Turn on the news, read the paper, check Twitter, and chances are that you will quickly come across someone--from a mass shooter to the president of the United States--being described as a "white supremacist." The term, historically used to describe an adherent to the ideology of white supremacy, is now thrown around so often that it no longer is always clear what it means.
The term "white supremacy" began appearing in the early 1800s, according to The Oxford English Diaionary. Early citations are found in books such as Emancipation: Or Practical Advice to British Slave-holders and Thirty Yean in India, as well as from "The First Annual Report of the Edinburgh Society for Promoting the Mitigation and Ultimate Abolition of Negro Slavery," which describes conditions in the Carribbean British colonies: "Now... we arrive at the truth of the matter and find that the whip is of the very essence of the system," the report reads, "and that the right to use it is the fundamental charter of white supremacy."
"White supremacy" soon made its way to the United States, says Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the AntiDefamation League's Center on Extremism. "Whites living in the South before the Civil War felt pressure to respond to abolitionism," says Pitcavage. "They came up with a series of arguments justifying white domination in the South through the institution of slavery. In that context, they used the term 'white supremacy' positively, to suggest that it was natural law and the way things should be." In 1856, for example, Kansas settler Jefferson Buford, in a widely publicized appeal to have the territory admitted into the Union as a slave state, asked if Kansans were "prepared to surrender white supremacy in the South."
The Confederacy was defeated but not the ideology, says Mark Potok, former senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and editor of the SPLC's Intelligence Report. But white supremacy took on a new element of victimization. "Supporters of this ideology in the late 19th and early 20th century started developing the argument that white supremacy is being lost, that [whites] are being swamped--and that people who have no right to it are taking what we had away." In 1867, John Van Evrie, a notorious pseudo-scientist from New York, published his book White Supremacy and Negro Subordination. "Van Evrie put the term 'white supremacy' on the map, and his intention was to naturalize black subordination and white supremacy,"...