White Nationalism: Definitions and History
White nationalist groups espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies. That is, they believe that whites are superior and emphasize the alleged inferiority of nonwhites. White supremacy is not about race (which is a social construction) but about power. The Southern Poverty Law Center explains, “White supremacy governs through authoritarianism, establishing a racial hierarchy where whites always sit on top, paragons of scientific and cultural superiority.” Further, white supremacy defines whiteness in very narrow terms—really, only individuals who are straight, middle class or wealthy, well educated, pro-patriarchy and Christian are welcome.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center: “Adherents of white nationalist groups believe that white identity should be the organizing principle of the countries that make up Western civilization. White nationalists advocate for policies to reverse changing demographics and the loss of an absolute, white majority. Ending non-white immigration, both legal and illegal—frequently elevated over other racist projects, such as ending multiculturalism and miscegenation—for white nationalists seeking to preserve white, racial hegemony.” The idea is to return America to the so-called “good days”—pre-Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, as both are viewed as harming whites to the degree of “white genocide.”
White nationalists often craft their argument as one of love for their own race rather than hating others, although it is clear that the latter is really the case. Many use dubious statistics to emphasize problems like “Black-on-white crime,” although this makes up a very small percentage of all crime and most crime is intraracial. White nationalists also ascribe behaviors that have no genetic basis as being due to race. Followers frequently cite Pat Buchanan’s (2001) The Death of the West, which warned of declining white birth rates and a forthcoming “immigrant invasion” that would turn the U.S into a third world nation.
Many white nationalists are also anti-semitic, blaming Jews for social, cultural and political problems. Further, many align with paleoconservatists who, like libertarians, seek to limit government, reverse multiculturalism, and restrict immigration. Strategies used by white nationalists vary. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, some are mainstreamers who seek to convert adherents and to encourage believers to seek political and other influential positions. To do so, these individuals sometimes have to disguise their most racist or problematic beliefs and instead argue that their policies are about solving social problems in a cost-effective fashion.
In contrast, vanguardists believe that revolution is the only real path to a white state. They do not soften their rhetoric and often engage in public demonstrations and online activism, some of which has turned violent.
White nationalism and white supremacy have been far too common in the U.S. and have resulted in various forms of violence. For instance, between 1888 and 1918, approximately 2,500 Black men and women were killed by lynch mobs. White supremacy resulted in segregated spaces—sometimes due to overt policies or laws, such as Jim Crow and redlining. The belief that people of color cannot possibly raise children appropriately saw the enactment of eugenics programs that forced women of color to be sterilized. Between 1970 and 1976, the Indian Health Service estimates that one-quarter to one-half of Native American women were sterilized. This is clearly not an exhaustive list.
Recent White Nationalist Activity
One of the most recent manifestations is the so-called “alt-right,” which emerged in the second half of 2015. Many neo-Nazi organizations considered themselves to be part of the alt-right. The position of alt-righters is that the nation suffers from political correctness and that tough policies on immigration and related topics are essential. Donald Trump was the candidate of choice for the alt-right in the 2016 election, and his hateful rhetoric, often referring to immigrants as “animals” and other countries as “shitholes,” clearly resonated. White nationalists and the alt-right also rallied against the removal of Confederate monuments.
In August 2017, white nationalists gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans and songs, wearing an array of Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols, and carrying rifles, hundreds marched in protest of the removal of Confederate monuments. They attacked counter-protesters, leaving one person dead and more than 38 injured. Heather Heyer was killed when white nationalist James Alex Fields, Jr. deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. President Trump made a series of statements about the deadly protests, even at one point saying there were “very fine people on both sides” and that both sides were responsible for the violence. Yet reports showed that almost all the counter-protesters were unarmed. Although these groups went somewhat quiet after the Charlottesville riot, and some splintered, they refocused their energies for “Unite the Right 2” in August 2018 and continued to recruit new adherents via social media. This rally was poorly attended, however. More white nationalist violence followed in 2018, however: the massacre of 17 students in February by self-proclaimed white nationalist Nickolas Cruz, the murder of 11 people worshipping at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, and other incidents resulted in the death of at least 40 people by white nationalists in the U.S. alone.
The U.S. response to tragedies like these has been generally slow and minimal at best. In contrast, when a white nationalist in Christchurch, New Zealand shot and killed 50 Muslims during Friday prayers and wounded 50 more, the perpetrator was immediately arrested, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced new gun control laws within ten days.
Teaching White Nationalism
One of my favorite ways to teach white nationalism is to first address white privilege. White privilege underlies beliefs in white superiority, yet we are often not taught to recognize it. Peggy Macintosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” offers an interesting examination of white privilege in a way that is user-friendly and thought-provoking. Macintosh argues that white people living in the U.S enjoy a number of unearned privileges that they can call upon on a daily basis. Because these are taken for granted, Macintosh asserts that we need to reflect on white privilege in order to “unpack” that invisible knapsack. Her emphasis is not that white people should feel guilty or should lose these daily advantages but rather that others should have them as well. Macintosh lists dozens of these privileges including such things as “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race,” “I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection,” “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group,” and “I can easily find hair and skin products that are appropriate.” I have found that many of these privileges resonate with the people of color in my classes, and they often feel compelled to share experiences that white students have typically not had. Last fall, a Black male talked about being constantly asked for identification in the shopping complex where he works at an upscale store. When I taught in a more rural area, Black students often commented that they had to drive some distance to find appropriate skin and haircare products.
We have also debated the removal of Confederate statues and monuments, looking at both the pro and con arguments. In addition, we discuss creation of monuments, exhibits, and museums to honor victims of white nationalist violence, such as the Equal Justice Initiative’s recent establishment of the National Monument for Peace and Justice, which, according to the organization’s website, “is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” The website features a short but compelling video discussing why a lynching memorial is necessary, along with reports on how many lynchings occurred and other important documents students can review. A link to the website is in the references.
Most students, I have found, are quite unaware of the extent of this kind of horror and are saddened but grateful to know this part of U.S. history. Similarly, they are typically surprised to learn that other countries have taken far greater measures to remove symbols of hate and to prohibit them from being created. Germany, for instance, removed all Nazi flags, and most relics of the regime are not available for public view. Not that this was enough; the process of reconciling the country’s history took decades but has, for the most part, been a success—as Germany today is a vibrant democracy with notably less racism and extremism, according to J. Zeitz.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s website has a number of great teaching tools related to white nationalism. Its hate map offers a compendium of where such groups are located around the U.S. and its Extremist Files provide thorough reviews of white nationalist groups and extremist individuals. Students can research and share these profiles with one another to gain a better sense of which groups are operating and what they advocate. A link to SPLC’s web material on hate and extremism is included in the references.
Facebook’s recent decision to ban white supremacy, white nationalism, and white separatism was controversial and thus another great classroom conversation starter. In class, we listened to NPR’s three-minute discussion of the ban and debated whether free expression was more important than banning hate, along with whether Facebook or other social media can make a difference in curtailing white nationalism. A link to this coverage is in the references. Likewise, that the Christchuch, New Zealand shooter was able to broadcast his actions live on Twitter and other fora generates important discussion on what should be prohibited on various social media platforms. President Trump’s use of hateful rhetoric to describe immigrants also offers a useful point of analysis. Several groups keep in databases his tweets and other comments that can then be reviewed by students for accuracy and discussed in terms of their inflammatory nature. One such source is the Trump Twitter Archive. The link to it is available in the references.
The Charlottesville riot also provides fuel for discussing the right to assemble and nonviolent versus violent protest. White nationalists in this case were predominately responsible for the violence, but other protest groups like Antifa have not disavowed violence as a tool for making change. White nationalists’ use of weapons to commit violent crime provides an ideal opportunity for educators to share facts about gun ownership, gun crime, and gun control—as well as current efforts to criminalize protest.
Finally, there are many great multimedia ways to address these issues. Although not specifically about white nationalism, Verna Myers’s TED talk offers critical steps for creating a society that is not colorblind but that sees color for all its beauty and not as inferior. Christian Piccioli’s TED talk describes his descent into white supremacy and how he became the leader of the first neo-Nazi skinhead gang in the U.S. His words powerfully address the pull for young, disaffected white men and the challenge and courage it takes to denounce those beliefs and that lifestyle. The music video for Prophets of Rage’s “Unfuck the World” is a powerful indictment of white nationalism, police brutality, and capitalist greed.
While I use the aforementioned materials in my sociology classes, where the topic of white nationalism is part of the curriculum, they certainly could be used in other disciplines. Political science, psychology, race and ethnic studies, peace studies and more seem to be logical fits for addressing white nationalism in this sort of critical, multimedia fashion. While some of the resources mentioned above, such as the Prophets of Rage song, are a little intense and disturbing, I have never faced any complaints by students, as they seem able to understand the point the band is trying to make. As such, it is my belief that the teaching materials I have mentioned could be used by junior faculty as well as tenured faculty.
Nikki Brown, “Teaching white supremacy in the age of the alt-right”, Washington Post, August 13, 2018.
Peggy McIntosh, “White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack”, 1988.
Verna Myers, “How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them”, TEDxBeaconStreet, 2014.
Christian Picciolini, “My descent into America’s neo-Nazi movement—and how I got out”, TEDxMileHigh, 2017.
Prophets of Rage, “Unfuck the World”, YouTube, 2017.
Aarti Shahani, “With Facebook ban on white extremism, international norms apply to U.S.”, National Public Radio, April 5, 2019.
“The National Memorial for Peace and Justice”, Equal Justice Initiative, last modified 2019.
“White nationalist”, Southern Poverty Law Center, n.d.
Joshua Zietz, “Why there are no Nazi statues in Germany”, Politico, August 20, 2017.