The Freedom to Dominate

The Freedom to Dominate

When we view federal authority as a bulwark for civil rights against local tyranny, we miss what the U.S. government has done to sustain white freedom both domestically and abroad.

Alabama Governor and presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972 (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power
by Jefferson Cowie
Basic Books, 2022, 512 pp.

 

Last summer, Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville stirred controversy by insisting that white nationalists were not racists but simply loyal American citizens like any other. In an interview on Alabama public radio about his opposition to the Pentagon’s personnel policies, among them efforts to prevent white supremacists from serving in the armed forces, Tuberville claimed that the people the Biden administration maligned as “white nationalists” were simply “Americans” who “don’t believe in [Biden’s] agenda.” Designating them as unfit for service, he argued, is a form of federal overreach—intruding in matters of identity and conscience over which the federal government has no rightful authority, and sowing weakness and division in the “strong, hard-nosed, killing machine” that is the U.S. military. “We cannot start putting rules in there for one type, one group and make different factions in the military,” he said, “because that is the most important institution in the United States of America.” Despite the efforts of his staff to convey that he had simply been misunderstood, Tuberville doubled down in a later interview: targeting white nationalists was part of a partisan, un-American agenda—an agenda that threatened to drive “most white people in this country out of the military.”

Tuberville’s statement wasn’t a mistake; it was a tell. In positioning white nationalism as both part of the American mainstream and a product of freedom—a freedom unjustly curtailed by state power—he revealed the intimate connections between freedom, domination, and whiteness that have long shaped political life in the United States. This entanglement has produced a notion of freedom that does not entail the absence of constraint nor self-rule, but instead white racial entitlement to seize and dominate the land, labor, and bodies of others—“ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” as W.E.B. Du Bois succinctly put it in 1920. It is the same entanglement that enabled the authors of the Declaration of Independence to conjoin their “self-evident truths” to a complaint against “the merciless Indian Savages” whose lands they desired to seize without royal restraint, or to agitate for freedom from a tyranny they likened to slavery while nevertheless reserving the right to tyrannize and enslave.

This “white freedom” is the subject of Jefferson Cowie’s Pulitzer Prize–winning history, Freedom’s Dominion. Cowie is in good company in exploring freedom not as domination’s opposite but its companion. His fellow-travelers include not only Du Bois but scholars such as Edmund S. Morgan, Barbara J. Fields, Orlando Patterson, Aziz Rana, Lisa Lo...