What is "white supremacy"? A brief history of a term, and a movement, that continues to haunt America

First in a series: The term gets thrown around carelessly, but the history of this ideology is long and tangled

Published April 23, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

A member of the Ku Klux Klan in Hampton Bays, New York on November 22, 2016   (Getty/William Edwards)
A member of the Ku Klux Klan in Hampton Bays, New York on November 22, 2016 (Getty/William Edwards)

We must secure the existence of our people and the future of White children. — David Lane’s 14-word creed.

Hardly any concept is thrown around as carelessly these days as “white supremacy.” It has become the go-to term of condemnation, applied as loosely as "fascism," with similar ramifications in terms of lack of clarity. Are all white supremacists separatists, and are all separatists supremacists? Is anti-Semitism (and, more recently, Islamophobia) always a part of white supremacy? Are white supremacists interested in combating government or taking it over for their own ends? Are all white supremacists violent, or do some value peaceful means of attaining their aims? Are all white supremacists even Christians? If they’re not, then how does religious diversity accommodate the overall principles of white supremacy?

Getting a grip on the real meaning of white supremacy allows us to be clear about essential questions of behavior and policy. To what extent has white supremacy infiltrated mainstream political parties and actors, and how might this back-and-forth influence be addressed? What is the general set of beliefs under which white supremacy operates, and have those beliefs changed over time or remained constant? What is the actual power and strength of white supremacy, and are groups of people entering or exiting the movement in ways we can measure and understand? Finally, if we’re clear about the meaning of white supremacy, we can then legitimately ask how white supremacy is or is not a product of the values we all share, regardless of our stated opposition to this ideology.

Short of these clarifications, white supremacy (like the term “hate”) simply becomes an abstraction that perpetuates the very dynamics of injustice and tyranny that progressives claim to abhor. If we define the concept too broadly, then the attack on all of our civil liberties is likely to be too great. If we define the concept too narrowly, then we absolve liberal institutions for their responsibility.

White supremacy is and always has been in a deep symbiotic relationship with our structures of government, and with our theoretical beliefs going back to the American Revolution and even before. Both sides — the supremacists and their opponents — seem to need each other in equal measure in order for the tense dynamic to continue playing out. If white supremacy is truly the threat it’s made out to be, if it really poses a revolutionary challenge to the foundations of the existing order, then we cannot at the same time pursue ambiguous or half-hearted measures, such as delegating surveillance functions to watchdog groups that may have their own private interests in mind. If white supremacy is as rampant as liberal analysis currently makes it out to be, then how is it that white supremacists continue to feel embattled and victimized, excluded from permitted discourse in the way of pariahs and outlaws? To what extent does liberalism itself turn white supremacists into heroes?

In future essays I will take on in detail some central issues, such as the extent to which mainstream American political parties have borrowed from and adapted to white supremacy and continue to do so, the degree to which stylistically and substantively the "alt-right" movement differs from the known content of white supremacy throughout its 20th-century struggle with modernity, and the most effective and ethical ways to handle white supremacy as a polity committed to tolerance and freedom of discourse. For now, I’m interested in setting the stage for later discussion by highlighting what seem to me some of the least understood dimensions of white supremacy in America today.

The continuities go back to our very origins

White supremacy obviously means the belief that the white race is unambiguously superior, so we must be careful in leveling the charge because most people who are called that don’t fit the definition. It is a difficult ideal to live up to. Once the protagonist defines what the “white race” is, then a set of inescapable dilemmas follow from that: What to do about the necessarily inferior races that the white race is set against? Should there be cohabitation or separation, and what degree of rights should be extended to nonwhites, both in the white homelands and in the native countries of nonwhites already living separately? Does the white race believe in a religion or political ideology that is universalistic, and if so how can the inferior races be accommodated while being philosophically consistent? Is the white race obligated to exterminate other races as the eventual goal?

Defining what is white is not so easy as it might seem at first glance. In the age of Enlightenment, as the American republic was being founded, there was a lot of struggle with the definition, as both racist ideologues and liberal universalists parried back and forth with different classifications. Races were categorized in both America and Europe with an eye to delineating Aryanism and its origins. What exactly were the differences between Teutons, Anglo-Saxons, Celts and other identifiably white people, and did they all originate in the Caucasus? What happens to the white race in the context of intermarriage? Does it become stronger, by assimilating the inferior race, or weaker, by diluting the gene pool?

One of the earliest manifestations of white supremacism in this country, to which all later manifestations harken back in some way, was the Anti-Masonic Movement of the early 19th century. The Illuminati (adopting the vehicle of the Masons) were seen to be instigating forms of elitism that deprived the common white people of economic power. This crisis of suspicion and anxiety was to end in the renewal and reshaping of the American party system, with Andrew Jackson as our first populist president, but the yearning to purge the body politic of polluting elements became a constant. The Anti-Masonic Movement wasn’t just an economic struggle, it had an indispensable racial component as well (targeting Jews and Catholics), as has been true of supremacist movements since then.

White attitudes toward blacks, in terms of institutionalizing slavery, were not always as rigid as they became during the course of the 19th century in America. When the colonies were first being settled, blacks were closer in status to white indentured servants. However, as the Enlightenment went on in subsequent centuries, categorization of the races became a central taxonomic venture, and this in due course had its effect in sharpening racial attitudes. The discourse about the black race (and to a lesser extent Native Americans) hardened during the 19th century. At the onset of the last big wave of imperialism at the end of the 19th century, fantastic new theories about the Aryan race and its others started proliferating throughout Europe and America.

Just how special is the "Aryan race," and why does it have to be so?

Imperialism is difficult to justify without assertions of racial supremacy. So whenever we encounter an upsurge of white supremacy, we are probably also dealing with the natural consequences of imperialism. In Germany in the late 19th century, all sorts of mythologies of Aryan superiority manifested in music, fiction, philosophy and the arts, often expressed in an occult manner. The music of Richard Wagner is said to have reflected this, just as in a debased way contemporary Black Metal articulates its own aesthetic of supremacy. German theorists in the early 20th century found a lot of affinity with the caste system in India, with its occupational stratification according to skin color, and many scholars suggested that the original colonizers of India were the same Aryan race that over time had become diluted to near-blackness. It was this tragic fate, following miscegenation, that German thinkers were keen to avoid for the present era.

In America too, with the onset of the Spanish-American War and other imperial ventures, a scientific racism, using and abusing Darwin’s ideas, began to flourish. The coming of Adolf Hitler, in the midst of the rising popularity of eugenics and other pseudo-sciences, could not have been more timely for American racists who saw him as the avatar to fight the dark age. Various Hitler-worshipping groups formed in the 1930s, such as the German American Bund, but under pressure of wartime censorship and patriotism they didn’t last.

In Europe, meanwhile, with the coming to power of the Nazi regime, ever more fantastic interpretations of Ariosophy proliferated. Savitri Devi (real name Maximiani Portas) lived in India, married a famous Indian yogic teacher and synthesized, like so many esoteric scholars of her time, whatever myths of racial superiority she could find in the Orient with the homegrown Teutonic versions. Sometimes these myths posed the Hyperborean origin of Aryans, sometimes they suggested that the Aryans came from the three sunken continents (one being Atlantis), and sometimes they suggested the race’s extraterrestrial genesis. Later in the century, the Chilean diplomat and author Miguel Serrano continued Devi’s speculations in his many books, speculating that the Nazis continue living underneath Antarctica, and heavily implicating UFOs in the fate of the Aryan race.

When George H. W. Bush pronounced the inauguration of the New World Order in the wake of the first Gulf War in 1991, he kick-started the most prominent white supremacist group of the 1990s, the militia movement, with its links to various strains of American white supremacy, from Christian Identity to Posse Comitatus — although the militia movement (which is more aptly called the Patriot movement) cannot be reduced to any of these. Just as the founding of the various American Nazi movements in the 1950s was deeply connected to the onset of the national security state in the wake of the cold war, the various movements that burgeoned in the 1990s are inextricably linked to the forms of imperialism typical of the post-Cold War era. The gains that liberal humanism perceives are often insuperable losses for white supremacists.

Who are the founding fathers and do they still matter?

It was only after the end of World War II, when McCarthyism reigned strong and the world became sharply divided between the capitalist and communist camps, that the founders of the American white supremacist movement of the second half of the 20th century came into their own, among whom we may count the following luminaries.

Francis Parker Yockey, who worked as an attorney at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, grew disenchanted with American attitudes toward Europe, and wrote what supremacists to this day consider a magisterial tome. He wrote "Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics," a 600-plus page Spenglerian analysis of race decline as caused by the “culture-disrupters” (the Jews), in 1947 in Ireland, allegedly in six months. Yockey committed suicide when he was arrested for passport violations in 1960, but not before meeting Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby (terminated 2001), in jail, and authorizing Carto to publish "Imperium."

Carto was a central intellectual figure in the white supremacist movement, publishing the influential journal Right and then Spotlight, and also founding the Institute for Historical Review, which until 2002 published the Journal of Historical Review, the leading journal of Holocaust revisionism.

Carto was inspired by George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party and a strong presence in the early 1960s, who was mysteriously assassinated in 1967. He was seen as the next Führer, and articulated as much in his book "White Power." Also in the early 1960s, the Minutemen, a forerunner of the 1990s militia movement, had their heyday under Robert Bolivar dePugh. Meanwhile, the John Birch Society (JBS) remained strong, although it had an increasingly antagonistic relationship with mainstream conservatism, with William F. Buckley of National Review excommunicating Robert Welch, the JBS’ founder, for being too extremist. Unlike, say, the American Nazi Party, the JBS did not seem invested in overt anti-Semitism, but Buckley and other conservatives found it too unsavory nonetheless.

Certainly, for establishment conservatives someone like Richard Butler, founder of Aryan Nations, was entirely outside the pale, with a message of unabashed anti-Semitism and a strong desire to reclaim the American homeland for whites, with either repatriation or extermination awaiting nonwhites. The headquarters of Aryan Nations, the fabled Hayden, Idaho, compound, was a nexus for many strains of white supremacy during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Often at conclaves scattered around the Mountain West, different supremacist groups would come together to discuss strategy, particularly in the wake of government action leading to arrest or death. It was at one of these conferences that the idea of “leaderless resistance” took hold in the early 1990s, because it was felt that any central organization would be easily infiltrated and neutralized by government, as indeed was the case.  

Finally, if anyone can be considered an imaginative inspiration to white supremacists, it would have to be William L. Pierce, whose 1978 novel "The Turner Diaries" (and his later book "Hunter"), inspired many militants, such as Timothy McVeigh, to commit acts of violence against what they considered the illegitimate government. Not surprisingly, when the leading Black Metal record label was in trouble, because of government action, it was Pierce who took it over as Resistance Records, which continues to this day despite Pierce’s death in 2002. 

The social status of the founders and the followers

A number of these founders were well-educated, and worked in the industries associated with the rising military-industrial complex — Richard Butler was an aerospace engineer and Ben Klassen, founder of Church of the Creator, was an electrical engineer — and there was always a love-hate relationship with the conservative establishment. As mentioned, Buckley’s National Review took issue with the JBS, and with others as well when particular groups were seen to have crossed the line.

Yet we may conceive of white supremacy, as it has always been practiced in this country, as merely the exaggerated form of our official creed, and think of all the meanings this implies for social status. Obviously the libertarian dimension is highly pronounced in the Posse Comitatus and Patriot movements, but this draws on the suspicion of government in all its larger manifestations, from the Federal Reserve Bank to the IRS, that is a staple of more acceptable conservative thinking. The John Birch movement arose in response to McCarthyism (calling Eisenhower himself a tool of the communists), just as the Patriot movement of the 1990s arose in a dynamic relationship with post-Cold War globalization and the new forms of war that went with it.

If war inspired by illegitimate government was a collective endeavor, then how was the patriotic American to preserve individual liberty? How could the true American patriot’s existing social status be leveraged? It is not always a question of perceived inferiority, or status anxiety, and it would be a mistake to reduce white supremacy to those terms.

The social status of white supremacists has always been subject to interpretation. The same has recently been asked of Trump’s supporters: Were they dispossessed voters trying to reclaim lost economic and social rights, or were they privileged voters seeking to disbar others from gaining equality?

What we learn from history is that no easy generalizations are possible; white supremacism is pervasive to the extent that it can’t be isolated as a phenomenon. Some of the most intellectually respectable among our founding fathers were supremacists, as were many establishment scientists and philosophers in the 19th century. The second-era Ku Klux Klan, which at its peak in the 1920s could boast millions of adherents and real control over policy, had legions of followers in the middle and even aristocratic classes. The JBS attracted solid bourgeois citizens, with the stage set by McCarthyism, while the third-era KKK of the 1970s easily transformed, for the most part, into respectable White Citizens’ Councils (now the Council of Conservative Citizens) which bridged the gap with establishment Republicans in the wake of the George Wallace candidacy.

More recently, the Posse Comitatus, which believes in government at the county level and nothing beyond that, and which provoked great irritation during the farm crisis of the Reagan years by filing fictitious liens against IRS agents and other officials, drew sympathy from tax resisters and dissidents of every class. Even the Patriot movement of the 1990s drew from a wide mix of the population, from alienated veterans (such as Timothy McVeigh) to dispossessed workers in the industrial and agricultural heartland (the Michigan and Montana militias were among the strongest) to those with exaggerated fears of globalization. The differences in social status between followers of Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, William Pierce and now Donald Trump are simply not as clear-cut as we would like to believe.

Are they all Christians?

White supremacy is naturally attracted to versions of Christianity that reinforce the race narrative. The most extreme manifestation of this is the religion known as Christian Identity, which was popular among the different strains of extremists in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Likewise, various Nordic religions — going by the names of Odinism, Asatru and Wotansvolk in America — put the Aryan race at the center of the world, though they may often just be separatist and not inclined to violence.

Christian Identity grew from British Israelism (or Anglo-Israelism) of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This theology posited more than one seed of humankind, which seems to be another constant of racist thinking throughout the ages -- seeing mankind as divided rather than a single species, the easier to set superior races against inferior ones. Adam and Eve are believed to be the forerunners of the white race, but Eve was seduced by the serpent to create the Jews — hence, the two-seed theory, meaning that the so-called “mud races” are fundamentally different from the progeny of Adam and Eve.

Christian Identity believes that the lost tribes of Israel are in fact the settlers of Britain and the Nordic countries, from where they went to America. Jesus was not a Jew but an Aryan, and it is one of the great calumnies of the Jews to claim him as one of their own. In America, Wesley Swift was a leading originator of this theology in the mid-20th century, from whom, via the Church of Jesus Christ, Christian, it was transmitted to Richard Butler of the Aryan Nations, turning Hayden, Idaho, into the center of this theology. As is usually the case with white supremacist circles, this led to close interchange and dissemination of Identity beliefs in various branches of the movement.

While it is true that Christian Identity despises Christianity for its weakness in allowing interracial mingling, and in cohabiting with the mud races whose only aim is to end the purity of the white race, the same disdain toward Christianity is also true of the neo-pagan Teuton religions, who look back to the Nazi regime for validation of the material success of their theology. The true religion of Aryans is said to be their ancestral one, rather than the imposition of enervating Christianity, and a plethora of mystical rites — using runes and symbols — reinforce separatist neo-pagan theology. There may be a question about the extent to which Odinists are supremacists — some in the Asatru religion believe that not only northern Europeans but all white people can claim paganism as their true religion — but there is little question about Odinism’s separatism.

In both Christian Identity circles (influencing in turn the Patriot movement) and among Odinists, the Pacific Northwest is often seen as the starting point for a regained homeland where neo-paganism can be practiced freely. Again, this theology returns the ordinary white person to the center of the moral universe, endowing him with an ingrained and undefeatable aristocracy. David and Katja Lane, and later their friend Ron McVan, ran the 14 Words Press to propagate Odinism. David continued his mission from jail, where he spent 22 years before his death in 2007 for his early 1980s militant role with the Brüder Schweigen — or Silent Order, or to insiders simply the Order.

Finally, it would be remiss not to return to the aforementioned Ben Klassen, founder of the World Church of the Creator (COTC), or Creativity, which was taken over by Matt Hale after Klassen’s suicide in 1993. Klassen’s many writings propagate a religion that verges on the naturist, advocating a macrobiotic diet (true of many incarnations of white supremacy) and a relationship to the environment that borrows something from the leftist version of it that we know better.

The grand narrative of contemporary white supremacy

In the broadest sense, white supremacy is a populist movement. The conspiracy for leftists is an elite-driven globalization that creates inequality and makes minorities and poor people suffer inordinately, whereas the conspiracy for white supremacists today is the New World Order that operates through a centuries-old chain of international bankers and is determined to end the purity of the white race. The logic in each instance -- the conspiracy on the left and the right -- is parallel, and leads to similar resentment of elites, who have access to special knowledge not available to the ordinary person. On the extreme right it is a mythology of battle and leverage, of heroism and valor, of Robin Hoods and dark cabals, of the Illuminati and Freemasons, of the heartland American values of liberty and individualism under assault by a globalist conspiracy to introduce monotony and conformism. In a way, the grand narrative is simply a much exaggerated version of yeoman values such as a founding father like Jefferson would have advocated.

As the reality of the industrialized economy throughout the 20th century eroded the possibility of independent freeholding such as was possible during 19th-century America and earlier, the grand narrative became more and more powerful in shaping imaginations. We can hardly claim that the emphasis on race is an innovation, because this was a constant throughout our history of oppression of Native Americans (were the Mathers and other New England luminaries of the 17th century any less racist than those we wish to condemn to perdition today?), African-American slaves, and then Catholic and Asian immigrants, except that each of America’s entanglements in foreign wars has provided increasing depth and circumstantial providence to the grand narrative.

I find it not coincidental that the KKK’s great rebirth came in the 1920s, after we had “won” World War I, and that the peak of Bircherism occurred in the 1950s, soon after we claimed victory in World War II. Each major war is seen to have been brought about by international conspiracy, leading to the progressive diminishment of the rights of white Americans. It is perhaps easier to condemn a government that has been taken over by a secret cabal (as set out in the influential "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which were vigorously disseminated by Henry Ford, the leading founder of American industrialization, and which have in turn shaped the conspiratorial view of the Zionist Occupation Government, or ZOG, followed by those caught up in industrial decline) than to condemn our whole system of government, because to do the latter is to leave no way out, whereas to believe in a conspiracy is to set oneself up as a hero with a shot at salvation.

Are they just patriots in a besieged homeland?

Gordon Kahl, a member of the Posse Comitatus, became one of the leading martyrs of the white supremacist movement in the late 20th century, when he was killed in a fiery shootout in 1983. The Posse Comitatus, as noted earlier, does not recognize any jurisdiction larger than the county, and wishes to disobey federal functions such as taxation, banking, currency and all forms of regulation. The Posse is separatist, but not necessarily supremacist. It was during the farm crisis engendered by Ronald Reagan’s monetarist policies in the early 1980s that the Posse took off. Kahl refused to pay his taxes (for income of less than $10,000) time and time again, eventually leading to a bloody confrontation, despite the doubts of certain local officials in going after him. It’s possible to think of the Posse as an extremist manifestation of tax-resistance.

Robert Jay Mathews is probably the best-known martyr in the white supremacist pantheon. Allied with Aryan Nations, he decided to take matters to the next level by embarking on a revolutionary strategy of armed robberies and assassination of selected targets (such as Denver Nazi-baiting radio host Alan Berg, whom Mathews and his allies succeeded in killing). Caught after a major robbery of an armored car, Mathews met the same fate as Kahl, dying in a fiery shootout. Later, in the 1990s, the two most famous heroes of martyrology were Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and David Koresh at Waco, Texas, their families and supporters confronting extended standoffs ending in death.

I will take up the patterns of FBI dealings with white supremacists later, but we should note that the Posse Comitatus and the Patriot movement took hold in the midst of extreme economic crisis in the American Midwest. A sense of too much change (such as the urbanization and industrialization of the 1920s, or the reverse tendency of post-industrialization in the 1990s) brings out the white supremacist demons, but when there is an acute feeling of economic depression, as was the case during the 1980s and early 1990s, then the grand narrative becomes all the more important to explain why there aren’t enough jobs and why certain distant people seem to hold all the economic power. In this narrative, affirmative action is a form of reverse discrimination against whites, aimed at the core philosophy of individualism, and the economic crisis faced by white Americans is just a stepping stone to their extermination.

Concluding thoughts about problems of definition

Given the diversity of thought and strategy, is "white supremacy" still a useful term? Should we think about abandoning it altogether? Likewise, when it comes to “hate” (as in hate speech or hate crimes), is that even a valid concept, if we consider that the white supremacist grand narrative fundamentally rests on accusations of hate coming their own way? Does hate become a transmitter belt, in other words, where traffic between liberal opposition groups and white supremacist groups becomes increasingly abstract, strengthening both sides in equal measure?

More importantly, how can the various legacies of white supremacy be separated from populism, something to which liberals don’t have as much aversion? If we claim to be principled opponents of white supremacy, then what about the liberal universalist manifestations of white supremacy well into the 21st century, by way of our continuing wars (of compassion and liberation)?

Could it be that white supremacy, as I have described its substance here, actually ended for the most part around the turn of the millennium? Was the 1990s Patriot movement its last gasp? We know that the KKK was already in severe decline from the 1970s to the 1990s, with quite anemic membership, and we also know that the number of adherents of the various white supremacist movements discussed here, from Aryan Nations to the American Nazi Party and its successors, was minuscule in comparison to the overall population. But could it be that, with the death of many of the founders of the postwar white supremacist movement in the 1990s and early 2000s, white supremacy, of the kind that was rooted in 20th-century philosophies, has actually ended?

Certainly, white supremacy in some form continues, otherwise we wouldn’t have President Donald Trump. But is the heavily internet-reliant alt-right movement a continuation of the 20th century’s white supremacy movement, or a new thing altogether?

The intellectual leaders of white supremacy were very keen on computer technology and other means of mass communication. They were early users of computer bulletin boards in the 1980s. Their entire movement can be said to have been tract or pamphlet-based from the 1950s to the 1990s. They were good at getting the word out through videos, public-access cable shows and radio shows, and they were excited by the advent of the internet. But could it be that the internet has actually killed white supremacy?

Instead of separating themselves from society and dreaming of a white homeland in the Northwest, and eventually cleansing the rest of the country, and instead of mobilizing in discrete physical groups defined by leaderless resistance and coming up with creative strategies to fight the enemy ZOG — tactics borrowed from the more extreme manifestations of the New Left that the white supremacists adapted to great ability in the 1970s, 1980s and on into the 1990s — are white supremacists now irreparably fractured by living out a virtual fantasy life on the internet rather than adopting physical separation?

I suspect this is a strong possibility, and that a number of changes, particularly in the wake of 9/11, ended 20th-century white supremacy in fundamental ways, so that to continue to chase that particular enemy may be to fight a phantom war. It’s also interesting to note what happened to the neo-paganists, who seemed to be the wave of the future about 20 years ago, but whose presence does not seem to be palpable in the culture to the extent we might expect, given their esoteric appeal. Recent fears of a worldwide neo-Nazi “alliance” likewise seem to me to be overblown.

Where white supremacy is helpful is in understanding systems of thought that otherwise seem random or incoherent. If we consider the white supremacy grand narrative, then someone like Ron Paul makes a lot more sense as a white supremacist than a libertarian. This explains his animus against the Federal Reserve or the IRS, against globalization and immigration, and against various powers of the federal government that have become enshrined over the course of the 20th century. Paul, Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan throughout the 1990s, and Donald Trump today, articulate positions that foreign policy analysts describe as “isolationist” or “protectionist” but are more correctly understood as assertions of white supremacy, as ways to protect the purity of the white race against the encroachments of global multiculturalism (which dilutes the white gene pool) and against the entanglements of foreign adventures seen as emanating from the ZOG conspiracy.

Government is occupied, in the grand sense, in all white supremacist thinking; many who come across as merely “loving” the white race, as the new protocol has it, and claim not to be supremacist in the sense of “hating” other races (former Louisiana Klansman David Duke follows this template), are bent on taking government back from the forces that are set on exterminating the white race. Many who believe in Aryans as the “chosen race” desire an imminent racial holy war (RaHoWa), a term first popularized by Ben Klassen, and in some of the people who have lately taken power at the highest levels we can detect this urge. And yet there are those who do not have political power and would be labeled as supremacists, who would claim their source of inspiration as the libertarian impulse in the American revolution.

By Anis Shivani