In the dictionary, white supremacy is a noun. The Oxford English Dictionary defines white supremacy as, “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.”
But the images from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville — from people chanting racist and anti-Semitic slurs to violent clashes with counterprotesters — make “white supremacy” seem more like a verb. The violence in Charlottesville made clear that some white men and women, who feel displaced in an increasingly diverse and politically correct America, are willing to take action in support of their beliefs.
For years, many of these groups have been dismissed as fringe, without real political power. But away from the spotlight, they have used the Internet to magnify a message of hate. To better understand the growing visibility of the white nationalist movement, I spoke with George Michael, professor of criminology at Westfield State University. Michael has spent much of his academic career researching the extreme American right. He is the author of seven books about hate groups in the United States.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is white supremacy? Are we talking about an ideology or a political movement?
The overwhelming number of white nationalists eschew the term white supremacy. They say that they’re separatists, and that they want self-determination. They want their own homeland. They make the argument that integration and diversity ultimately leads to conflict. They believe Western civilization is under attack because of widespread immigration from the Third World. In Europe it is because of Muslim refugees. In the United States it is primarily immigration from Mexico. And they believe this immigration will change the texture of society for the worse. Of course the devil is in the details. A lot of the people who say they are white separatists, to be sure, do not like black people, other people of color, or Jewish people.
If the goal is a separate state for white people, do many of these people live in predominantly white communities?
A lot of them do reside in diverse communities, or close to diverse communities. Here is an irony: Andrew Anglin … runs the Daily Stormer website. It is considered one of the most visited sites of the white nationalist movement. It gets about a million unique visitors a month. It just transpired that he lives in Nigeria, of all places. He finds it to be a more congenial place. There he is considered an eccentric white guy who is involved in a political movement on the other side of the world.
For many, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was shocking because they couldn’t believe, in this day and age, that there could be an organized group of people identifying as white nationalists, the KKK or even Nazis. How did we miss these groups? And why have they cropped up so publicly now?
For many years, people didn’t bother to study the extreme right because they would say, “Why bother? It’s a subculture without any influence on the broader culture. They have virtually no influence on public policy.”
But there has been a convergence of events that has brought these groups to the fore. Part of it is demographic trends, like increasing diversity in the United States, which they see as a threat. Another aspect is the notion of political correctness or the idea of white privilege. Many people in these groups are disillusioned with this policing of language by the left, and due to social media it is easier to exchange these ideas.
Additionally, the candidacy of Donald Trump has had a catalyzing effect. His campaign brought a lot of white nationalists out of the closet, so to speak. During Trump rallies they got to meet each other in a real-world setting. They got to shake hands with people who hold similar views and meet with them in a face-to-face situation. For many years it was hard to mobilize because they had followers, but they were scattered across the country. Often, they would have maybe a couple dozen white nationalists at a demonstration and they would be greatly outnumbered by counterprotesters.
What role has the Internet played in catalyzing and spreading white nationalist ideology?
The extreme right has had a very robust presence in cyberspace for roughly 20 years. What has changed is the introduction of social media where they can share stories and ideas. Many of the stories that resonate with white nationalists are stories that involve things like black-on-white crime, white demographic displacement, or what they see as racial double standards. These types of stories seem to get a lot of clicks. And many young people are involved in the movement. Not only that, but the alt-right tends to dovetail with the troll culture that is increasingly popular online.
Many of the images from the rally in Charlottesville showed white nationalists wearing polo shirts and khakis, with clean-cropped hair cuts. Why does appearance matter to these groups?
Being presentable is very important. For the alt-right and extreme right, it is very important to be articulate because they feel, to further their cause, they have to win the hearts and minds of people. So they have to make their arguments appear cogent and reasonable. There are some groups who use shrill rhetoric, like the Daily Stormer, and these sites appeal to people who are looking for a kind of visceral intensity. But then there are figures like Richard Spencer, who are very articulate. He is well educated. He was in a PhD program, and he comes off as a polished professorial kind of guy.
What is the role of violence within white nationalist groups? Or how is violence used, if at all, by these groups?
Believe it or not, the overwhelming majority of these alt-right groups don’t advocate violence in this moment. Many believe that any kind of violence would be quickly nipped in the bud and used as an excuse to quickly shut down the organizations.
So, essentially you’re saying these are not groups that have an ethic of nonviolence, right?
Right. Strategically, they don’t see violence as viable at the present time. But should the circumstances change, a lot of them might change their position in the future.