Well, this is happening. We're actually having to discuss white supremacy. And not in the context of Black Lives Matter or a media scandal, but because of the announcement that Steve Bannon will be an integral part of President-Elect Donald Trump's new staff. As head of the media site Breitbart, Bannon created a platform for the "alt-right," a rebranding of the far right in American political discourse which has been gaining power and speed, and has now been granted intimate influence over the soon-to-be most powerful man in America. Many argue that both in policy and rhetoric, the alt-right is nothing more than code for white supremacy (a claim Bannon and many on the alt-right deny).
But the notion of white supremacist groups as unified is actually incorrect. While many of them share basic principles and beliefs in the superiority of white people and the necessity to "protect" against the "rise" of other races, the movement still has distinct parts and groups. What have sociologists and other researchers discovered about white supremacists in American history, and how can it help us understand them?
Let me be clear that by "understand" I don't mean "invite them all to a tea party (pun intended) and allow them to smear their nonsense on every available surface." They can't be repressed by the government because of their fundamental right to free speech, but that doesn't mean we can't fight every other part of their heinous, brutally upsetting rhetoric. And to do that, we need to understand how white supremacy works, what contributes to it, how it's used platforms like the internet to its advantage, and why people haven't tended to take them seriously.
They Have An Ideology Of Victimhood
It can be tricky to feel as if anybody claiming that they're superior to anybody else perceives themselves as a victim, but that's one of the fundamental tenets of white supremacy in America, according to a review of white supremacist beliefs throughout the 1990s by University of Alabama researcher Mitch Berbrier, published in 2012.
The idea of white supremacy, according to his study, is actually bound up in a concept of the white race as being "victimized" by other races. White supremacists emphasize ways in which they feel they've been denied, stigmatized, had their rights taken away, or been discriminated against for being white, get angry about the "loss of self-esteem" that's entailed in this, and are worried about their entire race being wiped off the face of the Earth. "Images of whites and especially white males as victims are rampant," Berbier points out.
Their Online Presence Is All About Radicalization And Recruitment
We've known about the importance of the internet for white supremacists across America for a long time. The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps a "hate map" of the active online communities of white supremacist and nationalist groups, among others, across the U.S., and it's been growing steadily. In the wake of Trump's election, though, it's a good time to revisit the role of the web -- in particularl, a study from 2005 about what online white supremacist communities do.
At the time, the sociologists behind the study noted that anonymity and distrust of mainstream media both contributed to the popularity of digital communities for white supremacists and identified that most of what happens in them is based on reinforcing their identity and beliefs, spurring people to action, and actively recruiting and converting new people. They also share posts about, for instance, the 2011 tsunami being "karmic payback" for Japan's Pearl Harbor attack.
Some Of Them Believe In The "End Of Days"
This is an interesting one: A study done in 2007 of several Aryan pride movements in America, many of which took shape in the 1970s and '80s, had five basic foundations of belief. They thought European white people are descended from Biblical tribes of Israel, that there was some kind of worldwide Jewish conspiracy, that Aryans are at the top of the racial hierarchy, that the Holocaust didn't happen, and, most interestingly, that the Biblical "last days" were coming or upon us.
How these feed into the current modern "alt-right," as the movement has taken to calling itself, is interesting. While the belief in racial superiority, conviction of a worldwide Jewish plot, and Holocaust denial have remained strong, the Biblical aspects and the doomsday part have largely fallen by the wayside. A study of the movement's "reframing" process in 1998 found that there was a conscious effort in some white supremacists to promote "hate-free" racism and talk about things in terms of pride and heritage. This strategy is still evident in bits of the alt-right.
White Self-Segregation Breeds White Supremacy
Think not living with or knowing any people of color might contribute to racism? You'd be right. A study in 2006 found that, unsurprisingly, the more white people clumped together into areas with no other races, the more likely they were to express racist views over time.
Under this view, representation on TV or listening to a lot of Beyonce isn't enough to keep people "woke." Unless whites are able to develop "meaningful relationships" with people of other races and don't isolate themselves geographically, they're susceptible to white supremacist views. This casts an interesting light on the fear in modern white supremacy of "floods" of immigrants and elite Jewish conspiracies controlling everything. Isolationism makes it easier for supremacists to demonize groups and fear their incursion into their "nice white world."
We've Been Neglecting Them In Our Studies Of Terrorist Groups
In 2010, the terror expert Nick Simi explained at length in an article in the splendidly named journal Deviant Behavior that white supremacists haven't been treated with the same attention by terror scholars as ISIS, al-Qaeda, or other terror groups. "Violence associated with white supremacist groups in the United States represents the most sustained form of terrorism in this country," he wrote, "Yet there is a tendency among contemporary observers to presume that white supremacist terror is relatively infrequent, which leads to an under-estimation of the actual occurrence of this type of violence."
Why do we neglect them? Because, Simi said, the media's tendency is to depict them as benign, clearly crazy "buffoons" or isolated actors, not as genuine threats. He noted that the level of anti-immigrant and racist hate groups across the U.S. mushroomed between 2000 and 2008 -- a trend that has continued. Continuing media and academic dismissal of the threat was unwise. And this was before the recent rise of the alt-right. Yeesh. We're in for a very long, very upsetting four years.