The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Well-educated elites are no strangers to white supremacy

Elites must recognize their culpability in order to destroy white supremacy.

Building on a long tradition, this weekend’s white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Va., were spearheaded by well-educated, middle- to upper-middle-class white men. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

In the aftermath of the torch-lit white supremacist rally at the University of Virginia, many white folks took to Twitter to express a combination of disgust and incredulity under the hashtag #ThisIsNotUs. Users argued that white supremacists violently protesting the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee “don’t represent our country.”

Their message was as clear as it was race- and class-based: White supremacy — and its cousin, white nationalism — represents a deep perversion of the values of respectable white, upper-middle-class and college-educated Americans. That is, it’s impossible to be both a white supremacist and a well-educated white American.

Such an assumption, however, is both dangerous and historically inaccurate. Contrary to popular belief, white supremacy has not gestated on the fringes of American politics. Rather, it has flourished as a social movement grounded in respectability politics and led by elites. Understanding this history is essential to eradicating the scourge of white supremacy and advancing more just political alternatives. Mischaracterizing its roots, history and latent political assumptions allows middle-class and college-educated white Americans to escape responsibility for extirpating this stain on our society.

Given this history, it should come as no surprise that the lead architects of the Charlottesville demonstration — Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer, Tim Gionet and Matthew Heimbach — are middle- to upper-middle-class, college-educated white men in their mid-20s to mid-30s. Spencer, in fact, is a former doctoral student in modern European intellectual history at Duke University. He has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis.”

But white supremacists of old were, in fact, the very same “suit-and-tie version.” In her 2015 book, “Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction,” Elaine Frantz Parsons argues that “the men who first became Ku-Klux — Frank O. McCord, Richard Reed, John C. Lester, Calvin Jones, John Booker Kennedy, and James Crowe — presented themselves as elites and intellectuals, above and opposed to the violence of rough men.”

These were the well-educated elites of their day. Many founders of the Klan were property owners and most had assets exceeding $10,000. Two were attorneys and one was a real estate broker. One member, John Kennedy, had recently inherited $20,000 from his father, a figure equivalent to at least $500,000 today. Many were widely read and at least half had taken college classes.

While aggressive federal intervention helped to dismantle the 19th-century Klan, William J. Simmons resurrected it in 1915 in honor of the inaugural screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s cinematic tribute to the Klan. Simmons, who studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University for a short time and then served as a Methodist minister, launched what historians now refer to as “the second Klan” by setting fire to a wooden cross atop Stone Mountain on the outskirts of Atlanta.

The second Klan proved more popular than the first, with membership peaking at 4 million in the mid-1920s. With its membership composed disproportionately of middle-class individuals and families, leadership oriented many of the organization’s visible public activities toward festivals, pageants and social gatherings.

As Joshua Rothman writes in the Atlantic, “In some ways, it was this superficially innocuous Klan that was the most insidious of them all. Packaging its noxious ideology as traditional small-town values and wholesome fun, the Klan of the 1920s encouraged native-born white Americans to believe that bigotry, intimidation, harassment and extralegal violence were all perfectly compatible with, if not central to, patriotic respectability.”

At the same time, a burgeoning elite-led eugenics movement helped to lend “scientific” support to cultural arguments in favor of white supremacy. In his 1916 bestseller “The Passing of the Great Race,” noted eugenicist Madison Grant — a Columbia Law School trained attorney — argued that whereas Northern European immigrants of the 19th century were “skilled, thrifty, and hardworking” just like native-born Americans, more recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were “unskilled, ignorant, predominantly Catholic or Jewish” and ostensibly unassimilable.

Grant, among other eugenicists, was tapped as an expert to speak on the threat of “inferior stock” from Eastern and southern Europe and played a critical role as Congress debated provisions of the highly racially restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the influx of “dangerous” and “dysgenic” Italians, Arabs, Eastern European Jews, Asians and other not-fully-white “social inadequates.”

In 1920, Harry Laughlin — eminent eugenicist with a doctorate in cytology from Princeton — testified to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization that “the character of a nation is determined primarily by its racial qualities.” Laughlin’s sentiment captured the spirit of his time. During the 1920s, a number of immigration and legal reforms were based on scientific notions of immutable difference between races and the conviction that the purity of whiteness must be protected at all costs.

Against this historical backdrop, the hashtag #ThisIsNotUs belies the truth about the ubiquity of white supremacy and diminishes its centrality to the political architecture of the U.S. nation-state. Worse, #ThisIsNotUs fundamentally misdiagnoses its basic ideological aims and strategies as a social movement.

Far from an aberrational political ideology, suit-and-tie white supremacy (and lab-coat white supremacy, for that matter) has been central to how the United States refashions itself as a modern racial state still committed to white supremacy. To address and remedy this accumulation of historical baggage we must recall that white supremacy is not some aberrant fringe movement. Its most terrorizing element is its banality. Rejecting the idea of white supremacy as an embarrassing pathological appendage to an otherwise just and democratic body politic is the first step toward challenging its legitimacy in U.S. politics.