Heterodoxy, Insulation, and the Production of Racist Violence

By David Cunningham

Whenever I speak about research I’ve conducted over the past decade on the civil rights-era Ku Klux Klan, the one question I can be sure I’ll hear relates to the danger posed by the KKK today. For a long time, the question would throw me, as—despite their similar monikers and common predilections toward foreboding racist rhetoric and ubiquitous adoption of white hoods, burning crosses, and other familiar symbols—I’ve long viewed the contemporary klan as a phenomenon distinct from its 1960s forebears.

There exists a straightforward response, of course, and I’ve typically relied on the data that Heidi Beirich and Evelyn Schlatter describe in their earlier essay in this dialogue, associated with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s important work compiling the locations and characteristics of a wide range of contemporary domestic hate groups. Consistent with recent research on the White Power Movement and racial extremism more generally, the SPLC’s “Hate Map” shows clearly that many more KKK and other racial extremist groups exist today than during the 1960s, but that, unlike their civil rights-era predecessors, these organizations now fail to attract significant followings or garner influence among mainstream political officials. As the dialogue essays by Blee and Dobratz and Waldner note, this decoupling from mainstream support and alliances—and the consequently insular character centered on the move toward the “hidden spaces of hate” highlighted by Simi and Futrell—provide a clear analytic basis for understanding the contemporary KKK as distinct from its earlier mass incarnations.

Here, I’d like to more provocatively extend this observation, pushing beyond these broad historical distinctions to consider continuities in racist mobilization. While we might explore peculiarities and parallels from many vantages, I focus here on the question of violence, and emphasize historical continuities in how violent action has emerged within racial extremist groups. The previous essays in this dialogue provide signposts for understanding such continuities, and I seek to build on their insights here.

In the U.S., the viability of extremist political violence has almost always hinged on the ability of its perpetrators to insulate themselves from authorities and other targets. As many analysts have compellingly shown, such insulation is bound up in the mode of organizing deployed by many extremist groups today. In her contribution to this essay dialogue, Kathleen Blee highlights the “loosely structured, relatively organized, and only intermittently connected network of small groups of virulently racist and militantly dedicated activists,” which—as Robert Futrell likewise describes—transform “otherwise ordinary and benign sites and activities” like family celebrations, music festivals, house parties, and online networks into “havens that nourish violent, paranoid conspiracies and imagine terror plots to lash out at their oppressors and spark the race war they see coming.” As Peter Owens notes, such efforts can extend even to the “takeover” of entire marginal communities to transform them into insulated white power centers. Crucially, such sites typically remain “hidden,” as adherents work to conceal their racist predilections in mainstream public settings.

This insular character defines movements that we might usefully label as heterodox—i.e., as groupings organized around a shared and sustained commitment to counter-mainstream ideals and practices, maintained through tight-knit networks that insulate members from counter-pressures exerted by “orthodox” influences. Sustaining heterodox identities and commitment requires adherents to adopt practices that inoculate themselves from bombardment by mainstream discourses that, in surface expressions at least, are critical of racism and white supremacy. Simi and Futrell’s conception of contemporary “hidden spaces of hate” clearly demonstrates the settings and related identity work that enable today’s white supremacists to both bound and reproduce their orientation to racist worldviews and actions.

But if we consider these buffers the lifeblood of heterodox spaces, sustaining the threat posed by marginalized contemporary racist movements, we should also recognize the role such features have played in prior waves of racist mobilization, even those that have marshaled substantial followings and benefited from significant ideological alignment with mainstream authorities. Such parallels highlight significant continuities in the production of violence within white supremacist circles.

Consider, for instance, the largest domestic white supremacist effort of the past half century: the civil rights-era KKK, whose largest 1960s organizational incarnation—the United Klans of America (hereafter UKA)—mobilized an estimated 25,000-30,000 dues-paying members alongside a much broader base of contributors and sympathizers. The UKA balanced electoral political goals—in particular, assembling a voting bloc that could elect “real white men” who would then work to maintain racial segregation across the South—with the commission of hundreds of acts of racial terror.

But even when the UKA enjoyed considerable tacit support among local elites, its propensity toward violence was seldom enacted openly. While militancy had a rhetorical function in the group’s public appeals, drawing those who felt that no other outfit represented white segregationist interests, the commission of specific acts of violence was rarely openly endorsed or acknowledged among the broader membership. Instead, an inner circle of committed leaders used the UKA’s mass support as a buffer, behind which they could plan and carry out strategic acts of terror against carefully selected targets in a manner that allowed for plausible deniability of members’ involvement. If arrested, UKA members were sometimes celebrated as persecuted heroes, but pleading guilty to klan violence became cause for banishment from the organization. Such deniable—and thereby strategic—violence enabled UKA leaders to, for a time at least, maintain a delicate balancing act: preserving a mass membership around the group’s public emphasis on “ballots over bullets” while also fostering the terroristic threat that had long served as the KKK’s hallmark.

The UKA’s late-1960s fall demonstrates how a crumbling membership base forced the group to transition their mode of buffering, with core adherents abandoning the group’s top-down strategic violence model for a campaign of covert and semi-autonomous cell-like terror, described by one insider as a “game of ones” (a harbinger of subsequent campaigns around “leaderless resistance”). Today, we might also consider transitions in the opposite direction, with “hidden” heterodox networks simulating the buffers of mass membership through attempts to infiltrate, forge coalitions, or otherwise align with more politically palatable groups. In the present essay dialogue, Abby Ferber’s emphasis on synergies between conservatives and the far right provides one broad example of such efforts, as do Beirich and Schlatter’s and Dobratz and Waldner’s suggestions of tacit or active alliances between the Tea Party and white power or other nativist adherents.

How might the claim that organized violence requires insulated spaces for its commission alter our orientation to racial extremism? Highlighting continuities in the buffered nature of violence contests claims that the danger posed by racist movements is predicated on their ability to attract sizeable followings. Large memberships don’t necessarily increase the degree of violence produced by militant organizations—indeed, as the UKA case demonstrates, the presence of a layered membership can place strategic limitations on violent action, in some cases moderating a group’s overall action profile—though they do open up possibilities for organized violence, by buffering a violent core and thus reducing associated transaction costs. Likewise, connections between nativist extremists and institutional bodies like the Tea Party not only compromise the latter’s ability to act with integrity in the state house, but also serve as a buffering resource that can enhance the former’s ability to carry out violent campaigns. Recognizing the relationship between such institutional buffers and the production of racist violence—and in particular how distinct modes of insulation have operated historically—can ideally buttress our ability to vigilantly oppose such threats, now and in the future.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Racist and Racial Justice Movements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s