by Lee Bebout and Kenneth Ladenburg
In the days after violence erupted at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” protest, many Americans responded with shock and horror. Some expressed that they had always imagined hate groups to be “small in numbers with limited power,” but with President Trump’s statement that there were “some very fine people on both sides,” they worried about the mainstream support of white supremacists. At the same time, many of the “Alt-Right” activists were identified through photographs taken at the event and interviewed by the media. When questioned, a formerly torch-wielding protester named Jerrod Kuhn denied his white supremacist bona fides, telling a local paper, “I’m not a neo-Nazi. I don’t belong to a German workers’ party from 1933… I’m a moderate Republican.” At first glance, these responses appear oppositional: one acknowledges the power of white supremacist extremism, and the other denies it by claiming political moderation. While it would be a mistake to take the protester’s comment solely at face value, both responses reveal what Jane Hill has described as the “folk theory” of racism. Namely, many white Americans imagine racism as extreme and aberrant.
These responses gesture to the common belief among Americans that contemporary racism exists only on the fringes of society, when, in fact, it exists as a fundamental aspect of our country’s social and political fabric. Moreover, rejecting white supremacy as extreme allows racism to be embraced through colorblind language and policies:
- When schools are forced to desegregate, school choice initiatives allow for parents to resegregate their children under the guise of education and freedom of choice.
- When athletes protest police violence against people of color, their protest is recast as against the military, the flag, and the nation.
- When President Trump stated that there were “very fine people on both sides,” his lie sought to position himself as reasonable and neutral without losing the support of his Alt-Right base.
In the wake of Charlottesville, it would be a mistake to confuse white supremacy with a few hundred khaki-clad and torch-wielding protestors. They may be living embodiments of what many imagine white supremacy to be, but white supremacy finds fertile soil across the nation. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that while far right hate groups have little support in the U.S. (4%), many Americans hold the same beliefs and attitudes as those groups: the belief that whites are under attack (14%), that the U.S. must protect its white European heritage (31%), and that Confederate monuments should remain in the public square (57%).
As the philosopher Charles Mills and other scholars have argued, white supremacy must be understood as a political system, one that is marked by an ideology, discourse, and a set of social practices. As a political system, white supremacy exists on the fringes—in the shadows and in the world of internet forums. But white supremacy also stretches, touches, and impacts the lives of all people in the United States. As such, antiracist scholars and activists must continue to resist the false binary of racist extremism and the political mainstream.
Communication scholar Adam Klein demonstrates that white supremacist activists are aware of this perceived dichotomy and they engage in “information laundering.” That is, avowed white supremacists know they sound extreme so they soften their discourse to propel it into mainstream media channels. However, the inverse is also true. Mainstream media and political figures regularly give cover to hate groups as they express some of the same values and ideas with more coded or polite language. Moreover, through explicitly rejecting or ignoring explicit white supremacy, these figures position themselves as the mainstream.
Take Bill O’Reilly. He feigns a rejection of white supremacy in one breath. In the next he says things like “the left wants power taken away from the white establishment and they want a profound change in the way America is run.” Here we need not ask where the “Unite the Right” protesters came from, but why they felt so comfortable asserting their views openly and without hoods.
Trump’s status as the leading presidential candidate of a major political party give legitimacy to white supremacist ideology. Indeed, many of his re-tweets come from “white supremacist sympathizers.”
Critically, the naming and branding of the “Alt-Right” actually gets to the heart of this. White supremacist activists often reject openly claiming a white supremacist identity, and “white nationalism” has become a softer way of naming many of the same people and ideas. Richard Spencer took this a step further in creating the term the “Alt-Right” as a way of positioning a particularly virulent strain white supremacy and antifeminism as a normalized component of U.S. political culture. Without serious scrutiny, “Alt-Right” normalizes fascists as a political constituency no different from other groups.
Recognizing that those coded as “extreme” and “mainstream” are united by similar values and rhetorical practices allows us to see the rise of the Golden Dawn in Greece or the ascendancy of the Alt-Right in the United States not as historical outliers but as somewhat predictable expressions of a social and political system. The Golden Dawn, which ascended to become the third most powerful political party in Greece in 2012, ran on a political platform that foregrounded nationalism and anti-immigration. However, this “mainstream” political platform belies the Golden Dawn’s ideological ties to the Nazi party, which are apparent when considering the rhetorical positioning of their elected officers and party members. Given the success of the Golden Dawn in using Nazi ideology to gain legitimate political power in Greece, it comes as no surprise that groups following the same ideology in the United States would look to them as an example. In fact, during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Matthew Heimbach, who gained notoriety in the racist movement after his organization of a White Student Union at Townsend University, noted that the Golden Dawn served as an organizational example for the white nationalist movement in the United States.
Of course, white supremacy has long existed in the United States as an entrenched political system and has perpetuated itself through the fallacious mainstream/extreme binary. The Citizens’ Council, an organization of loosely connected activist groups originating in Mississippi as a response to the Brown v Board ruling, held many of the same ideological tenets as the Klan, but only advocated legal methods of resistance. While the organization heralded itself as emblematic of the mainstream conservative, others recognized the ideological similarities to the Klan. One newspaper editor regarded the Councils as the “hateful specter of the old Ku Klux Klan riding again, without robes or nooses or whips, but practicing the same sadism and terrorism with more subtle weapons for the same purpose.” Both of these statements were likely true; the Council was composed of ‘mainstream’ Americans and professed an ideology of white supremacy that was held by many Americans at the time.
The separation of mainstream and extreme often relies less on the underlying ideology and more on relatively superficial features. Particularly on the right, the difference between much of the mainstream commentary on race and what is labeled as “extremism” is the use of recognizable and socially unacceptable language. Groups currently viewed as outside the mainstream often highlight that other groups are more heinous, thus drawing upon the binary view of extremism to frame themselves as mainstream. This same tactic of ideological stratification that we see today existed during the Citizens’ Councils heyday; councils that exhibited too many Klan-like characteristics were denounced as “extremist”
There is a common belief among Americans that contemporary racism exists only on the fringes of society, when, in fact, it exists as a fundamental aspect of our country’s social and political fabric.
Where do we find mainstream expression of white supremacy today? The answer emerges across the media and political landscape. One of the key markers of white supremacy is the anxiety of being replaced, pushed out in the new multicultural social order. Some activists assert that “diversity = white genocide.” This logic found expression in Charlottesville when protestors chanted “White lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us.” However, former presidential candidate and media personality Pat Buchanan also expresses anxiety of being replaced in his best-selling polemics Death of the West (2001) and State of Emergency (2006). Indeed, the anxiety of replacement—a concern marking the status of whiteness—is demonstrated in what many thought to be a humorous incident with Megyn Kelly in 2013. Responding to Aisha Harris’s argument for a racially inclusive Santa, Kelly turned to the camera and assured her younger viewers that “Santa just is white.” For those who may not know, Santa is a mythical figure and not real. Thus we must ask why Kelly felt the need to assert his whiteness? Why was she afraid that a white Santa would be replaced?
The discourse of white supremacy can also be found in the recycling of heinous racial stereotypes. In 2015 then candidate Trump re-tweeted a blatantly false statistic that credited African Americans with 81% of the murders of whites. Whether or not Trump sees himself as a white supremacist is arbitrary. What is critical is that he and the original source both bought into and recirculated a disgusting myth of black male criminality. This is likely “information laundering” on the part of the original source. Trump’s status as the leading presidential candidate of a major political party give legitimacy to white supremacist ideology. Indeed, many of his re-tweets come from “white supremacist sympathizers.” Indeed, as President of the United States, Trump’s embrace of the Alt-Right continues to give greater legitimacy to white supremacy.
Lest one think that we are suggesting that white supremacy only exists on the political right, one must not ignore how those on the center-left have also deployed racist discourse. When advocating on behalf of the 1994 crime bill, which would magnify the already disparate incarceration of people of color, Hillary Clinton warned of “superpredators:” “They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids called superpredators: no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” In accepting and recirculating the myth of the black male criminal, Clinton and other Democrats participated in the political system of white supremacy.
More recently, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema voted to halt Iraqi and Syrian refugees, despite the fact that refugees from these countries have never committed acts of terrorism in the United States. Here Sinema drew upon and recirculated a racial script of people from the Middle-East as perpetual dangers to the U.S. Addressing white supremacy as a political system requires that we recognize that the fears and anxieties that spur anti-Semitism, nativism, and racism do not just unite the right—they unite whites in a dangerous sense of besieged solidarity.
The ascendancy of the Alt-Right and the events of Charlottesville should cause those previously unaware to forge a commitment to antiracism. However, the dangerous lesson would be to think that white supremacy had merely changed its aesthetics from white sheets and burning crosses to khakis and tiki torches. White supremacy has long found expression in diverse forms from the Citizen’s Council’s respectability politics to William F. Buckley’s assertion that Black Americans had not sought to fully integrate themselves into U.S. culture, and from degrading murdered teenagers as thugs to claiming that All Lives Matter as a means nullify calls for justice. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his grave disappointment with the “white moderate”: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.”
Addressing white supremacy as a political system requires that we recognize that the fears and anxieties that spur anti-Semitism, nativism, and racism do not just unite the right—they unite whites in a dangerous sense of besieged solidarity.
Across the long arc of U.S. history, the social order that the white moderate has sought to maintain was founded upon white supremacy. U.S. history is replete with white moderates who have rejected white supremacy’s extreme manifestations and fought hard to maintain its status quo. By focusing not on white supremacists but the beliefs, languages, practices, and systems of white supremacy, we can root out racism in its everyday manifestations. Doing so will deprive white supremacy and its adherents of the safe space and legitimacy they so desire. Focusing on white supremacy is difficult for many because it rejects the mainstream/extreme binary and requires that all white people both recognize there is work to do and have the willingness to do it. The fight against white supremacy is not a sprint, but a marathon. If Americans view white supremacy as a constant that affects their daily lives, they will be more prepared to fight against it in all its forms, both ordinary and extreme.
Lee Bebout is an associate professor of English at Arizona State University. His articles have appeared in Aztlán, MELUS, Latino Studies, and other scholarly journals. His book, Mythohistorical Interventions: The Chicano Movement and Its Legacies (Minnesota 2011), examines how narratives of myth and history were deployed to articulate political identity in the Chicano movement and postmovement era. His second book, Whiteness on the Border: Mapping the US Racial Imagination in Brown and White (New York University Press 2016) examines how representations of Mexico, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans have been used to foster whiteness and Americanness, or more accurately whiteness as Americanness.
Kenneth Ladenburg is a PhD Candidate in the Writing, Rhetoric and Literacies program at Arizona State University. He is currently writing his dissertation, “Everyday White Supremacy: Fundamental Rhetorical Strategies in Racist Discourse,” which argues that both mainstream and fringe racist discourse rely upon a fundamental framework of rhetorical strategies that have long been ingrained into the social and political fabric of the United States and are based on the foundational system of white supremacy. His broader research interests include the study of the rhetorics of race, white supremacy, humor, and popular culture.
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 Rosie Gray, “Trump Defends White-Nationalist Protesters: ‘Some Very Fine People on Both Sides’” TheAtlantic.com. August 15, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/trump-defends-white-nationalist-protesters-some-very-fine-people-on-both-sides/537012/
 David Ferguson, “Charlottesville Marcher Whines Over ‘Outing’ by Anti-Fascist Group” RawStory.com. August 18, 2017. https://www.rawstory.com/2017/08/my-life-is-over-21-year-old-charlottesville-marcher-whines-over-outing-by-anti-fascist-group/
 Jane Hill, The Everyday Language of White Racism (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 6.
 “New Poll: Some Americans Express Troubling Racial Attitudes Even as Majority Oppose White Supremacists” UVA Center for Politics. September 14, 2017. http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/new-poll-some-americans-express-troubling-racial-attitudes-even-as-majority-oppose-white-supremacists/
 Charles Mills, The Racial Contract; Jane Hill, The Everyday Language of White Racism, and Joel Olson, The Abolition of White Democracy.
 Adam Klein, “Slipping Racism into the Mainstream: A Theory of Information Laundering”Communication Theory, November 2012, Vol.22(4), pp.427-448
 Bill O’Reilly, The O’Reilly Factor. December 20, 2016.
 Antonis A. Ellinas. “The Rise of Golden Dawn: The New Face of the Far Right in Greece” South European Society and Politics, 18.4. (2013): 543-565.
 Quoted in McMillen, Neil R. The Citizens’ Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction 1954-64. 1971. Illini Books Ed. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994. 360.
 McMillen, xxiii.
 Jack Mirckinson” Megyn Kelly Really Wants The Kids To Know Santa And Jesus Are White” The Huffington Post. December 12, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/12/megyn-kelly-santa-white-jesus_n_4431613.html
Jon Greenberg, “Trump’s Pants on Fire Tweet that Blacks Killed 81% of White Homicide Victims” Politifact. November 23, 2015. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/nov/23/donald-trump/trump-tweet-blacks-white-homicide-victims.
 Jess Staufenberg, “Donald Trump’s Retweets are ‘Mostly’ of White Supremacist Sympathisers” The Intercept. January 28, 2016. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trumps-re-tweets-are-mostly-of-white-supremacist-sympathisers-a6838521.html
 Rebekah L. Sanders, “Kyrsten Sinema’s Surprising Vote on Syrian Refugees” AZCentral. November 19, 2015. http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/immigration/2015/11/19/kyrsten-sinemas-surprising-vote-syrian-refugees/76066450/
 Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html