The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Richard Spencer a white nationalist or a white supremacist? It depends on the news source.

Richard Spencer at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Let's start with what Richard Spencer — the man whose appearance at the University of Florida on Thursday triggered a state of emergency — calls himself.

Spencer prefers the term “identitarian.” He also characterizes his views as “alternative right” or “alt-right.”

News outlets generally consider those phrases euphemisms that, much like the clean-cut, well-dressed Spencer himself, put a comely face on racism. But there is a split in the media over how to describe Spencer clearly, accurately and fairly.

In reports by National Public Radio, Fox News Channel, the Associated Press, MSNBC, the New York Times and The Washington Post, Spencer has been dubbed a “white nationalist.”

In coverage by CNN, USA Today, Esquire, Politico, U.S. News & World Report and HuffPost, he has been labeled a “white supremacist.”

“We've used both 'white nationalist' and 'white supremacist' to refer to Richard Spencer,” said New York Times national editor Marc Lacey. “There's clearly overlap between the two terms and neither is one that anyone should be proud to wear.”

A Fox News spokeswoman said the network views the terms as mostly interchangeable.

There is a difference, however. Supposedly, anyway.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary parsed the meanings of the terms on its website a couple of months ago, noting that both “were among our top lookups on Aug. 12, 2017, following multiple reports of clashes between groups referred to by these terms and counterprotesters in Charlottesville”:

Our definitions observe certain differences between these two words; white nationalist is defined as “one of a group of militant whites who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation,” while white supremacist is “a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.”

The key distinction here is between a belief in “enforced racial segregation” and a belief that “the white race is inherently superior to other races.” In theory, a white nationalist wants different races to live separately but doesn't necessarily think one is intrinsically better than the rest.

Spencer talks openly about segregation, making the “white nationalist” label definitively applicable.

“The ideal of a white ethno-state — and it is an ideal — is something that I think we should think about in the sense of what could come after America,” Spencer told the public radio program “Reveal” on the day after Donald Trump was elected president. “It's kind of like a grand goal. . . . It's a way of thinking about [how] we want a new type of society that would actually be a homeland for all white people.”

As he advocates for a white ethno-state, Spencer argues that people of different races are so unalike that coexistence is untenable.

“Race is something between a breed and an actual species,” he told Mother Jones magazine last year.

Spencer stops just short of saying explicitly that the white “breed” or “species” is the best, however.

“I would never say something like, 'I don't like black people,' ” he said in an interview with Charles Barkley in May.

That's a far cry from proclaiming equality, but it makes the applicability of the “white supremacist” tag less clear-cut.

Then again, the obvious question is: Why, if Spencer does not believe the white race is supreme, is he so opposed to sharing a society with other races?

It is hard to come up with a good answer. For some in the media, that is enough to call Spencer a white supremacist.