Rethinking the Roots of White Supremacism

Why have white supremacist movements been surging recently in the Anglosphere? CNN argue that the election of Obama resurrected deeply held racial resentments in the American psyche, priming predominantly white and rural states for the deliberately divisive racial politics of the Trump campaign in 2016. A range of views collated by the Washington Post suggest that hate crimes perpetrated by whites can be triggered by something as innocuous as seeing too many black faces on television. The New York Times intimates that the very character of western liberal democracy is supported by a latent assumption of white superiority, which—given the rapid shift in racial demographics—may even lead to civil war in various developed nations. The message is clear—the west allegedly has a serious and innate problem with racism, which can manifest as a rise in white supremacism and white supremacist ideologies, given the proper antecedent societal conditions.

The question that many mainstream publications address is: which specific factors lead an individual to either purposefully seek or come to support a belief in any form of racial superiority? The implied consensus explanation—that some whites inevitably gravitate towards racist ideologies in times of economic stress or significant demographic change—is often presented uncritically. Steve Bannon, among others, allegedly exploits the subconsciously racist fears of disenfranchised whites in order to spread his populist political agenda and ideology of economic nationalism—an accusation with enough stigma attached to have him unceremoniously disinvited from the New Yorker festival a few months ago. Bannon’s exploitation of these fears is supposedly yet another factor in the murky, festering hate that drives this common renaissance of racism in countries as radically demographically and culturally dissimilar as England, Australia and the US.

Data on hate crime is notoriously difficult to analyze, and especially prone to misrepresentation due to the inherent differences in hate crime definitions across jurisdictional boundaries. Evidence from the US, the UK and even Australia appears to reveal modest increases in hate crimes over the past few years—however these figures should be viewed somewhat skeptically, given the recent massive increases in police resources dedicated to tracking and compiling hate crime statistics. Mainstream reporting on the issue has become tautological, further reinforcing the notion that white majority nations often struggle to suppress racist sentiment amongst their citizens. The number of white supremacist hate groups tracked by the contentious Southern Poverty Law Center has exploded in recent years—however, many identitarian groups are conflated with those that are explicitly racist, a minor technical point that further confounds the issue.

Assuming that the prevailing western socio-political climate is conducive to white supremacism raises some interesting corollaries—are whites especially susceptible to the allure of racism? Are demographic changes, economic hardships or some combination of the two demonstrably sufficient to induce an individual to risk the social and professional ostracization that comes from being labeled a racist? The fact that white supremacists in the US managed to attract only a feeble twenty or so supporters to a rally outside the White House in August of last year suggests that the risk of social censure still severely restricts individual willingness to identify with white supremacist movements. This begs the question: why are individuals ashamed to be associated with white supremacism within the context of a culture that allegedly tolerates it? In such a culture, what possible harm could there be in attending white supremacist rallies? If Trump is as brazenly and consciously racist as he is accused of being, why are so many everyday Americans afraid of supporting him?

A popular contemporary perspective in many countries is that a national legacy of racism cannot be fully addressed through legislative reform, no matter how comprehensive. Even if all systemic components of racism are removed, subconscious racism will always persist in the national character and permeate the ideologies of its citizens. Australia notoriously enforced a whites only migration policy until 1973, and, despite all the ostensible successes of contemporary multicultural Australia, an extensive and ongoing media narrative suggests that Australia remains afflicted by deeply held pathological racism. Multiple national and international media outlets continue to analyze the purported racist tendency of Australian society. CNNthe Guardian and ABC all support the contention that racist national history can exert a permanent negative influence on contemporary race relations, and that successful cultural integration is achieved despite a persistent bias against multiculturalism. This contention is mirrored in the US in the debate as to the lasting effects of slavery and racial segregation. The Washington Post and the New York Times are consistent producers of commentary and opinion pieces that continue to explore this view. The coverage of the Covington Catholic School incident serves to demonstrate how this assumption of latent racist tendencies affects the media: before the full context of the altercation between high school student Nick Sandmann and Native American elder Nathan Phillips was known, many established media outlets assumed that the altercation was racially charged—an assumption that lead to widespread debate on contemporary racial politics.

These perspectives rely on the notion that, despite over sixty years of progress on nearly every conceivable measure of racial equality, there remains a cohort of whites willing to oppress supposedly inferior racial groups under certain social and economic contexts. If social and economic factors conducive to white supremacism have been present in western societies in recent years and western nations have a demonstrable bias towards condoning ideologies compatible with white supremacism, the effect has proven exceedingly weak in practice. A multitude of data illustrates how, under many criteria, racial relations and measures of racial equality are unilaterally improving. The Brookings Institution has offered a statistical perspective on racial equality in the US that demonstrates unequivocal positive progress in social assimilation, employment and racial attitudes. In 1958, 44% of white survey respondents said they would be inclined to move house if they had a black neighbor—today the figure is 1%. Is that kind of change consistent with the assumption that widespread belief in racial equality is in danger of regressing? The University of Illinois publishes trends in racial attitudes and these have shown a monotonic increase in support since 1935 for basic precepts of racial equality: mixed-race schools and interracial marriage. Equivalent longitudinal data is difficult to find for Australia, however survey results published by The Scanlon Foundation suggest a similar dynamic by virtue of what survey respondents believed not to be a serious social issue: when asked to rank fifteen social issues in order of importance racism came in at number twelve, deemed most critical by only 4.1% of participants. Finally, the Pew Research Center provides survey data on global attitudes towards immigration. Using proposed immigration rates as a proxy for racial tolerance, it appears that citizens of the UK, Australia and the US are most likely to express positive opinions of immigration and the racial diversity immigration implies.

A relentless and narrow focus on statistics is often risky, there being no shortage of privately assembled data sets available to prove or disprove nearly any theory of interest. In this particular case, however, the data is relevant purely because it illustrates the existence of an alternative to the narrative of a supposed increase in white supremacist sentiment—if the average US or Australian citizen is becoming less racist over time, how could it be the case that either US or Australian society is inherently racist or prone to fostering racist sentiment? Furthermore, how is it that certain individuals might be increasingly susceptible to radicalization by extremist racial ideologies?

The most probable potential answer is entirely unremarkable and perhaps for that reason alone is largely absent from the social discourse surrounding the issue. Western society does not have a characteristic defect that enables racism or conversion to radical racist ideologies—it merely provides the potential for individuals on the social fringes to seek radical ideologies as an alternative form of belonging. In essence, white supremacism is no different from any other extremist ideology: isolated and emotionally vulnerable recruits are attracted to groups that believe in racial supremacy in the same way that they are attracted to forms of radical Islamism, Marxism, anarchism or any other extremist position. There are many prevailing social forces that might enable such a dynamic to exist. Countless commentators—Michel Houllebecq is one prominent example—have argued that social life in developed western nations is tending towards destructive atomization, due to the degradation of specific sociocultural fundamentals. The decline of traditional family structures, the transformation and digitization of the global economy, the dissolution of organized religion—all these factors might compromise individual identity and meaning and increase susceptibility to extremist ideological positions. Why then should white supremacism, a particular style of hatred, be considered in isolation from any other easily identifiable hateful ideology, when the impact on a vilified individual is just as harmful, and the means to radicalization just as plausible?

The notion that adherence to extremist ideologies stems from a desire for identity formation has some qualitative academic support. Researchers have extensively analyzed the attractive nature of high-impact extremist identities. Given that various forms of extremist identity persist in society today, how likely is it that a racist one will be the most attractive to any vulnerable individual? Assuming an individual is susceptible to extremist ideology, is there an empirical reason to believe that western societies create a special predisposition towards racial extremism?

Further research has highlighted an ironic recruiting tactic used by these groups—in some cases, they exploit the concept of anti-white social bias to gradually alter the belief system of potential members. This may be significant for two reasons: it provides some indirect evidence that certain western societies are ostensibly tending towards deliberately and openly advocating a social discourse of anti-racism, and that this anti-racist discourse can effectively be used to polarize racial groups in specific instances by emphasizing collective racial identity. In practice, this polarization can provide sufficient motivation to join a movement that purports to resist it. This goes against the conventional assumption that western societies such as Australia are inherently racist to some degree. If potential white supremacists believe that an anti-racist social discourse is an anti-white conspiracy, there must be some tangible and consistent form of anti-racism for extremists to re-frame as a recruiting tool in the first instance.

None of this is to suggest that racism is now non-existent in Australia or any other western society. Hate derived from the immutable characteristics of other people is still an ugly and degrading force in most countries, and there is no reason to believe that any society is able to remain completely and permanently immune to the negative impacts of discrimination and vilification. However, to suggest that western societies are especially prone to racism or the advancement of racist ideologies is also harmful—not least because liberal, western societies are observably the most tolerant and safest in human history. Disproportionate media focus on white supremacism ensures that white supremacist ideologies will continue to attract undue attention, while other equally pernicious forms of extremism escape popular scrutiny altogether.

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2 comments

  1. I see white supremacy as whites reacting to the breaking of social bonds. People were born and raised in a nest of neighbours, uncles and aunts and this close society radiates out to the nation state. Other minorities are part of the furniture when that picture isn’t disturbed. High immigration challenges the status quo and when people react they are told: “why is it only brown people you object to?”. It then becomes immoral to resist immigration. People’s instincts aren’t wrong however as the ethno preference works both ways and studies in Australia show migrants “othering” Australians and their culture. What of the high minded accuser. How pure are they? Do they “other” lower whites and do they suffer any ill consequence of a Utopian dream?
    Former Anglo countries Australia and New Zealand are pulling apart thanks to politics largely driven by Chinese and Indian immigration to Eastern Australia. That affects working class New Zealanders but not the class that began anti-racist policies.

  2. Too bad white supremacy is always linked to Hate. I don’t hate Muslims, however I recognize the simple fact that their value system is incompatible with that of the West. If white supremacy means that, all things equal, I’d rather live in a traditionally Western country than in one characteristic of Africa or the Muslim world, then I guess I’m a white supremacist — but I don’t particularly hate anyone, I’d just rather preserve my way of life.

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