Understanding contemporary white supremacy, part 2: How do we deal with this new form of an old phenomenon?

Our panel of scholars on what we get wrong about white supremacy, and whether persecuting racists does any good

Published June 18, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/John Bazemore)
(AP/John Bazemore)

Following the first installment of this series, where the historical origins of modern white supremacy were explored in depth, and a subsequent essay that examined the ways white supremacy has influenced mainstream American politics, here are three of the nation’s foremost scholars on white supremacy, discussing similar issues at length. This is the second half of our discussion; read the first section here.

Jeffrey Kaplan is associate professor of religion at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. His books include "Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements From the Far Right to the Children of Noah"; "Nation and Race: The Developing Euro-American Racist Subculture" (co-edited with Tore Bjørgo); and "The Emergence of a Euro-American Radical Right" (with Leonard Weinberg).

George J. Michael is associate professor in the criminal justice faculty at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. He is the author of "Confronting Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the USA"; "The Enemy of My Enemy: The Alarming Convergence of Militant Islam and the Extreme Right"; "Willis Carto and the American Far Right"; and "Theology of Hate: A History of the World Church of the Creator."

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Michael Barkun is professor emeritus of political science in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. His books include "A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America"; "Religion and the Racist Right:The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement"; and "Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11."

1. What do we do about white supremacy?

What is the sanest, most effective and most rational way to deal with white supremacy, from the point of view of both government and civil society — that is, if it’s a problem to deal with at all? Should white supremacists be left alone, particularly those like Posse Comitatus, whom we might think of more as tax-resisters than white nationalists? Is “hate” a useful concept to attack and pursue? Do you agree with the approach generally taken by the government in the last few decades, to outsource much of the work of identification to watchdog groups and to let them use any and all legal tactics to put white supremacist groups out of business?

Kaplan: This is a key question, and one over which I have spilled too much ink over the years. Long ago I wrote:

America has over the years dealt with oppositional subcultures in three ways. The most successful strategy is, in the present era, no longer much of an option. That is, we had plenty of land and few laws, so virtually any oppositional group, so long as they were reasonably circumspect, could go west and establish their own enclaves. America today has far less available land, and far more laws, and so this is hardly an option.

Second, the option of suppression has been remarkably unsuccessful. By driving a movement underground, we have found that we have increased its virulence without markedly lessening its appeal. In fact, it is the aura of the forbidden which most attracts young people to oppositional movements in the first place!  

[Third,] the protections of speech and action as embodied in the First Amendment to the American Constitution seemed to be a far more promising avenue than outlawing speech or nonviolent action.  

After the violent confrontations of the 1980s and 1990s, from the decidedly non-white supremacist Branch Davidians at Waco to the virulently racist Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA) and the battle against the Brüder Schweigen, or the Order as they were dubbed in the press, the American government stepped back from suppression and allowed a hundred flowers of racist criticism to bloom. They bloomed in the isolated shade of the internet and white power music, but they bloomed nonetheless.

In so doing, they allowed self-appointed watchdog groups like the Anti-Defamation League and Klanwatch to contribute to the effort. In the 1970s, the ADL was foisted on FBI field offices as credible sources. This did not prevent the FBI from conducting its own undercover investigations. The fruits of some of these have been brought to light by FOIA requests and many are archived on archive.org. With the violence of the 1980s, the FBI and local police departments increased their covert surveillance considerably, resulting in such tragedies as befell the Randy Weaver family at Ruby Ridge in 1992 — an action that ultimately made Randy Weaver both a martyr to the cause and more than $3 million richer after the civil suits that followed the deaths of his wife and son at the hands of the FBI.

Would a more active or confrontational approach have prevented the disaster that was the emergence of the alt-right or the national disaster that was the 2016 election? A question that will perhaps be pondered by historians and political scientists more eminent and far more wise than myself. I just don’t know …

Michael: The notion of hate can be problematic to regulate because of its subjectivity. Furthermore, the push for penalizing hate crimes and hate speech is very advocacy-driven. Much of the enforcement of speech codes and hate crime laws depends upon the influence of various special interest groups.  

The government’s use of monitoring (watchdog) groups has arguably been very effective in neutralizing the white nationalist movement in America. However, there are some serious civil liberties implications. The vast majority of people in this movement are not violent. Therefore, the measures taken against them have curtailed their First Amendment rights. Moreover, in recent years, a number of groups that are really not white nationalist or extreme right in orientation — for example, the Federation for American Immigration Reform — have been classified as “hate” groups. This stigmatization of conservative groups would seem to have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas.

Barkun: The question of how to deal with white supremacy is complex, because it involves not only the question of public and private responsibilities, but also the division of responsibilities among arms of the government. At the federal level, primary responsibility theoretically lies with the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. In DOJ, the FBI has been the principal vehicle for dealing with acts committed by white supremacists. It is important to bear in mind, however, that unlike many other developed countries the United States does not have “hate speech” laws. Indeed, the First Amendment, even as interpreted by the courts, offers great latitude in permitting speech acts that many regard as hateful and repugnant. Consequently, the obligations of the FBI insofar as white supremacists are concerned cover only behavior in violation of federal statutes. In that regard, the Bureau has been extremely successful, particularly in infiltrating violence-prone white supremacist organizations.  

Traditionally, the Bureau’s mandate was to catch perpetrators and collect evidence of crimes so that the DOJ’s prosecutors could bring them to court. After 9/11, that role was changed by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to include preventing terrorist acts before they occurred.  While Ashcroft’s concern was terrorism by Islamic militants, in theory the role change would also apply to acts committed by white supremacists. However, it is unclear whether actual FBI behavior toward white supremacists changed as a result of the Ashcroft policy.

The role of the DHS is harder to establish. In theory, the Department of Homeland Security should be just as concerned with violence committed by white supremacists as it is with Islamic terrorism. However, whenever the DHS has publicly discussed its concerns with right-wing extremists, including white supremacists, that has generated significant political problems. Conservative Republicans have charged the Department with having an anti-conservative or pro-liberal bias, even when it was clear that the DHS’ interest lay in groups and individuals far outside of conventional politics. Consequently, the Department no longer speaks publicly about any monitoring it may do of right-wing extremist activity.

There are a number of private "watchdog" organizations that systematically track white supremacist activity. The best-known are the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), both with significant and highly sophisticated research departments. (In the interests of honest labeling, I should say that I serve on the academic advisory board of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.) Much of the information on white supremacists known to the general public comes from these organizations’ websites. It is too much to say that the government has outsourced intelligence-gathering to them, since we do not know what the government itself has collected. Given the success of FBI penetration of violence-prone groups and the evidence the government has presented at trials, it is reasonable to assume that the federal government has substantial additional intelligence gleaned from wiretaps, informants and other sources that goes well beyond what is available to the watchdog organizations. The SPLC, in addition to substantial information-gathering, also has an active program of civil litigation directed against white supremacist groups. These lawsuits have forced a number of white supremacist groups to dissolve as a result of heavy court judgments.

Discussion of white supremacists often revolves around the idea of “hate.” While this has a certain validity for groups and individuals driven by an almost paranoiac hostility towards nonwhites and Jews, it is in some respects an unfortunate term. “Hate” is broad and consequently vague. One can hate all kinds of things, people and ideas that have nothing to do with race, prejudice, bigotry or any of the other matters connected with white supremacy. And of course there is the vexed issue of measurement. How does one measure hate? How much must a group hate to be a “hate group”? Unfortunately, however, hate has now been so thoroughly lodged in the vocabulary of the subject that it is unlikely to be removed, despite its weaknesses.

2. What do we get wrong about white supremacy?

What do people most misunderstand about white supremacy? Are there areas of culpability that the educated white middle or upper class is reluctant to admit? Do you think current fears of an organized worldwide neo-Nazi alliance are overblown or on target? Do you have some empathy for white supremacists, because of the structural organization of our society that might compel some of them to turn to racial prejudice? Which theoretical explanation of white supremacy do you find most convincing?

Kaplan: What people least understand about white supremacy is simply that they -- racists, bigots and white supremacists -- are but funhouse mirror reflections of the basest instincts that are inherent in us all. If the mind’s eye evokes images of black single mothers peering fearfully at deserted streets from peepholes in doorways or between the slats of boarded-up windows when Donald Trump invokes images of urban wastelands in Chicago or Detroit, you might have a touch of the malady. If a feeling of atavistic dread follows the same orator’s imagery of Mexican rapists and drug dealers pouring over the borders, of Muslims who harbor jihadi hatred in their hearts, you might have more than a touch of the disease. Does that make you a white supremacist?

In recent years I have come to live in Mitchell County, North Carolina, where black men were rounded up and placed on freight trains bound for anywhere outside the county in 1923 and where “nigger pines” (“trash wood that just ain’t no good for nothing”) are all but ubiquitous. It is a place where racism is theoretical as, save for a few Mexican workers and an execrable Chinese restaurant or two, most communities lack convenient targets for racist invective. The county in the most recent census in 2015 was recorded as 96.5 percent white, up 0.02 percent from 2010. In 2016, Donald Trump swept the county with 6,225 votes, or 78.3 percent of the vote. Are Mitchell County residents white supremacists?

It is sometimes too easy in the heat of rhetorical battle to overlook the difference between the denizens of the cultic milieu and those who people the mainstream shores. White supremacists, driven by racial animus and what are frankly rather dubious claims of racial superiority, given the experience of years of fieldwork among their number, are these days few and rather thin on the ground. White supremacy is not just a feeling or instinct, it is a lifestyle that governs every aspect of one’s life — associations and what few friends can be found, conversations with families who prefer you don’t attend public functions in their company, reading material and, God help us all, blogs and internet postings. Few of us have the energy, drive or pure fanaticism to keep up the role. It is not for nothing that the white supremacist groups still surviving in America are more virtual than real.

Is there an organized neo-Nazi conspiracy out there somewhere? Organized? Years ago a good friend and longtime observer of the scene gifted me with a photograph of three robed Klansmen proudly displaying a purloined room-sized banner from the Anti-Defamation League between them. The one on the left turned out to be a paid informant for the ADL. The one on the right was a coerced informant for the FBI. The one in the middle was a genuine white supremacist who, faced with federal charges and betrayal on every side, made a messy exit from the scene via the barrel of his own shotgun. Such are organized conspiracies from this quarter in the United States.

All this said, I do have empathy for the white supremacists in our number. I published something about this and it was, to my surprise, quite well received in the field: “Far from monsters, these strange and isolated people seemed, if anything, to feel too much and understand too little. In their words and deeds they harmed mainly themselves and their families.”

They were too easily co-opted by the alt-right, by the Trump campaign and, in the greatest of all ironies, by the Russians as well. Such are the dangers of acting on feelings over rational thought. Some of their ideas, virulent racism and conspiratorial fantasies have been mined, mainstreamed and reissued as the alt-right. But they are not of the alt-right. They are not invited to their parties and are unwelcome in their forums and chatrooms. White supremacists are the embarrassing old uncles in an upstairs room that go unmentioned by visitors or other family members. As with the new mediagenic leaders of European populist parties, their names are no more invoked than those of the founders of the explicitly National Socialist party pioneers.

Is there a theory that explains white supremacy, racism or any other negative impulse that, following James Billington, lights a fire in the minds of men? If there is, I know not of it. As an historian, I can but fall back on the words of Omar Khayyám:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Michael: From what I can infer, most white Americans do not identify as “white supremacists.” Nevertheless, especially for older Americans, white has traditionally been seen as kind of the default or natural identity of Americans. As far as the culpability of educated and upper-class whites in white supremacy, I think they have contributed to racial segregation in America with their residential choices. Although most of them I’m almost sure would find the notion of white racism abhorrent, there is strong evidence that they self-segregate. (See the research of Daniel Lichter, who found that people in these metropolitan areas still usually live in neighborhoods that are either mostly white or mostly black.)   

One misconception of the white nationalist movement is that its strength and influence seem to be overstated. For many years, the movement has been stigmatized and marginalized, facing strong opposition from the federal government, monitoring groups and the media. Until recently, the movement has been virtually locked out of the marketplace of ideas.

At the present time, an organized white nationalist movement is still weak, though it seems to be making progress due to the revolution in communications and the similarity of conditions in Western nations (for example, low native birth rates, immigration from the Third World).

There are some structural changes in American society that I believe have contributed to the rise of white nationalism. Urbanization has brought people from different races and ethnicities into greater contact, often in competition for jobs, housing and mates. And there is evidence that suggests that race relations are getting worse in America (see for example, a 2016 Washington Post-ABC poll).

What could ultimately be crucial is the role of leading opinion makers in America. Unfortunately, many voices in the media and academia have advanced a narrative that whites are incorrigibly racist as evidenced by the growing currency of “white privilege” in American discourse. Arguably, this has instilled a heightened sense of grievance in both whites who feel unjustifiably maligned and nonwhites who feel victimized by endemic white racism.

Barkun: I began to study this material longer ago than I care to admit, starting in the late 1980s. The country has changed in ways that have impacted both white supremacists and the ways in which they are perceived.

Three of these changes strike me as particularly important: changes in immigration policy, changes brought about by globalization, and the end of the Cold War. The 1965 legislation that loosened immigration restrictions really began to produce changes in the 1980s and ’90s, with a large influx from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, along with a steady stream from Latin America. What was striking about these so-called “new immigrants” is that many did not remain in seaport and border cities but eventually settled in smaller communities in the center of the country, places that had never before had significant non-Western populations.

The second change — globalization — produced rapid economic changes, including factory closings, outsourcing of jobs and complex supply chains with parts manufactured elsewhere for assembly in the United States. Inevitably, jobs were lost, and some regions prospered, while others languished. Economic decisions appeared to be made mysteriously in distant places, with little concern for their human consequences.

The third change — the end of the Cold War — suddenly upended the picture of the world that most Americans had held from the late 1940s until the early 1990s, sharply divided between “the free world” and what Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire.” While sometimes frightening, this conception was also reassuring, because it was simple, orderly and predictable. Suddenly, it disappeared and was replaced by a chaotic and inexplicable world with conflict in places many Americans had never heard of: Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan.

What were the consequences of these changes? First, they stoked the fires of xenophobia, as had previous waves of immigration. And it was easy for some to go from fear and hatred of those who were strange and foreign, to glorification of one’s own group. Second, globalization and the end of the Cold War together made what was once a clear and orderly world seem random and uncontrollable. That sent some people in search of simple answers to questions about who was behind these strange forces that seemed to have turned their world upside down. The most compelling answers were usually conspiracy theories, identifying some hidden “they” who had their hands on the levers that manipulated people’s lives. “They” often took the form of imagined racial enemies, with an agenda that included subordinating whites.

White supremacist groups have proliferated under these conditions, although despite their proliferation, there is no evidence of a global neo-Nazi alliance among them. My fears, rather, center on a point made earlier, that elements of their thinking now have the potential of insinuating themselves into mainstream culture. As the 2016 presidential campaign demonstrated, xenophobic rhetoric and conspiracy thinking could now be more openly expressed. The alt-right came close to having a public role, even though the open expression of white supremacist views is still forbidden. If this is the shape of things to come, then the problem is not one of the number of “hate groups” but of access and of the possibility that ideas once sequestered in the fringe will begin to shape larger public attitudes.

Seeking to explain the phenomenon of white supremacists is a task that will not yield to some simple master-explanation. This is so because the phenomenon is not simple and unitary. Racists may share a belief in the supremacy of whites or (and this is not quite the same thing) the inferiority of others, but beyond that they may differ on many other matters. They may or may not also be hostile to Jews, Catholics, Muslims or Masons. They may group themselves around a charismatic leader or they may nurture their resentments in private. They may express hatred in oratory and blogposts or they may stockpile guns and bombs in expectation of an apocalyptic battle, or they may do both. They may come from impoverished groups left behind by closed factories and foreclosed farms, or they may have benefited from upper-middle-class childhoods and Ivy League educations.   

In short, the variations in backgrounds and behavior are so great that from a theoretical standpoint, a single explanatory framework is unlikely to cover them all. Frustrating though it is, there are likely to be multiple explanations for what is in fact a constellation of behaviors that we group, for convenience, under the rubric of “white supremacy.”

By Anis Shivani