By Pete Simi
We all use a “schemata of interpretation” (Goffman 1974) to understand our world. How we “frame” experience renders some aspects of our world more visible and meaningful than others. In this essay, I want to explore the idea raised in several of last month’s essays that social scientists, media, and policy makers frame the world in ways that render the U.S. White Supremacist Movement (WSM) relatively invisible. The WSM’s invisibility flows from inattention (i.e., too many ignore the phenomenon despite knowing it exists) and inaccurate distortions when we do acknowledge it.
During the course of studying the WSM for the past two decades, it became clear that the way “we” (scholars) think and talk about white supremacy contributes to its invisibility. A few examples come to mind. First and closest to the field of social movement studies is the idea that white supremacists are not “real” political activists. This idea reveals a bias that only certain political orientations count as activism or that what white supremacists do has little bearing in terms of “real” political mobilization. The expression of this idea ranges from the lack of research attention (a kind of error of omission) to more overt ways of thinking that lead to questions such as: “Why are you referring to white supremacists as activists?” or “Do we really need to study these people?” Although there has been a shift over the last 25 years, with more sociological attention directed toward the WSM (this special blog is an important case in point), relatively speaking the topic is still neglected.
The inattention is even more surprising given the longevity and influence that can be attributed to white supremacist movements, including a substantial history of violence that clearly meets standard definitions of terrorism. Yet, the broader public discourse regarding terrorism (including scholars) seems to suggest that violence related to the WSM is not “real” terrorism. In the post-9/11 era a powerful stereotype has emerged that “real terrorists” read the Koran and worship Allah. No matter how unfair or erroneous, this conviction has taken hold and manifests itself with statements such as, “But we know white supremacists aren’t the real threat.”
Inattention becomes distortion when we fail to acknowledge the longstanding presence of WSM terror. For example, this failure was dramatically illustrated in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013. More than one commentator opined that aside from 9/11, the Boston bombing represented a type of violence Americans had never experienced before. But even a casual observer of American history knows this is patently false. African-Americans, in particular, are quite familiar with the type of violence we witnessed in Boston. Consider the 1963 Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four children attending a Sunday service. Remember, too, that the 1963 bombing was the culmination of a terror campaign that lasted more than twenty years in Birmingham (the city was known as “Bombingham”). Similar examples of terror campaigns committed by the WSM can be found across the country and throughout our history. The point is incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing are “new” only in the context of the invisibility of the WSM’s pattern of terror.
Further distortion occurs when terror incidents connected to the WSM are described in ways that deemphasize these connections. For example, Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber, whose attacks killed two and injured 119, is often referred to as a “single issue terrorist” or “Christian terrorist” despite adherence to beliefs consistent with the WSM including Christian Identity theology and a long history of WSM affiliations. Inaccurate characterizations of WSM violence conceal the extent of their terror.
In addition to terrorism, white supremacists also commit an unknown amount of street-level violence. Yet the WSM’s involvement in this violence is often minimized by references to the figure that most hate crimes are not committed by members of hate groups. But this is misleading because the WSM, like most movements, doesn’t really have members but rather participants, making the concept of membership inapplicable. What this suggests is that the WSM’s involvement and influence on this type of street violence is likely far greater than we realize. Disparate acts of hate crime may at least indirectly flow from a culture that promotes and reinforces this type of violence, but the WSM’s influence remains unseen because of how we frame it.
Skeptics might ask, “Aside from sporadic acts of violence, isn’t the WSM’s influence virtually nonexistent?” Again, we must consider what else the frame of invisibility has obscured. The revitalization of the far right in recent years that many of the previous essays pointed to suggests the WSM’s irrelevance may be more apparent than real.
And this revitalization is global, with Russia being the most troubling example. Kathy Blee’s essay raised some important issues about the need to further examine the extent of transnational ties among the far right. While precise answers to her questions remain unclear, the global nature of the WSM is striking. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian neo-Nazis and their ideas have flourished. According to public survey data, as many as 28 percent of Russians want to reestablish Jewish ghettos or settlements (Osborn 2005). Maybe most alarming, this type of hatred was recently institutionalized in Russian national policy when a new law was signed that prohibits the public promotion of homosexuality. Of course Russia is not the only European country where the far right is gaining ground. In Germany a recent study found that one in twenty West German and one in eight former East German male 15-year-olds claimed membership in a neo-Nazi faction (Donahue 2009). While references to a “global jihad movement” are plentiful, we don’t hear much about a global WSM. The reluctance to acknowledge the WSM’s global dimension is yet another example of the frame of invisibility.
So what you have is a feedback loop. We don’t talk much about the WSM because we have decided its level of activity is negligible and insignificant, and when we do discuss the WSM we often distort the movement in ways that verify our initial assessment of inactivity and insignificance. The feedback loop is the crux of the WSM’s frame of invisibility and limits a sustained and in-depth discussion of how and why the WSM continues to play an important role in contemporary society.
Donahue, Patrick. 2009. “German Boys Join Anti-Immigrant, Neo-Nazi Groups New Study Shows.” Downloaded at Bloomberg: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aLSt.8pbvV28
Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. London: Harper & Row.
Osborn, Andrew. “Violence and Hatred in Russia’s New Skinhead Playground.” The Independent, January 25, 2005. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/violence-and-hatred-in-russias-new-skinhead-playground-488154.html