair” that does the same?

RPJ: In 1920, Duluth, Minnesota, witnessed a horrific, and mostly unknown, lynching of three young Black itinerant circus workers—Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton, and Isaac McGhie—by an estimated mob of nearly ten thousand people, approximately one-tenth of the town’s heavily white Christian population. In 2003, Duluth also became one of the first major cities in the post-Jim Crow era to officially memorialize the victims of a lynching, known as the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial.

Since its unveiling, the memorial plaza had served as an informal meeting spot, a gathering place, a forum to express grievances, and a launching point for marches for civil rights. When anger and dismay flooded into the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the memorial plaza was the place Duluthians instinctively knew to come. The Saturday after Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, just south of Duluth in Minneapolis, more than one thousand people peacefully gathered at the memorial. The Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial continues to bear witness to Duluth’s confession of a shameful past and a commitment to a brighter and more inclusive future.

KLF: As you point out in your book, there is currently a wave of White Christian Nationalism taking place in the US. In what way(s) do you see it as a carry-over from the past, and in what way(s) do you see it as new or different?

RPJ: While every contemporary social movement has its own unique relationship to the contemporary zeitgeist, the core claim of white Christian nationalism—namely that the United States is ordained by God to be a kind of promised land for Christians of European descent—is certainly not new. This worldview has, as I lay out in my new book, been the beating heart of the entire European settler colonialist project and finds its roots as least as far back as the 15th century Papal Bulls that came to be known as the Christian Doctrine of Discovery.

What we call white Christian nationalism today draws on this old impulse, but it is fueled by two recent events: the election of Barack Obama, our first African American president; and large changes in the ethno-religious composition of the population. Over the past two decades, the U.S. has gone from being a majority white Christian country to one in which there is no majority ethno-religious group. As recently as 2008, when Obama was first running for president, the US population was still majority white and Christian (54%). But by the time Obama left office in 2017, the proportion of white Christian in the country had dropped to 47%, and it has continued to decline to 42% in 2023. You can still see the influence of these 15th century Christian claims to supremacy and dominance in contemporary public opinion polling. A survey conducted by PRRI, where I serve as president and founder, and the Brookings Institution, found that while only 30% of the public agrees that America was ordained by God to be a promised land for European Christians, majorities of white evangelical Protestants (56%) and Republicans (52%) affirm this statement. A sense of nostalgia and grievance connected to this old and threatened vision of America has become the engine of the MAGA movement.

KLF: Some anthropologists are turning their attention to doing research on today’s White Christian supremacists. What topic(s) would you especially like to see them explore?

RPJ: Here are three ideas. First, the evidence is clear that you cannot understand the power of the political right if you fail to conceptualize it as an ethno-religious movement. The power of this amalgamated identity is often missed by researchers. Anthropology, with its focus on thick description and intersectional identities, is well equipped to avoid some of the reductionist ways this movement is characterized. Second, we could use more research on the appeal of white Christian nationalism among women. Because of its connection to religious institutions, this movement is also less male dominated than other white supremacist movements like the Ku Klux Klan or the Proud Boys, with surveys showing that men and women are equally as likely to hold Christian nationalist beliefs. Finally, I’d love to see more grounded research on the ways in which Christian institutions are influencing and amplifying these beliefs. For example, contrary to some claims that Christian nationalists are “Christian in name only,” those who hold Christian nationalist beliefs are more likely than those who reject these beliefs to attend religious services frequently and to say religion is the most important thing in their lives.

KLF: What will be your next project?

RPJ: While I’ve always been envious of scholars who have a well-mapped, ten-year research agenda, my work has never evolved that way. My goal is to understand the complex interplay of religion, race, and politics in America. While there are long-term trends, the ground is always shifting. I usually commit to a book-length project because there is an important puzzle to which I don’t know the answer.

I can see the arc of my research more clearly in retrospect. In 2016, I published The End of White Christian America, a data-driven book that was my early attempt to understand the great demographic sea change and what it meant to white evangelical Protestant Christians who were simultaneously shrinking, aging, and transforming themselves into the foot soldiers of the MAGA movement. In 2020, I published White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, which combined memoir and social science to look back at the entanglement of white supremacy and white Christianity since the early 1800s—not just among evangelicals, but among white Christians as a whole. My latest book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future, traces that history back even further, to the Europeans that landed on the shores of this continent in the 15th century and the central role European Christianity played in justifying the entire settler-colonial project.

Over the last decade, I’ve been wrestling with a central question: “For those of us who are white and Christian, how do we deal responsibly with our history as descendants and beneficiaries of the perpetrators of unspeakable violence done in the name of a country and a faith we still claim?” I’m still casting about for the form of the next project, which might even veer into fiction, but that question hasn’t released its hold on me.

Works Cited

Beliso-De Jesús, Aisha M., Jemima Pierre, and Junaid Rana. 2023. “White Supremacy and the Making of Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 52: 417-435.

Boas, Franz. 1995 [1940]. Race, Language and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania. 2021. “Statement on Anthropology, Colonialism and Racism.” Accessed March 1, 2024.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gough, Kathleen. 1968. “Anthropology and Imperialism.” Monthly Review, April: 12-27.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton.

Grann, David. 2017. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. New York: Doubleday.

Gupta, Akhil. 2021. “AAA Apology to the Indigenous Community.” Presidential Farewell Address to the American Anthropological Association. Baltimore, November 17, 2021. [Web version dated Nov 17, 2022]

Gupta, Akhil and Jesse Stoolman. 2022. “Decolonizing US Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 124, no. 4: 778-799.

Jones, Robert P. 2016. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster.

__________. 2020. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Joshi, Khyati Y. 2020. White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America. New York: New York University Press.

King, Charles. 2019. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. New York: Doubleday.

Lewis, Henry S. 2022. “American Anthropology and Colonialism: A Factual Account” in Bérose- Encyclopédie Internationale des histories de l’anthropologie.

Lud, Michael. 2020. “American Christianity’s White-Supremacy Problem.” New Yorker, September 2, 2020.

McKinson, Kimberley D. 2020. “Dear White Anthropologists, Let Not Symbolism Overshadow Substance.” Anthropology News website, July 2, 2020.

Smalls, Krystal A., Arthur K. Spears and Jonathan Rosa. 2021. “Introduction: Language and White Supremacy.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 31, no. 2: 152-156.

Stocking, George, ed. 1974. A Franz Boas Reader: The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stoll, David. 2023. “Decolonizing Anthropology—or Racializing It?Chronicle of Higher Education, November 7, 2023.

Teter, Magda. 2023. Christian Supremacy: Reckoning With the Roots of Antisemitism and Racism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Williams, Robert. 1990. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3 (3): 257–337.


1 Jones makes it clear that not all White and/or Christian people supported these ideas, and that some worked actively to oppose them, sometimes at great cost.
2 Though Boas was the first to fully articulate and apply the concept of “cultural relativism,” the term itself was actually coined by the African-American philosopher Alain Locke (1885-1954) in 1924. The fact that Boas himself was Jewish may account for why he was not attracted to theories of human behavior based on Christian church doctrine.
Karen L. Field: contributions / / Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Washburn University