Dec 19, 2023 - Politics & Policy

U.S. white supremacy's roots go back to 1493 doctrine, author says

The cover the book, "The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future."

Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

To examine the origins of white supremacy in America, one may not need to look only to 1619 or 1776, but also 1493 — the year Pope Alexander VI issued the "Doctrine of Discovery," author Robert P. Jones writes in a new book.

The big picture: Jones tells Axios that any search for the nation's origin story needs to consider this largely overlooked doctrine because it shaped the racial order of the U.S.

Flashback: The "Doctrine of Discovery" was issued on May 4, 1493, and stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered," claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers.

  • The Catholic faith and Christian religions could be exalted and spread everywhere, and nations could be overthrown and brought into Christianity, the decree stated.
  • It became the basis of all European claims in the Americas and the foundation for U.S. westward expansion, which would be cited in federal court cases against Indigenous people in the 19th century.

Details: Jones, president and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, dives into the impact of that doctrine in his new book, "The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future."

  • The idea that God ordained the Americas as a "promised land" for European Christians has had devastating effects for more than 500 years, Jones told Axios.
  • The book attempts to show how the U.S. story began with the doctrine and how that legacy led to violence against Black Americans centuries later.
  • Jones has written about the connections between white supremacy and American Christianity in two previous books.

What he's saying: "Just the basic idea that the U.S. — well, all of the Americas — were conceptualized as this promised land for European explains so much."

  • The concept would give cover for removing and killing Indigenous people, enslaving Africans, and later, taking territory from Mexico and mistreating people already living there, he said.
  • Jones said he was influenced by Indigenous scholars who have been pointing this out for years.

Zoom in: To illustrate his points, Jones focused on three regions in the U.S.: Minnesota, Mississippi, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

  • In each case, Jones shows how an episode of violence against Indigenous people — often forgotten in history — preceded well-known acts of violence against Black Americans.
  • The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 occurred around areas where Indigenous people previously faced violence, illustrating the lasting legacy of white supremacy, Jones writes.

Between the lines: The work comes as the country continues to debate its origin story following the 2019 publication of the 1619 Project.

  • 1619 was the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia. The New York Times 1619 Project sought to reframe that moment by placing it at the center of the nation's narrative.
  • But Indigenous scholars faulted it for excluding the story of Indigenous people who were in the present-day U.S. long before that moment and had been fighting removal more than a century earlier.

Of note: The Vatican earlier this year repudiated the doctrine, saying the concepts "fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples."

The bottom line: Jones says the nation has many origin stories and that to understand its history, readers need to conceptualize how white supremacy has shaped it and continues to define it.

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