By Peter Owens
A recent New York Times article captures a disturbing, yet increasingly common, practice in the contemporary American white power movement: the secretive taking over of ostensibly marginal and largely white communities or buying up of marginal land in order to transform them into strongholds of white racist organizing. Most disturbingly, many of the residents of this small North Dakota town were unaware that such a process was unfolding underneath their feet until they were alerted by the Southern Poverty Law Center! Such strategies reflect the importance of creating various covert “free spaces,” as Simi and Futrell have noted, in which movement adherents are able to openly socialize with each other and profess their beliefs. In the case of contemporary white racist movements, the cultivation of these free spaces, often referred to within the movement as “pioneer little Europes” (PLEs), is a significant objective of their activism. In addition, there are good indications that racist social movements have had a fair degree of success in covertly recruiting within more popular right-wing movements such as the Tea Party. Often these efforts involve extending racialist frames to resonate with normative U.S. right-wing language (e.g. the need to “take back our country”) while attempting to police or play down overt displays of racist ideology. These strategies, in part, reflect the strong political and cultural stigmatization of openly racist social movements in contemporary American society (Simi and Futrell 2009). As a result of this stigmatization, racist far right-wing movements now organize and congregate through relatively covert means or, if operating openly, must disguise their messages within popular political tropes. Despite seeming to be on the back foot culturally and politically, American racist movements are nevertheless experiencing a popular resurgence.
How can we understand these trends in racist mobilization within a broader historical perspective? To this end, it’s key to acknowledge that racist movements both draw from and adapt to the prevailing racial, cultural, and institutional environment. Now, this may seem like a relatively obvious proposition, but I think it helps to direct attention towards some important discursive mechanisms that are deserving of further inquiry.
While in the 1950s and ’60s various klan organizations, Citizens’ Councils, and other white supremacist organizations tended to find allies in formal political and legal institutions, and were often able to operate relatively openly, contemporary racist activists encounter a political and cultural environment in which public displays of bigotry and racism are highly stigmatized. However, many have been able to exploit various gaps and loopholes in popular “colorblind” understandings of racial discourse and justice. In large part, this exploitation focuses on capitalizing on the political cache of multiculturalism: through discursive strategies that Berbrier (1998) terms equivalence and reversal, new racist activists have been able to successfully portray themselves as a minority increasingly under attack, and deserving of the same political and cultural protection as other groups. (In a way, such strategies illustrate the perverse career that such overly-elaborated frames can take—developed to foster support for civil rights and racial justice, multiculturalism has now become adopted by the same white supremacists it was initially meant to counter!).
These kinds of discursive strategies seem to get at something much more broadly resonant (and disturbing) in contemporary American racial politics – what Bonilla-Silva has tellingly referred to as “racism without racists.” To use a personal example, on the UC Irvine campus, where the student population is largely Asian and Asian-American, it is not uncommon to hear undergraduates (and even a few graduate students) lament and/or mock the panoply of ethnic student organizations, and remark that there is seemingly “no place” for white students. One student even went so far as to suggest that white students deserve their own cultural pride organizations, to counter the over-representation of Asian students. Unsurprisingly, I recently learned that student activists had engaged in this very tactic at the University of Georgia. Patrick Sharp, the organizer of the university’s first unofficial “white student union,” has a notable history of posting on the white power message board Stormfront, and is listed as a “sustaining member” on the website. However, his public statements regarding the aims of the group are very telling: “Looking back, being online in the company of racially insensitive individuals has taught me one very important lesson: how to spot them. My most important goal with the [white student union] is to guard it from hot heads, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anyone with nefarious intent. The WSU is no place for bigots of any kind. We’re about heritage and identity; two things that everyone else is allowed to be proud of–why can’t we?” (emphasis added).
Such statements fit neatly within the current multicultural, colorblind milieu – rather than mobilizing around hatred and intolerance, whites should now organize to protect their “heritage” and “identity.” This kind of dynamic is also corroborated in journalistic explorations of contemporary racist organizing, which suggest that such groups will police usage of explicitly racist or bigoted language within their own ranks (e.g. 6:46 in the video link above) in order to increase their mainstream appeal. While there is nothing inherently racist or reactionary about invoking pride in one’s heritage or identity, this kind of sentiment is often used as a vehicle for more deeply encoded racism – an instrument to disguise bigotry beneath cultural pride.
Behind an apparent sheen of multiculturalism and pride in “white heritage” and “identity”, racist activists are working hard to create various movement free spaces, including the takeover of marginal towns and communities, to insinuate themselves into more popular right-wing movements, and to build and maintain strong networks of commitment and identity – yet these movements often eschew the open displays of racism that would commonly identify them as such. These are important and disturbing developments that current scholars of movements, politics, and culture should explore in great detail.