I would like to take this opportunity to examine my own recent, personal experience with both the “far right” and “conservative right” to raise questions about the ways in which they support each other, and the synergy between them that has been opened up as a result of the internet scene. My own early research on the white supremacist movement argued that the distinction between the far right and mainstream served to disavow mainstream racism, and that we needed to examine their shared assumptions about race. Now, as a result of my own personal experiences coming under attack from both mainstream conservatives and the far right, I am even more convinced of the need for sociologists to examine the synergy between the mainstream conservative movement and the far right.
I have been involved with the annual White Privilege Conference for the past 8 years. This conference bridges academia and the broader community in dialogue around the persistence of white privilege, the intersections of race with gender, class, and other social identities, and in building social justice practice. Each year, as the conference approaches, we receive a smattering of hate emails. The volume has increased each year, and in the last few years has risen dramatically.
We receive personal phone calls, voice mails, and e-mails along the full political spectrum from conservative to far right. The complaints range from “liberals” who argue that class trumps race, to conservative citizens who refuse to recognize whiteness studies as a legitimate academic field with an entrenched interdisciplinary history, to white supremacists that accuse me, as a Jew, of conspiring to eliminate the white race. The ideological foundation that grounds all of these views is the assumption that racism is a thing of the past. My University has also come under increasing attack, with constant inquiries about whether any public funds are used to support the conference (they are not). We receive requests for interviews from Fox news and other conservative media, and in the past few years every sponsor has been contacted by right-wing media outlets and targeted with hate mail as well. In May, the WPC was featured as the cover story of the conservative Weekly Standard.
This article precipitated a new wave of hate mail, which we had never before encountered after the conference. After being profiled in this article and accompanying podcast, the personal attacks increased as well. In July, I was the subject of a demeaning, derogatory, anti-semitic YouTube video made by the “Libertarian Realist” Paul Trun (I don’t know if this is his real name). His blog and videos claim to be libertarian, but are more blatantly white supremacist in their content. The video has received over 2000 views. The over 200 comments that are posted contain a heavy dose of misogyny and anti-semitism, and many are posted by individuals with white supremacist monikers.
This video was then immediately reposted on a number of other websites, ranging from an op-ed in the Digital Journal, a Canadian website news source that presents itself as mainstream, and then on a website clearly at the other end of the spectrum given its name.
In order to begin to make sense of this experience, I want to place it within the broader context of 1.) The increase in racism and white supremacist attitudes post-Obama; 2.) the importance of the internet to right-wing politics and racism; and 3.) A reconceptualization of the conservative movement.
Increase of Far Right Groups Post-Obama
We are in a period of right-wing racist revival. Despite claims that we have entered a post-racial era with the election of Obama, there are many signs that blatant racism has actually increased since his election. According to a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report: “To the surprise of many prognosticators, anti-black racism in America — not just that limited to the far right — actually rose over the four years of Obama’s first term, according to a 2012 Associated Press poll. The poll found 51% of Americans expressed explicitly anti-black attitudes, compared to 48% in 2008, while 56% showed implicitly anti-black attitudes, up from 49% four years earlier.” A poll this year found that over one third of Americans do not believe Obama is a U. S. born citizen.
With the rise in what we might call mainstream racist attitudes, the far right has also seen a spike in interest. The SPLC argues that the far right benefits from this increase in mainstream racism. In 2000 there were 602 hate groups, in 2012 the number was over 1000. More significant, “the count of 1,360 Patriot groups in 2012 was up about 7% from the 1,274 active in 2011. And that was only the latest growth spurt in the Patriot movement, which generally believes that the federal government is conspiring to take Americans’ guns and destroy their liberties as it paves the way for a global ‘one-world government.’ From a mere 149 organizations in 2008, the number of Patriot groups shot up to 512 in 2009, jumped again to 824 in 2010, and then skyrocketed to 1,274 in 2011 before hitting their all-time high last year.” While patriot and militia groups are not by definition racist, the anti-Obama incarnation is covertly and often overtly racist, and the fears of government take over driven in part by fears of declining white power.
Internet as Context
White supremacist groups were some of the first to start taking advantage of the internet and using it strategically to advance their mission and reach a wider audience. The internet provides a participatory environment where authors, commenters, and chat room participants can write anonymously. Taking the dialogue on-line allows the dialogue to reach a far wider audience, including non-committed folks simply reading along. The YouTube videos of the Libertarian Realist, for example, potentially draw in libertarians who would generally not consider themselves white supremacist, yet the content of the videos present a strong white supremacist ideology and agenda.
Many sites are also “cloaked” to hide their main purpose, and draw readers in. This provides a far greater audience of potential recruits than in person meetings/events could facilitate. The varying degrees of involvement among folks on the web make it difficult to measure the real threat of violence they pose (see Daniels 2009)
In addition, while it is unknown whether the internet actually leads to increased numbers of bodies in the movement, there is no doubt that it does have a real impact on dialogue and attitudes about race. According to Daniels, the greatest danger is that this discourse reinforces the “epistemology of white supremacy,” and the white racial frame which reifies white privilege while at the very same time reinforcing the notion that white racism and white privilege no longer exist. As Daniels argues, the internet is “an increasingly important front on the political struggle to contest the meanings of race, racism and civil rights.” (Daniels 2009: 3).
One of the most significant ways in which this is taking place is via the wholesale discounting of basic sociological facts such as the widespread reality of racial inequality. In the world of the internet, the reality of racial inequality can be turned into a matter of opinion, up for debate, “where all websites seem equally plausible” (8). One need only glance at the mission of the Digital Journal to see this danger realized: “Digital Journal is recognized as a pioneer and leader in social news, blending professional content with high-quality user-generated contributions to inform our audience about what’s happening around the world….A media business where everyone can contribute and engage. We set out to build a media company where anyone can play an important role, so we can break news faster, tell stories better and take an alternative and fresh view on issues of the day… Digital Journal is a platform where everyone’s voice is equally important” including, apparently, that of white supremacists, whose voices here are presented out of context and given legitimacy and authority.
The American Conservative Movement
Gross, Medvetz and Russell (2011) charge that sociology as a discipline has failed to “develop a comprehensive sociological view of the American right” (326) and seek to encourage sociologists to become more interested in the “American conservative movement” (326). Informed by the work of Bourdieu, Gross et. al argue for a new perspective:
“The key to our approach is to set aside, for methodological purposes, the search for the single true essence of conservatism and focus instead on the social relations through which particular meanings come to be defined as conservative within a given sociohistorical milieu, as well as on the processes through which individuals, groups, and movements come to adopt these meanings as their own and mobilize around them. In this view, conservatism is not a fixed category of belief or practice but a collective identity that evolves in the course of struggles and collaborations over meaning” (330).
I believe this approach has much to offer, and has the greatest potential for helping us understand the movement between mainstream and far right conservative discourse around race, especially on the internet. In exploring how to define American conservatism, they state at the start that “Fringe groups on the right, such as white supremacist militia organizations, do not figure in our account except insofar as we attend to interactions between these groups and mainstream political actors” (327). No interactions are examined, however. I argue, therefore, that based on Gross et. al.’s own conceptualization of the Conservative movement, the role of the far right in contributing to the impact of the conservative movement, as well as the relationship between what we often identify as the mainstream and far right, must be examined.
For example, consequences of the rise of the Conservative movement identified by Gross et. al. include: “blunting the efforts of left social movements around gender, race, sexuality, and the environment” (327) as well as “heightened salience of ideological themes identified as conservative in contemporary political discourse.” In both of these cases, we cannot a priori separate mainstream American conservatism from the far right. Despite what movement actors’ intent may be, the impact is greater because of the on-line synergy found among these sectors. I can certainly attest to the increased negative impact we have experienced as a result of this synergy, and it is certainly the case that ideological attacks on the reality of white privilege and racial inequality are no longer only central to the far right, but are now an ideological fixture of the conservative movement. This shared ideological ground thus creates a synergy, so that the same readers may be likely to read the weekly standard’s article, view the YouTube video, and then click on a white supremacist link in the comments. How might this benefit the far right? How might this benefit the conservative movement? How might it shape the impact of their attacks? How might it further cement assumptions that racism no longer exists? These are important empirical questions for sociologists to examine. However, these sorts of questions never arise if we begin with the assumption that the far right fringe has no relationship with the fabric of the mainstream conservative movement.
Daniels, Jessie. Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.
Gross, Neil, Thomas Medvetz, and Rupert Russell. “The Contemporary American Conservative Movement.” Annual Review of Sociology. 2011. 37: 325-54.
The Southern Poverty Law Center. “The Year in Hate and Extremism.” Intelligence Report, Spring 2013, Issue Number: 149.