White Supremacy Has Always Been Mainstream

By July 25, 2018 Editors' Choice
White protesters march against racial integration during a rally in Little Rock, Arkansas, on August 20, 1959. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Photo: Library of Congress

By Stephen Kantrowitz, Boston Review

White supremacy is a language of unease. It does not describe racial domination so much as worry about it.

White supremacy connotes many grim and terrifying things, including inequality, exclusion, injustice, and state and vigilante violence. Like whiteness itself, white supremacy arose from the world of Atlantic slavery but survived its demise. Yet while the structures are old, the term “white supremacy” is not. Although it first appeared in British abolitionist critiques and U.S. proslavery defenses in the first half of the nineteenth century, it only became commonplace—and notably not as a pejorative—in U.S. whites’ post-emancipation calls for a racial order that would reinstitute slavery’s political and economic guarantees.


White supremacy has always been hard work. Because of this, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor.


White supremacy’s opponents evoke it to condemn. Its proponents use it to summon up a vision of a racially ordered society, to rally political forces behind that vision, to establish laws and institutions that affirm it, and finally to render it natural and normal. But the very fact that the phrase requires speaking means that something has gone awry. If the hierarchy of races were real, it would easily have survived slave emancipation. Instead, that hierarchy must be constantly asserted and enforced, lest the white race be overwhelmed, overcome, and extinguished. White supremacy is organized around a dread of its own demise, and with it the white race.

This inherent instability has produced a welter of fears, fantasies, and imperatives, from racial purity to race war. It has also made “white supremacy” a call to action. Indeed, the effort to transform the phrase from a slogan into a fact has been a massive social and political project, involving the witting and unwitting labor of many millions of people. White supremacy has always been hard work.

But because it is work, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor. And sometime between the march from Selma to Montgomery and the election of Barack Obama, many Americans allowed themselves to believe something of the kind: that white supremacy’s advocates, having lost their long war, were giving up.

The violent manifestations of white supremacy over the past several years—from Dylann Roof’s murders in Charleston, through Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency—unwound that hope. No better illustration exists for white supremacy’s return to the cultural center than Charlottesville’s 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, in which emblems of the Klan, the Third Reich, and the Confederacy jostled with more esoteric banners and names, together representing a century’s worth of white supremacist politicking. By the time the sirens died out, it should have been clear that Dylann Roof was no “lone wolf,” but the legitimate offspring of a reemergent social movement.

Yet even as white supremacy appeared suddenly to be everywhere in U.S. life, many—and not just on the right—denied its existence. Trump’s refusal to criticize even neo-Nazis was treated as a uniquely craven act of “norm-breaking,” not as a predictable extension of decades of coded and not-so-coded racist appeals. In the rush to catch Trump out, what has been omitted from media reporting is the long history of indulging white supremacist ideology and expression. Consider how long Pat “Blood and Soil” Buchanan served as a respectable voice of the political and journalistic right, winning four states in the 1996 Republican primaries and later playing Rachel Maddow’s curmudgeonly uncle on MSNBC—all in spite of his longstanding support for white ethnonationalism. Or remember the PBS NewsHour profile of Trump supporter Grace Tilly that failed to note her neo-Nazi tattoos. The network’s post-backlash editor’s note treated Tilly’s claim that her tattoos were religious, not racist, as worthy of debate, as though an enormous “88”—code for “Heil Hitler”—paired with a bullseye cross, another white supremacy symbol, left room for uncertainty. The myth that white supremacy is a marginal political phenomenon has proved so durable that many people find it easier to deny its overt expression than confront a more troubling reality: “very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of advancing white supremacist causes.


“Very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of white supremacy.


Three recent books explore the twentieth-century history of this political project. In Linda Gordon’s thoughtful reconsideration of the 1920s Klan, we watch shameless grifters deploy racial hierarchy and exclusion to forge the largest social movement of the early twentieth century. In Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s revelatory exploration of mid-century white women’s segregationist work, we see how the inheritors of that vision learned to speak in new languages, muted enough to pass in a society increasingly hostile to white supremacy but unmistakable to partisans as a continuation of the long struggle against racial equality. In Kathleen Belew’s groundbreaking account of the White Power movement from the mid-1970s to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, it becomes clear how a post–civil rights generation of white supremacist organizers positioned themselves as victims of an overbearing state, even as they nurtured Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof, and the dream of race war.

These works do not claim to provide a comprehensive account of twentieth-century white supremacy; such a project would also have to probe (as other scholars have) the forces of labor and capital, and—as only Belew does here—the relationship of domestic ideologies and practices to their imperial histories. But read together and through one another, these works provide a sobering crash course in the power, diversity, and persistence of white supremacist ideas and politics.

Across the long twentieth century, white supremacist activists nurtured an exclusionary racial nationalism. They envisioned a nation safely in the hands of its “rightful” owners, redeemed from misrule by “unfit” peoples, and made great again. Although their work relied extensively on white women’s organizational and ideological labors, they posited a world of white patriarchal families in which men spoke and fought while women sustained and reproduced. Responding to successive challenges, these activists developed new languages and new coalitions, but they remained consistently suspicious (at a minimum) of political authority that they could not directly control. Partly for this reason, they usually saw electoral politics as a critical arena of struggle, and they rarely abandoned it. Across the century, this ideological and organizational landscape has been home to hustlers, activists, and insurgents playing distinct but often complementary roles. White supremacy has always been at once a political movement, an armed struggle, and a long con.

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Gordon’s Second Coming of the KKK shows how a white supremacist and nativist movement reset the boundaries of political discourse, clarified that the nation existed in the image and service of a particular kind of American, and took control of governments from school boards to Congress to give those imperatives life. Klansmen nurtured a politics of resentment against both “elites” who looked down on them and the immigrants, blacks, and radicals who seemed to challenge their world.


To many of its white contemporaries, the KKK of the 1920s was a respectable organization that promised to restore white Protestants to their proper place of authority.


The first Ku Klux Klan was founded in the 1860s by former Confederate soldiers and for a few years became the spear and symbol of the war against Reconstruction. This first Klan was actively suppressed by legal and military action in the early 1870s, and the campaigns of racial terror and political intimidation that finally overthrew Reconstruction were largely conducted under other names. The second Klan was founded in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons in response to that year’s blockbuster film, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which reworked memories of the Reconstruction-era KKK into a mythos of white male chivalry combatting black sexual barbarism. Beginning in 1919, the Klan exploded in size and power as organizers channeled the era’s powerful currents of nativism and violent white supremacy through the heroic image and visual style of the film’s Klansmen. They coupled the anti-black rhetoric of the Reconstruction-era Klan with a pervasive hostility toward non-Protestant immigrants and what Simmons derided as their anti-American propensities for “Bolshevism, Socialism, Syndicalism, I.W.W.ism.” Gordon encourages us to understand that, to many of its white American contemporaries, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was an “ordinary and respectable” organization that promised to restore white Protestants, mainly of the lower middle and skilled working classes, to their proper place of authority in U.S. cultural and political life. She reminds us that many of the Klan’s hobbyhorses—anti-black racism, antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, and nativism; censoriousness about sex and alcohol; support for eugenics; and narrow-minded nationalism—reflected broad and sometimes hegemonic aspects of 1920s U.S. culture.

Gordon also asks us to understand the movement as producing, not just reflecting, social concerns. The Klan channeled preexisting hatred of racial inferiors and haughty elites, but it also ginned up those expressions and provided new outlets for them. Conspiracy thinking was central to Klan rhetoric and ideology. Everywhere lurked sinister forces that sought to take over the U.S. government and subvert the country’s way of life. Indeed, those forces might already have taken power. Jews, Catholics, Bolsheviks, and African Americans were always about to swamp “true Americans” with rising birthrates; take control of U.S. police forces and public schools; undermine cherished values with sex, alcohol, or pornography; and oppress real Americans from the safety of powerful, distant institutions.

Such conspiracy talk effectively transformed grievances and insecurities into well-defined targets that local Klans could then organize against. In Madison, Wisconsin, for example, the Klan took up the cause of fighting illegal liquor trafficking in a neighborhood populated by Italians, blacks, and Jews. There and elsewhere, the Klan infiltrated or worked alongside police departments. Beatings, whippings, cross-burning, death threats, and fatal shootings marked the outer edge of the Klan’s activities, but in some locales—Dayton, Ohio; Williamson County, Illinois; large swaths of Oklahoma—assaults were common and condoned.

Yet this Klan was not atavistic or residual but modern, a for-profit enterprise that combined state-of-the-art public relations, mass media, and franchising. It was, Gordon shows, a pyramid scheme, in which local Klans and their leaders effectively purchased the right to recruit more dues-paying, regalia-purchasing members. Little mattered but recruitment; the fine points of Klan ideology were left to local groups (“Klaverns”), based on their local circumstances. Thus Klans in one locale might focus on the threat posed by Catholic teachers, while those in another attacked bootleggers, and a third local unionists.

The Klan reached its apex as a political movement in 1924, when its forces made a serious effort to choose the Democratic nominee for president. Scandals both lurid (sex) and dreary (embezzlement) undercut the organization during the remaining decade, just as the con was running out of marks. But even as the order crumbled, the Klan remained ideologically ascendant. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which went into effect at the end of the decade, dramatically curtailed “undesirable” immigration. Eugenics remained a commonsense feature of reform movements and scholarly discourse. And the Klan’s commitment to a nation where self-confident white Protestant men and women managed the lives and labors of their racial inferiors, while guarding vigilantly against subversion and sedition, remained woven into the U.S. political tradition.


Feminism is not a strictly left phenomenon. There is not only conservative feminism but even bigoted feminism. Feminists played a central role in building the Klan.


The fact that many women have played vital, sustaining roles in white supremacist organizing should not surprise anyone, and is not disconnected from the fact that a majority of white women voted for Trump. However, it can still be difficult to take this a step further and acknowledge that feminism is not a strictly left phenomenon. Gordon’s chapter “KKK Feminism” asks readers to take seriously “a phenomenon that many progressive feminists found and still find anomalous—the existence not only of conservative feminism but even of bigoted feminism.” Early in its resuscitation, women demanded entry into the second KKK, and in 1923 national Klan leader Hiram Evans merged disparate groups into a kind of women’s auxiliary, the WKKK. Women helped build and recruit the organization. They even preached its gospel: Rev. Alma Bridwell White, for example, demanded women’s rights to property and legal protection against domestic violence, while also calling for the nomination of Klan-endorsed candidates who would uphold “prohibition, restricted immigration, [and] white supremacy.” In this, as in so many other respects, the Klan was “modern.”

Elizabeth Gillespie McRae runs with this theme in Mothers of Massive Resistance, which is populated by modern professional women who shared Rev. White’s skills, confidence, and ideology, and who played critical roles in the defense of white supremacy from the 1920s to the 1970s. McRae follows these women’s confrontation with the mid-century transformation of Jim Crow from the law of the land to an embattled ideal, and of “white supremacy” from the slogan of a hegemonic regional regime to something controversial or even unspeakable in polite company.

Among McRae’s many subjects, North Carolina’s Nell Battle Lewis is illustrative. A cosmopolitan and reform-minded graduate of Smith College, Lewis believed that forward-thinking elites could maintain a just and smoothly functioning segregationist order. She thought the greatest threat to that system resided in the willingness to tolerate manifest injustices, for example in the judicial and penal systems. She abhorred the modern Klan’s self-confident ignorance and vigilantism. But her outlook was proudly racist. In 1923, after watching The Birth of a Nation for the fifth time, she swooned with racial nationalist pride: the Reconstruction-era Klan, she wrote, was “a necessary tour de force effected by some of the leaders of a . . . civilization in danger of its very life.” In her columns for the Raleigh News and Observer, Lewis depicted a world of enlightened whites and deferential blacks. Inequality was real. It just needed to be properly managed.

Mothers of Massive Resistance shows how white women defined, refined, and defended a white supremacist social order. In the 1920s, they worked as investigators who policed eugenicist “racial integrity” laws. Later, McRae argues, they became “Jim Crow storytellers,” affirming in columns, textbooks, and speeches “the oft-repeated fiction of a content black population in need of white oversight.” Here and elsewhere, their work orbited around the vision of white women as the guardians of domestic life, which encompassed homes, children, and schools. They may not have been the most visible public faces of the Jim Crow order, but they were “segregation’s constant gardeners.”


In their role as guardians of domestic life, white women served as segregation’s constant gardeners.


That garden encompassed political organizing. Women served as regional partisans, keeping the Democratic Party in line or seeking alternatives to it. As the Roosevelt administration responded to the labor struggles of the Great Depression, they warned against policies that placed black men in positions of responsibility properly belonging to white men. By the 1940s, they emerged as national organizers, searching out languages and alliances that would continue to legitimize white supremacy in practice if not in name. As activists and justices chipped away at the constitutional foundations of segregation, they warned at ever-increasing volume that school desegregation constituted a “threat to the white race.” If black and white children sat together in classrooms, they would socialize, court, marry, reproduce, and destroy the segregationist order. They imagined desegregated schools as, in McRae’s words, “hothouses for consensual sex and breeding grounds for marriage” between whites and blacks.

Thinking globally, acting locally, McRae’s women fought to forestall that dreaded future. They forged coalitions with non-southerners who shared compatible values and outlooks. They learned to frame their opposition to desegregation in terms of ostensibly non-racial threats: federal power, communism, the United Nations, and especially the subversion of traditional family structures. Southern segregationist women helped cross-pollinate their movement with those of conservatives beyond the South, people for whom racial segregation was equally desirable if sometimes less existential. (Indeed, McRae wants us to abandon the shopworn regional distinction between southern “segregationists” and northern “conservatives.”) They learned to modulate their language to their audience and to build lasting bridges across regional lines.

In 1960 the Mississippi winner of a Citizens’ Council essay contest described segregation as a bulwark against “the threat of intermarriage”; she promised to “preserve [her] racial integrity and keep it pure.” Within a decade, both the contest’s judges and its winners would have to find different language with which to express their values if they were to remain respected participants in U.S. politics. In her final pages, McRae shows us how they succeeded. Segregation in Mississippi had been created and maintained by explicit and unapologetic state laws; segregation in Boston was a product of local racist practices sanctioned not by law but by custom and inaction, and of federal housing and lending policies that ratified and reinforced those exclusions, making the links between race, neighborhood, and school seem natural rather than constructed. But everywhere, white women took the lead in 1970s’ protests against court-mandated programs of school desegregation, defending a white domestic sphere of school and neighborhood without directly asserting the legitimacy of racial segregation. By 1974, when Boston city councilor Louise Day Hicks declared that “the issue of forced busing is a women’s issue,” the explicit language of white supremacy vanished, leaving only a cheshire rictus of fears and imperatives.


White women took the lead in protests against school desegregation, defending a white domestic sphere without directly asserting the legitimacy of racial segregation.


The defenders of segregation learned to speak their truths in code. Their demands for “local control” defended racial hierarchies that previous generations of policy and practice had baked into institutions, neighborhoods, and schools. Their language of “color-blindness” sought to neutralize historical accounting or reparation. Some, such as Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush advisor Lee Atwater, claimed that in trading overtly racist language for “forced busing, states rights, and all that stuff,” they were establishing a new, non-racial basis for their coalition—though Atwater’s deployment of the worst scare tactics of white supremacy in his 1988 “Willie Horton” ads showed that one did not need to use racial epithets to communicate openly racist messages. But for most aspiring political or civic figures, a degree of deniability seemed to become essential.

Most, but not all. In Bring the War Home, Kathleen Belew traces the development of an openly white supremacist counterculture between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s. White supremacist activists—many of them veterans—developed an analysis of the federal government that linked its putative abandonment of soldiers in Vietnam with its alleged elevation of immigrants and non-whites over white Americans at home. This corrupt state would soon snuff out the liberties of white men, leaving their families helpless before communists and racial inferiors. The solution was to “bring the war home”: to deploy the tools and methods of the wars in southeast Asia in a revolutionary struggle for a white ethno-state in North America.

Beginning in the 1970s, local networks brought together Klansmen and neo-Nazis of many stripes—ranging from adherents of racist end-times theologies and paramilitary fantasists to actual mercenaries—under the banner of White Power. They were linked by an ideology that married white nationalism, anti-communism, and genocidal fantasies, but they were not a centralized organization. Movement leaders developed the doctrine of “leaderless resistance,” providing ideological grounding and practical encouragement for acts of mass terror that would spark a revolutionary race war but which could not easily be traced back to any particular organization. White Power activists did this work so successfully that the contours of their movement became hard to discern, and the ideology’s most violent adherents, such as Timothy McVeigh, were often dismissed as “lone wolves.” But Belew shows that although the networks of White Power organizing may have been loose and decentralized, they were also intricate and extensive.


White supremacist activists—many of them veterans—linked the government’s mistreatment of soldiers in Vietnam with its alleged elevation of immigrants and non-whites over white Americans at home.


The bible of this movement was The Turner Diaries, a brutal novel of race war and white nationalism written by neo-Nazi leader William Pierce and first serialized in 1974. The Turner Diaries—which depicts white nationalists using genocide and nuclear war to take control of the United States and then the world—provided a blueprint for “leaderless resistance” undertaken by autonomous, white supremacist guerrilla cells. It offered a gruesome vision of the genocidal reckoning their actions would finally produce. By the late 1970s one could order the book from an ad in Soldier of Fortune, a controversial magazine marketed to soldiers for hire and a wider audience that found those exploits entrancing or titillating. The novel became, in Belew’s words, “a touchstone, a point of connection” linking the movement’s hardcore advocates of armed struggle with a much wider array of men and women who fantasized about a white ethno-state or simply about the bloodshed that was supposed to produce it. Timothy McVeigh kept the book in his soldier’s quarters, sold it at gun shows after his discharge, and followed its blueprint in the Oklahoma City bombing.

The Turner Diaries may be White Power’s Birth of a Nation, but that film radiates white-supremacist confidence; its brutish black pawns are easily vanquished by a confident and well-organized white cavalry. The Turner Diaries promises no such happy ending. In its bleak view, white unity will only be restored at enormous cost and through a brutal, genocidal struggle. There is no room, in the end, for paternalism or a return to a golden age; the race war will be a war to the death, one that will bring the government down with it.

White Power activists pursued this war on several fronts. Louis Beam, Don Black, and other leaders traveled throughout Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, plotted a coup in Dominica to secure it against putative Soviet ambitions, sent mercenaries to fight for Somoza and later for the Nicaraguan Contras, and focused with increasing intensity on the U.S.-Mexican border as a paramilitary battleground. They also targeted domestic enemies, including Vietnamese refugees and U.S. radicals. In Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979, a “United Racist Front” of Klansmen and Nazis killed five protestors at a “Death to the Klan” rally organized by the Communist Workers’ Party. As cell-style organizing expanded in the 1980s, robberies and murders took place under many banners, including The Order, whose organization and activities were closely inspired by The Turner Diaries; the White Aryan Resistance; the White Patriot Party; and the Posse Comitatus. White Power partisans bought or stole heavy weapons from military bases, preparing for wider and bloodier conflict with the state. They brought their propaganda to new media outlets—recorded phone lines and public-access television—while creating the Internet infrastructure that sustains the movement to this day. They did so, for the most part, with impunity: while some perpetrators were tried and convicted, sentences were short and many trials led—as in Greensboro—to outright acquittals.


White Power activists were inspired by The Turner Diaries, a novel of race war that ends with nuclear genocide. Timothy McVeigh sold it at gun shows before following its blueprint in the Oklahoma City bombing.


White Power was an explicitly masculinist movement, but women nonetheless played crucial roles. Women built and maintained White Power social networks, educated and indoctrinated young people, and learned survivalist strategies. They “brokered social relationships,” including in marriages that knit disparate factions of the movement together. They also performed a wide variety of insurgent tasks, up to and sometimes including bearing arms. But they were meant first and foremost to be mothers, not warriors. One of Belew’s most interesting sections concerns the 1988 trial of Beam, Butler, and a dozen other White Power activists on more than a hundred counts of seditious activity. She attributes their acquittal on all counts to the defense’s familial performance of white male protection and white female vulnerability. Louis Beam’s wife, Sheila, became the face of the defense: a white woman who in the course of her flight from prosecution and arrest in Mexico claimed to have been mistreated, beaten, even sexually assaulted. Belew takes both journalists and previous scholars to task for naturalizing Beam’s and others’ performances of embattled white femininity. She also notes that after the acquittals, two of the women on the all-white jury became romantically involved with defendants. In this theater of conflict, explicitly white supremacist ideas and expressions found common ground with broader cultural anxieties, and proved not only palatable but appealing to people outside the movement.

Belew depicts the militia movement of the 1990s as the descendant of White Power, “a move toward the mainstream” that represented the movement’s growing success. Individual militia members may not have considered themselves White Power activists, or even racists. But she shows that the militia movement drew on the same “strategies and weapons from the Vietnam War, scenarios from The Turner Diaries, and a rhetoric that drew strongly on the defense of white women.” Violent showdowns with federal power and militarized police at Ruby Ridge and Waco demonstrated a threat that only a heavily armed citizenry could repel. The “New World Order,” with its black helicopters and domestic internment camps, was a new name for an old enemy. As at the 1988 sedition trial of Beam, Butler, et al., journalists missed the meaning of the movement they were covering, and depicted even longtime movement activists and leaders as ordinary white people who had been radicalized by recent events or victimized by federal power.

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White Power is still with us. Indeed, it has broadened its reach online, where it continues to build an anti-liberal, anti-government, white supremacist movement that radicalizes individuals. Dylann Roof haunted white supremacy’s online world before deploying its symbols and ideology in his rampage at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church.


White Power is still with us. The classic language of white supremacy can be heard in Trump’s description of immigrants as an “infestation.”


Belew’s insurgents shocked many people when they turned up en masse in Charlottesville last summer, but they have never been far from the surface of white supremacist politics and organization. Its “respectable” figures have needed their energy and numbers, and its hucksters have seen them as easy marks. Sometimes insurgent, office-holder, and huckster come wrapped together in a single package (e.g., Ben Tillman or Lester Maddox). But the relationship is often more complex.

For many generations, the thrum of impending race war has structured this dance between leaders and followers, true believers and rubes. It has shaped conceptions and practices of white manhood and womanhood. It has guided social policy from schools and home loans to crime and punishment. It can be heard in Steve Bannon’s admiration for France’s Turner Diaries—Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints—and the description by Bannon’s student, Donald Trump, of immigrants as an “infestation.”

But that thrum is not a force of nature. It has been the work of men and women who (as Linda Gordon argues about the Klan) amplified discontent, elevated it to a political principle, and provided it with outlets. The leaders of this social movement do not simply channel or release hostility; they create and intensify it. “White supremacy” may be a language of fear and loss, but that makes it more dangerous, not less.

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IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.