Understanding Extremism: The Roots of White Nationalism
A recent article over at the BBC says that Barack Obama's election is bolstering white nationalist hate groups in the US. With the attempted bombing of a civil rights march in Spokane, Washington last year, which Rachel Maddow reported, and the fact that KKK Leader David Duke is running for the Republican nomination, I think that the BBC is right to be worried.
One of my constant laments is that no one understands Nazism and White Nationalism. If we want to defeat it, we need to understand it...
To begin with, we need to understand who white nationalists are
. If you were to round a corner and see these gentlemen:
You would be right to think "HOLY CRAP! SKINHEADS!" and then run away. They're not nice people. But these guys are the kind of skinhead that looks for people wearing swastikas, and when they find them, they hit them with those bats they're holding.
The music of counter culture contains multiple examples of violently anti-nazi music.
They're not nice people, but don't assume they're Nazis unless you see swastikas. These two (ahem) gentlemen would step in if you were being accosted by White Nationalists. They've formed organizations to fight what they perceive as the growth of fascism. One of the organizations is SHARP, or SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice. Another group that includes plenty of skinheads is anti-racist action.
ARA is active in direct, violent resistance to white nationalism. "We go where they go" is their creed.
This leads to street battles whenever white nationalist groups like the National Socialist Movement meet. When Nazis march, ARA and other Anti-Fascist groups show up, and this happens:
That image was from a clash involving about 100 people in Pemberton, New Jersey, on April 15th. This is happening all over this country, right now. This sort of clash makes the problem much, much worse. While I don't really feel any sympathy for a skinhead in full Nazi regalia, this bothers me. Violence to my fellow man, no matter how misguided and harmful his path is to others bothers me. It bothers me to a greater extent here because it reinforces the foundation for white nationalism.
White nationalism is based on actual victimization, but it targets fellow victims rather than those institutions, persons, and ideas which create victims.
In order to understand how white nationalism develops, it's important to look at the place it grows: our schools.
Demographics in the US will always be in flux. White Flight and the attempts of whites to coalesce in certain neighborhoods and keep everyone else out leads to skewed demographics in the rest of the schools. White populations drop so low in some areas that whites become an almost insignificant minority group. Racial demographics aren't a problem, but poverty can be.
When you have typical teenagers who are part of a minority at their schools, they are a minority whose identity isn't really based on history, culture, or heritage. Remember all that commentary about how many Americans don't know who we fought in 1776? The identity of many whites in schools has become largely one of generic blandness. They have no real culture to hang on to. Britney Spears and Burger King doesn't offer much in the way of culture. What does it even mean to be white? It was a question I we asked ourselves.
White isn't a nation. There is no single language of the white people. There is no "white" music. White people aren't a single group with a single history. White identity in the US is based largely on transient ideas, and fictional history. Scottish identity is real. Colonial American identity is real. New England identity is real. Irish, German, Swiss, Norweigian, Italian identities are real. White-Bread american identity is essentially based on generic blankness. This isn't some huge and horrific problem as long as it is handled well. But right now, it isn't handled at all.
White students at my high school were a people without a history. Many of my school's whites were third and fourth generation Americans. The history of the pilgrims (Jamestown was ignored) largely didn't apply to them. Many of them were second generation Americans, whose parents spoke Polish, German, French, or Russian. The children adopted the local culture, and their parents were busy abandoning their own. We were told, repeatedly, that because of the color of our skin, we are incredibly privileged. For me, this was true. For most poor and lower-middle class students whose parents were struggling to survive, that privilege is invisible.
White privilege for the poor and lower-middle class means not that there are visible benefits, but that less white people are starving and struggling than any other group.
That doesn't mean that white privilege doesn't exist, it does. As a well educated white male, I know that privilege exists for me. I'm going to go farther than many other people in my position would be able to go, simply because of the color of my skin, because of my gender, and because I had the privilege of a good education. But for poor, poorly educated whites, the fact that less whites are starving than Blacks or Latinos is meaningless and incomprehensible.
Personally, I loved my time in high school, especially my senior year. I got along with everyone and discovered that in general, people were willing to live and let live. There were times of racial tension. Such as the incident where a white officer shot a black student who was trying to run down other students. I understood that the anger expressed by the black community had less to do with the incident in question, and more to do with all of the preceding small incidents. When your cup of suffering is already full, it takes only a drop to make it spill over.
There were incidents of gang violence, such as the time guns were pulled at the gas station across the street from our school.
I'm not telling this story because I want people to feel bad for me. Don't. I learned a lot. In addition history and chemistry, I learned how to defend myself physically and how to use body language and my voice to be intimidating. I learned helpful things as well. I learned positive things, too. I leaned how to bridge gaps in community. I learned about the affects that culture, language, and religion have on society. I learned that almost everyone wants to live and let live, and the few idiots who don't are generally despised by the balance of the people, all of them, regardless of race, culture, or creed. I'm telling this story so that people can see where the roots of White Nationalism begin.
The difference between my experience and those kids who joined hate groups may have been as simple as the fact that I got bused home to an affluent neighborhood every day, while they headed home to neighborhoods being torn apart by gang violence and poverty. I could ride my bike for miles in every direction after dark, while they hunkered down in their homes fearful of being caught up in a gunfight. The Fort Lauderdale Police Department would respond to a call in my neighborhood within two minutes. The Broward Sherriffs office would take up to an hour to show up to a call in their neighborhoods, if the underfunded and undermanned BSO was able to make it out at all.
The kids who joined the Klan or Nazi gangs at my High School joined because they were victims of poverty. Like me, they dealt with racial strife. Unlike me, they never had the opportunity to worship at a black church, and work together with Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Haitians to fight poverty. Like me, they had been involved with violent altercations with persons of color based on nothing other than childish stupidity. Unlike me, they couldn't escape that environment of strife when they went home. Like me, they studied in a highschool dominated by other races, and that domination included the teachers and administrators. Unlike me, they've never lived in an affluent neighborhood where there was little to no racial strife because of the privilege and unity of class.
The race issues are caused, by and large, by poverty issues. People hate because they are the victims of poverty. They hate because they reject the blame they perceive is placed on their shoulders by large and powerful minority groups. I don't know any serious leaders who think that poor whites are the problem, but that's what many racist poor whites think the problem is. They hate because they cannot see that the real enemy, the cause of the strife, is the political and economic system which makes people into things, which defines workers as a commodity, an ingredient in a money-producing equation.
If I was forced into a life where I, as an impoverished person, were fighting a specific group of people every day of my life, I would easily have developed hatred. Any of us would. I'm glad I wasn't born in Crete, Glasgow, Israel/Palestine, or Northern Ireland. I can see white privilege, but I'm gladder to have the privilege of class.
There's an active KKK in my area. These people have never experienced people of color. They've never met them.
When latino groups are victimized, and conversations begin about white privilege, the response is generally "what privilege?" People around here cant see it. I can, but then again I'm one of those liberal intellectuals the south likes to complain about. Try explaining white privilege to a retired coal miner with Coal workers' pneumoconiosis whose only child died in a mine collapse. Just try it.
The Klan tells people that if they just get rid of anyone who isn't white, all of the social and economic ills they feel will go away. They're told they're not poor because of the economic system, the bosses, the criminal misconduct on the part of corporations, and the inhuman wages they're paid, they're told they're poor because all the money is going to illegal immigrants and welfare queens (read: Black People.) It's easy to hate someone you've never met. That's how the hate begins out here. And if you explain that the problem is the banks, then it's not about writing laws or getting rid of deregulation, it turns into a conversation about the Jews.
It starts with victimization, and ends up with someone accepting the ideology of vicious racists 100 and crazy per cent. When the country Klansmen meet the city Nazis, they confirm each others suspicions about what the problem is.
In their minds, any attack on the Klan or the Nazis proves their victimhood.
It sharpens their resolve. That's why the violent anti-fascism is making the problem worse. That's why pithy and derogatory comments about hillbillies make the problem worse. That's why refusing to recognize the actual victimization working class whites feel in this economy makes the problem worse. That's why discussions of white privilege - which is real - need to involve the reality of poverty.
So how do we beat them?
I have a few suggestions.
1. We have to destroy white privilege where it exists within left-wing organizations.
I hear some of you talking "Wait, I'm not racist. There's no white privilege within my organization."
If you're thinking that, then you need to read hepshiba's excellent diary about white privilege within feminist groups. Her experiences match my experience within a number of liberal organizations. If you think the Democratic party isn't a party of white privilege, I would ask you how many black democrats sit in the senate.
Until we can look to other victims, poor people of every race, and call them our brothers and sisters, we will not get the kind of momentum we need. If we do this, we can then move on to the next step.
2. We need to recognize the victimization of poor whites. Poor whites vote against their own interests every election day. Poor whites vote overwhelmingly for the republican party.
Poor whites feel victimized, which is the reason that Sarah Palin and Fox News, and their culture of crybaby victimhood are so popular.
Poor whites are victims. This is a fact. We need to fight for poor whites, too.
The republicans are stroking their sense of victimhood, but pointing the finger at immigrants, "entitlements," and welfare queens again. Unless we can move in and start pointing the finger at the people who caused this mess, we're not going to get the massive votes we'll need to overcome the blue dogs and the DINOs. The republicans will build another generation of ignorant racists, and we'll have to wait even longer for the current batch of permanently indoctrinated racists to die before we can work with their children.