By Kim Ebert
Many of us were introduced to empirical research on racism through popular psychology, which suggests that racism is an individual-level problem among whites. The idea is that racism stems from prejudice, which is “an antipathy based on a faulty and inflexible generalization,” meaning that it’s negative and hostile, irrational, rigid, and inaccurate. According to this perspective, prejudice may be “felt or expressed;” it can involve both the intent to discriminate and actual discrimination. To “cure” white racism and to solve this prejudice problem, then, we should endorse more education, training, and diversity initiatives. Such initiatives would expose individuals to accurate and scientific information, replacing antagonistic and inaccurate information with harmony and truth, resulting in the reduction of prejudice. Policy initiatives that take this approach may address interracial conflict, but what about the underlying racial inequality?
Sociologists are more likely to approach racism as a structural product, an arrangement in contemporary society that advantages whites and disadvantages non-whites. Because the arrangement is embedded in institutions, racism would persist even if individual-level acts of racial discrimination ceased to exist. Conversely, racism may decline alongside the reduction of racial disparities within institutions like law enforcement, politics, cultural life, universities, corporations, and other collective bodies. In this view, dominant racial ideologies and related components (i.e., prejudice and stereotypes) are adaptable, rational, and political because they serve white racial group interests. They rationalize racial inequality, vindicate white privileges, and constrain the choices of those that are exploited. Whereas traditional prejudice scholars imply that prejudice causes racial discrimination, many sociologists begin with a fundamentally different assumption: that inequalities produce ideological frameworks and that stories are created to validate and rationalize the structure of inequalities. These frameworks are flexible because they change as circumstances change, and they adapt to continue to serve white racial group interests.
From the perspective that racism is a structural product, I argue that 1) racial inequalities have contributed to the development and expansion of the alt-right social movement and 2) the reduction of racial disparities and expansion of Black mobilization would discredit and debilitate the alt-right.
In one line of research, I investigate the conditions that legitimize racially exclusionary activity. A pattern has emerged. Racially exclusionary collective action is more likely to occur in places with higher levels of white privilege, and less likely to occur in places with stronger communities of color. That is, contexts with more racial inequality—places where whites have more and non-whites have less—facilitate the emergence of racist activity, and effects of racial inequality on racially exclusionary activity is generally heightened in places with a strong conservative contingent. These findings challenge conventional approaches of group threat theory, which posits that threats to dominant group interests motivate reactive mobilization that serves white racial groups’ interests. This theoretical approach is often captured with measures such as increases in intergroup contact, the demographic growth of newcomers, declines in economic conditions among whites, and increases in political activity that support minority group rights. Some pundits and scholars have surmised that such measures of group threat led to the emergence of the alt-right. Perhaps the alt-right is reacting to perceptions that the strength of groups of color has grown in the abstract. However, my research implies that at the local-level, increasing shares of groups of color, rising displays of political strength among groups of color, and increasing economic parity deters racist activity. Instead, racially exclusionary activity is more likely to occur in contexts that validate and support the public expression of politically sensitive normative prescriptions and interpretations of reality. These contexts could thus serve to legitimize the alt-right movement.
To resist the alt-right movement, then, we should focus our efforts on reducing racial inequality and promoting Black mobilization. Chaniqua Simpson, a PhD student at North Carolina State University, studies contemporary forms of Black insurgency and the ways that these groups incorporate intersectionality in their frames, identities, and targets. Many of the groups and individuals that comprise the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), for example, recognize how racial domination works in tandem with other forms of domination, like hegemonic masculinity, to maintain the status quo. Accordingly, the M4BL targets systems and practices of domination including mass incarceration but also the symbolic violence of trans and queer persons.
Therefore, the endorsement of Black mobilization also works to foster a core set of principles and actions that contradict the alt-right movement. In places with more powerful forms of Black mobilization, members and supporters of the alt-right may hesitate to engage publicly in exclusionary activity. But in areas where Black mobilization is ineffectual, Black activists and allies will have a more difficult time challenging and invalidating the messages and actions of the alt-right. Though members and associates of the alt-right engage in outright criticism of political correctness, they don’t want to be publicly labeled racist, and they don’t want to be publicly associated with a racist movement. In contexts with formidable Black insurgency, Black activists and allies will have an enhanced ability to call out alt-right hate speech and to sanction the frames and actions of the alt-right publicly. In such places, the alt-right are more susceptible to claims that they are racist (because they are racist), illegitimate, and thus, outside the bounds of the racial status quo.