White supremacy is inseparable from the content of the US origin story and the definition of patriotism in the US today. To the extent that African Americans, Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and immigrants are allowed (and are willing) to embrace and embody US patriotism-so defined--they may be accepted as conversos, as the Spanish Inquisition termed those who had forsaken their 'filthiness'for 'cleanliness of blood.'

The Proof of Whiteness: More than Skin Deep

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Paper for the conference: ‘The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness’ at University of California, Berkeley (11-13 April 1997)


Are your garments spotless?
Are they white as snow?
Are they washed in the blood of the lamb?

As this traditional evangelical Christian hymn suggests, whiteness as an ideology as far more complex than mere skin color, although skin color has been and continues to be a key component. And although the biblical concept of black and white signifying evil and good, polluted and pure, surely predate the rise of European precapitalism and overseas colonization in the fifteenth century, I will argue that the origins of white supremacy as it is now experienced and institutionalized in the United States (and, due to colonialism and imperialism, throughout the world) can be traced to the prior colonizing ventures of Christian crusades into Muslim-controlled territories, and to the English colonization of Ireland. The Christian Crusades against Islam/Africa gave birth to the law of limpieza de sangre, cleanliness of blood, which the Spanish Inquisition was mandated to investigate and determine in individuals, and to mete out punishment including death, during the mid-fifteenth century. The Christian Crusades, particularly Castille’;s conquest of the Iberian peninsula and expulsion of Jews and Muslims, created the seed ideology and institutions for modern colonialism with its necessary tools–racist ideology and justification for genocide. The law of limpieza de sangre was perhaps the most important cargo on the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, sailing under the flag of Spain. England emerged as an overseas colonial power a century later than the Spanish, and absorbed aspects of the Spanish caste system into its colonialist rationalizations, particularly regarding African slavery. However, Puritanism and Calvinist Protestantism uniquely refined white supremacy as a political/religious ideology (a Covenant with God) requiring the shedding of blood for purification–blood must be white–a justification for the greed and profits which fueled modern colonialism, but which took on a life of its own as ideology. The rationalization ideology of the Ulster-Scots Calvinists who made up many of the settler/colonizers of Northern Ireland and (illegally) of the western lands over the Appalachian/Allegany spine of English North American forms the basis of the definition of whiteness in the United States’ origin story. This origin story tells of pilgrim/settlers doing God’s will and forging into the promised land, killing the heathen (first the Irish, then the Native Americans). Thereby, the sacrifice and blood shed is perceived as proof of the sanctity and purity of the nation itself. All the descendants of those who made such sacrifices are the true inheritors of the land.

‘The Crusades’ and ‘Purity of Blood’

In the eighth century, Muslims came to power in the Iberian peninsula and established a state which ruled for centuries. However, by the end of the fifteenth century, the Muslims held only a foothold in Granada, now an enclave surrounded by the expansionist Christian monarchies of Castile and Aragon and Portugal. During those intervening seven hundred years, various Christian kingdoms based in the north of the peninsula attacked Moorish territory, seizing their lands and properties, and driving them as refugees southward. The Christian crusaders named this process La Reconquista, the reconquest. This project, which looked exactly like conquest, formed the contours of modern colonialism and created the institutions and practiceslater established in Spanish America, especially the encomienda (conquered land granted to the conquistador along with the people on it, with the conquistador earning the noble title of hidalgo). Historian Henry Kamen observes that: ‘…the Reconquest destroyed…racial and religious coexistence, which despite incessant armed conflict had distinguished the society of mediaeval Spain. It was claimed by a contemporary that when the Christians went to war against the Moors, it was ‘neither because of the law (of Mahommed) nor because of the sect that they hold to but because of the lands they occupied and for this reason alone.

The Vatican created the original institution of the Inquisition in 1179, for the purpose of routing out Christian heretics. The 1400s in Spain saw increasing Inquistion investigations of conversos, that is, Christian converted Jews, and of moriscos, Christian converted Muslims, within the Christian occupied territories. Soon, practicing Jews and Muslims were also targeted and finally expelled from the Iberian peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century. Before this time the concept of biological race, based on blood quotient, did not exist in Christian Europe nor anywhere else in the world.

As scapegoating and suspicion of conversos and moriscos intensified, the doctrine of limpieza de sangre, ‘purity of blood,’emerged and had the effect of granting psychological, and increasingly legal, privileges to ‘Old Christians’ thereby obscuring the class differences between the poor and the rich, in Spain, meaning the landed aristocracy and the land poor peasants and shepherds. Cervantes Don Quixote is the best source for comprehending that effect. The impoverished Sancho Panza says, ‘ am an Old Christian, and to become an earl that is sufficient’to which Don Quixote replys, ‘And more than sufficient.’ And Cervantes contemporary, Lope de Vega, wrote in his Perib’Yo soy un hombre,/aunque de villana casta,/limpio de sangre y jam /de hebrea o mora manchada’ (I am a man, although of lowly status, yet clean of blood and with no mixture of Jewish or Moorish blood.)

What we are witnessing in late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Spain is the first instance of class leveling based on imagined biological racial differences, indeed the origin of ‘white’supremacy, which I argue was a necessary ideology to support the rationalization of colonial projects in America and Africa. Therefore, we can identify the beginnings of ‘the 500 year Reich’of capitalism/colonialism, that is power struggles between landed gentry and urban bourgeoisie, and a tug of war over the hearts and minds of the majority–the peasantry, and later the white working class.

Historian David Stannard in his American Holocaust, adds to Elie Wiesel’s famous observation that the road to Auschwitz was being paved in the earliest days of Christendom, the caveat that on that way to Auschwitz the road’s pathway led straight through the heart of America. The ideology of white supremacy was paramount in neutralizing the class antagonisms of the landless against the landed, and the distribution of the confiscated lands and properties of Moors, Jews, and of Irish, Native Americans and Africans. Kamen describes the process in fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain: …a situation in which the highest and lowest classes could maintain social mobility without great fear of social distinction…as with the genuine aristocracy, the concepts of honour, pride and hidalguía become the very foundations of action…In so far as this concept of honour was identified with the virtues of the Old Christian nobility, deference to honour became deference to the nobility…the Castilian nobility continued to regard their functions as essentially the same that they had always been. Their task was to fight and not to labour. Hidalguía would not permit a nobleman, even the lowest rank of nobleman, to labour or to trade… The Old Christian Spanish, whatever their economic situation, were allowed to identify with the world view of the nobility. As one Spanish historian puts it, ‘the common people looked upwards, wishing and hoping to climb, and let themselves be seduced by chivalric ideals: honour, dignity, glory, and the noble life.’

We can also locate the origin of genocide and its linkage to colonialism in the late 1400s in Spain. Two punishments were devised by the Inquisition to root out Christians deemed to have unclean blood: the extermination of many burned at the stake and the social isolation and persecution of the rest.

Ireland and the English ‘Inquisition’

During the early 1600s, the English crown conquered northern Ireland, and declared a half-million acres of land open to settlement; the settlers who contracted with the devil of early colonialism came mostly from western Scotland. Scotland itself along with Wales had preceded Ireland as colonial notches in the best of English expansion. The English policy of exterminating Indians in North America was foreshadowed by the English colonization of norther Ireland. The Celtic social system was systematically attacked, traditional songs and music forbidden, whole clans exterminated while the entire population was brutalized. A ‘wild Irish’reservation was event attempted.

Initially England ruled by dividing the Irish barons against one another. Then the English exploited Ireland’s land, resources and labor. Next, English penal laws were enacted in 1695 which criminalized nearly every activity in Ireland. By 1630, the English and Scots population settled in Ulster was larger than their settlement in all North America–21,000 English and 150,000 Lowland Scots. In 1641, the indigenous Irish rebelled and killed ten thousand settlers. Yet Anglo and Scots settlers continued to pour in with the largest number arriving between 1690-97. They formed a majority of the population in some areas from which the indigenous Irish had been removed, but never the majority of all of Northern Ireland.

In the sixteenth century the official in charge of colonizing Ireland, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, ordered that: The heddes of all those (of what sort soever thei were) which were killed in the daie, should be cutte off from their bodies and brought to the place where he incamped at night, and should there bee laied on the ground by eche side of the saie ledying into his owne tente so that none could come into his tente for any cause but commonly he muste passe through a lane of heddes which he used ad terrorem…[It brought] greate terrour to the people when thei sawe the heddes of their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kindsfolke, and freinds…

Bounties were paid for the Irish heads brought in, and later only the scalp or ears were required. A century later, in North America, Indian heads and scalps were brought in for bounty in the same manner.

During the mid-nineteenth century, influenced by Social Darwinism, English scientists peddled the theory that the Irish (and of course all people of color) had descended from apes only a few generations back, while the English were descendants of man who had been created by God in His image: Thus the English were ‘angels’ and the Irish (and other colonized peoples) were a lower species, what today US white supremacists call ‘mud people,’ products of the process of evolution.

White Supremacy and the US Origin Myth

It is easy to date genocidal white supremacy in the United States back to Andrew Jackson, but he only carried out the original plan, the final solution, against the indigenous farmers of the north American continent, first as an army general who led three genocidal wars against the Muskogees in Georgia/Florida, then as the most popular president ever and the expulsion of all Native peoples east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma Territory.

Although white supremacy was the working rationalization and ideology of English theft of Native American lands, and especially the justification for African slavery, the independence bid by what became the United States of America is more problematic, in that democracy/equality and supremacy/dominance/empire do not make an easy fit. It was during the 1820s, the era of ‘Jacksonian Democracy’that the unique white supremacist origin myth of the US was created, James Fennimore Cooper the initial scribe. James Fenimore Cooper’s re-invention of America in The Last of the Mohicans has become our official origin story. Herman Melville called Cooper ‘;our national novelist,’and of course he was the great hero of Walt Whitman who sang the song of manhood and the American super-race through empire. The origin myth have the frontier settlers replacing the native peoples, similar to the Afrikaner origin myth in South Africa.

Reconciling empire and liberty is an historic obsession of American political thinkers and historians. Thomas Jefferson had hailed America as an ’empire for liberty.’ Andrew Jackson coined the phrase, ‘extending the area of freedom’ to describe the annexation of Texas, and the term, ‘freedom,’itself became a euphemism for continental and world wide expansion. The contradictions, particularly since the rationalization for independence was anti-empire, are multiple. White supremacy is implied inall these triumphal projects.


White supremacy is inseparable from the content of the US origin story and the definition of patriotism in the US today. To the extent that African Americans, Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and immigrants are allowed (and are willing) to embrace and embody US patriotism-so defined–they may be accepted as conversos, as the Spanish Inquisition termed those who had forsaken their ‘filthiness’for ‘cleanliness of blood.’

Yet in the end, only the Old Settlers are true Americans–all others are guests in good times and intruders and scapegoats in bad times.

Selected Bibliography

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Claudio Sánchez Albornoz, España, un enimgma histórico (2 vols.). Buenos Aires, 1962.
Yitzhak Baer, History of the Jews in Christian Spain. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1966.
Américo Castro, Españo en su historia. Buenos Aires, 1948.
Américo Castro, The Structure of Spanish History. Princeton, 1954.
L. Perry Curtis, jr., (ed.) Apes and Angels. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1971.
Carl Degler, Out of Our Past. New York: Harper, 1959.
Wai-chee Dimock, Empire for Liberty: Melville and the Poetics of Individualism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Edward W. Said, Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. Introduction by Seamus Deane. A Field Day Company Book introduced by Seamus Deane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
George Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Stanley Greenberg, Race and State in Capitalist Development: Comparative Perspectives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975.
Robert W. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition. New York: New American Library, Inc., 1965.
Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1991.
Howard Lamar and Leonard Thompson (eds.), The Frontier in History: North American and Southern African Compared. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain. Vol. 1. New York, 1906; reprinted 1988.
William C. Lehmann, Scottish and Scotch-Irish Contributions to Early American Life and Culture. Port Washington NY: National University Publications, 1978
William C. MacLeod, “Celt and Indian: Britain’s Old World Frontier in Relation to the New,” in Beyond the Frontier, ed. Paul Bohannan and Fred Plog. New York: Natural History Press, 1967.
Dominic Manganiello, Joyce¹s Politics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.
Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.
Benzion Netanyahu, The Spanish Inquisition, New York, 1995.
David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso, 1991.
Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
Michael Paul Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.
David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Klaus Wagner, Regesto de documentos del Archivo de Protocolos de Sevilla referentes a judíos y moros. Seville, 1978.
William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is Professor of Ethnic and Women’s Studies at California State University, Hayward. She is the author of Red Dirt: Growing up Okie; Roots of Resistance: Land; Tenure in New Mexico, The Great Sioux Nation and Indians of the Americas.