White Supremacists and Racism

Updated on November 26, 2017.

For 12 years, I’ve been writing about white supremacists, white nationalism, and the Klan, but 2016 seemed to be the first year my work appeared to have wide cultural relevance. I’m still unsure how to feel about this.

In 2016, after all, a Klan endorsed the Republican nominee, Donald Tr*mp, who will become the 45th president of the U.S. The alt-right, a white supremacist movement that the press had a hard time calling a white supremacist movement, rose to national attention. In March, I told my partner that Tr*mp’s candidacy would make an interesting contemporary afterword for Gospel According to the Klan, when I still didn’t imagine he could win the election.  The University Press of Kansas decided to publish a paperback version of Gospel this fall, and they moved up the publication date from mid-March to late January and added a Kindle version, due to the “relevance” of my work.

This continues to be a weird moment for me. I’m proud of my Klan book. I’m glad folks continue to read it. I’m happy and surprised professors continue to assign it in their classes. But, at the same time, my joy is tempered by the knowledge of why book is relevant right now. White supremacist organizations appear visible now in a way they haven’t in years (partially because folks quit paying attention to them), and so many of us are worried about their impact on the new administration and our country. In November 2016, I felt like I’ve only been writing and tweeting about white supremacists. Interest in white supremacists shifted in and out of the news cycle in 2017. After Charlottesville in August, my inbox was stacked up with requests for interviews to talk about white nationalism again. I did as many interviews as I could and interest waned because it always does. The relevance of my work feels temporary at best. Some people seem ready to listen to what I have to say about white supremacists, but only after a rally, a tragedy, or Richard Spencer’s most recent attempt to speak on a college campus. I mostly refuse to pass up that opportunity to speak up about my years of work on white supremacy. I refuse to be silent, but I’m not sure that most folks are really listening.

As I promised on Twitter, I’ve pulled together the links to my writing, recent and not-so-recent, on the Klan, the alt-right, white supremacists, and racism. Here y’all go.

Essays

Women with the “power of motherhood” could improve a nation in tumult and help reclaim white Protestant America for “true” Americans, white Protestants. Gill employed motherhood as a method to force Klansmen to pay attention to the WKKK and its efforts. Importantly, she showcased that women were as interested and invested in nation as men were, if not more so.  

Yet, the media seemed to care an awful lot about the look of white supremacy and the looks of white supremacists. Wearing suits and ties made the alt-right appear new and different from previous generations of white supremacists to many news outlets. (Somehow we’ve already forgotten David Duke’s legacy, even as he reappeared in the news to support Trump’s candidacy.)

Yet, the meaning of an object is never settled, and often the story the Klan wanted objects to tell was not the one that everyone else heard. Robes, fiery crosses, and the American flag ended up telling competing narratives about the Klan’s idealized vision of white Protestant America and their promotion of intolerance and racism. The Klan couldn’t control how other people interpreted their actions or their objects, but that didn’t stop them from trying.

This sort of image makeover is a big part of the alt-right’s game. They want to convince the media that they are a “new form” of white nationalism that we’ve never seen before: clean-cut, intellectual, far removed from the unpolished white supremacists of the past. But the alt-right is not as new as we might think. In fact, efforts to dress up white supremacy in ideas and middle-class respectability have been around since the first organized movements emerged in the late 19th century — and once again, people are falling for it.

When Gospel According to the Klan was published in 2011, the reactions to the book surprised me at first. I had some white people, including scholars, tell me that the Klan was an artifact of the past, or a fringe movement of little consequence. While I might have written about the 1920s Klan, they were unsure about my book’s relevance to right now. The Klan, they implied, simply didn’t matter in the twenty-first century.

The danger the Klan feared was too much faith in fellow human beings. Suspicion of others is easier than trust. Intolerance is easier than tolerance. The Klan could claim the mantle of tolerance as long as its members did not have to practice it. Essay by essay, intolerance became a virtue and tolerance was a threat too great to chance.

What I struggled with book after book was the apparent shock that racists could appear nice and decent. Why did these ethnographers not realize that niceness doesn’t equate with anti-racist? Someone can appear nice and still be a bigot. Someone can claim that they are decent and good and still be racist. Nice and decent don’t preclude bigotry. Smiles and small talk are very good at hiding (masking?) it.

I’m committed to my work. I’ve spent years researching and writing about white supremacy and racism. But writing about the Klan in the age of Trump feels particularly dangerous. Writing about the Klan now as a woman feels even more so.

In this age of white police killing black people, Romero’s unintentional message about racism still resonates today, though I wish it wouldn’t. I wish the film were less relevant with every passing year. Yet Romero shows us in a film about zombies the high costs of dehumanization in the form of racism. When we imagine other people to be less than human, less like us, they die. We create them as monsters, and then, we find ways to destroy them.

While the alt-right has resonances with historical white supremacist movements, they are also creating a newer form of white nationalism that realizes stark differences from the Klan’s legacy of white supremacy and religious nationalism.

In recent years, the robes and fiery cross no longer appear attached the Klan’s Protestantism, but rather both emerge as ready symbols of the Klan’s virulent racism. The long history of Klansmen committing acts of terrorism means that robes and fiery crosses appear as hypervisible signs of white supremacy. They’re inseparable from how we interpret and understand the Klan.

Making America great required exclusion, intolerance, and vitriol. Unfortunately for the Klan, their message of 100 percent Americanism started losing ground by the end of the 1920s.

Regardless of how extensively I engage in anti-racism work, my discomfort never seems to go away—and frankly, I don’t want it to. Discussions of racism should make us uncomfortable, because racism is an uncomfortable reality.

As long as America is comfortable with the deaths of black people, nothing will change. When people, and especially people of privilege, begin to mourn the loss of these lives, then we have a chance to make necessary changes to policing.

The destruction of black bodies has been normalized—so white Americans can overlook the suffering because they are used to seeing it. It’s gotten so bad that only terrorism from beyond our shores seems remarkable and exceptional enough to provoke natural reactions of sympathy and outrage.

White Americans avoid the specter of the lynching tree because it forces us to admit that white supremacy is woven into the very fabric of our nation, and not just occasional stitches.

Benevolence, love, and volunteering seem out of place with hoods, robes, and burning crosses. But what may surprise many is that these statements are consistent with the larger history of the Klan, wherein declarations of love are intimately bound to the Klan’s better-known gospel of hate. That paradox holds the key to understanding both the order’s past popularity and its continuing inability to halt its decline.

Yet, it is only on the surface that KKK and the WBC appear similar.  While the WBC gleefully notes the anger/hatred of God for the American nation in relationship to sexuality, the Klan, in each of its incarnations, embraces and promotes a white Christian nationalism. 

Almost all television portrayals of white supremacists render them as burly, uneducated dudes whose looming physical presence should signal their racist agendas. See, the film says, we can easily identify the bad guys, and these types of guys are always the bad guys.

Twitter essays

 

One Response to “White Supremacists and Racism”

  1. My Favorite Essays of 2016 - Cold Takes

    […]  In November, Tr*mp became president, and suddenly, my work on white supremacists seemed relevant. After Thanksgiving, I even had an op-ed published in The New York Times, which led to white […]

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