White Supremacy Has Always Been Mainstream
White supremacy is a language of unease. It does not describe racial domination so much as worry about it.
White supremacy connotes many grim and terrifying things, including inequality, exclusion, injustice, and state and vigilante violence. Like whiteness itself, white supremacy arose from the world of Atlantic slavery but survived its demise. Yet while the structures are old, the term “white supremacy” is not. Although it first appeared in British abolitionist critiques and U.S. proslavery defenses in the first half of the nineteenth century, it only became commonplace—and notably not as a pejorative—in U.S. whites’ post-emancipation calls for a racial order that would reinstitute slavery’s political and economic guarantees.
White supremacy has always been hard work. Because of this, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor.
White supremacy’s opponents evoke it to condemn. Its proponents use it to summon up a vision of a racially ordered society, to rally political forces behind that vision, to establish laws and institutions that affirm it, and finally to render it natural and normal. But the very fact that the phrase requires speaking means that something has gone awry. If the hierarchy of races were real, it would easily have survived slave emancipation. Instead, that hierarchy must be constantly asserted and enforced, lest the white race be overwhelmed, overcome, and extinguished. White supremacy is organized around a dread of its own demise, and with it the white race.
This inherent instability has produced a welter of fears, fantasies, and imperatives, from racial purity to race war. It has also made “white supremacy” a call to action. Indeed, the effort to transform the phrase from a slogan into a fact has been a massive social and political project, involving the witting and unwitting labor of many millions of people. White supremacy has always been hard work.
But because it is work, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor. And sometime between the march from Selma to Montgomery and the election of Barack Obama, many Americans allowed themselves to believe something of the kind: that white supremacy’s advocates, having lost their long war, were giving up.
The violent manifestations of white supremacy over the past several years—from Dylann Roof’s murders in Charleston, through Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency—unwound that hope. No better illustration exists for white supremacy’s return to the cultural center than Charlottesville’s 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, in which emblems of the Klan, the Third Reich, and the Confederacy jostled with more esoteric banners and names, together representing a century’s worth of white supremacist politicking. By the time the sirens died out, it should have been clear that Dylann Roof was no “lone wolf,” but the legitimate offspring of a reemergent social movement.
Yet even as white supremacy appeared suddenly to be everywhere in U.S. life, many—and not just on the right—denied its existence. Trump’s refusal to criticize even neo-Nazis was treated as a uniquely craven act of “norm-breaking,” not as a predictable extension of decades of coded and not-so-coded racist appeals. In the rush to catch Trump out, what has been omitted from media reporting is the long history of indulging white supremacist ideology and expression. Consider how long Pat “Blood and Soil” Buchanan served as a respectable voice of the political and journalistic right, winning four states in the 1996 Republican primaries and later playing Rachel Maddow’s curmudgeonly uncle on MSNBC—all in spite of his longstanding support for white ethnonationalism. Or remember the PBS NewsHour profile of Trump supporter Grace Tilly that failed to note her neo-Nazi tattoos. The network’s post-backlash editor’s note treated Tilly’s claim that her tattoos were religious, not racist, as worthy of debate, as though an enormous “88”—code for “Heil Hitler”—paired with a bullseye cross, another white supremacy symbol, left room for uncertainty. The myth that white supremacy is a marginal political phenomenon has proved so durable that many people find it easier to deny its overt expression than confront a more troubling reality: “very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of advancing white supremacist causes.
“Very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of white supremacy.
Three recent books explore the twentieth-century history of this political project. In Linda Gordon’s thoughtful reconsideration of the 1920s Klan, we watch shameless grifters deploy racial hierarchy and exclusion to forge the largest social movement of the early twentieth century. In Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s revelatory exploration of mid-century white women’s segregationist work, we see how the inheritors of that vision learned to speak in new languages, muted enough to pass in a society increasingly hostile to white supremacy but unmistakable to partisans as a continuation of the long struggle against racial equality. In Kathleen Belew’s groundbreaking account of the White Power movement from the mid-1970s to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, it becomes clear how a post–civil rights generation of white supremacist organizers positioned themselves as victims of an overbearing state, even as they nurtured Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof, and the dream of race war.
These works do not claim to provide a comprehensive account of twentieth-century white supremacy; such a project would also have to probe (as other scholars have) the forces of labor and capital, and—as only Belew does here—the relationship of domestic ideologies and practices to their imperial histories. But read together and through one another, these works provide a sobering crash course in the power, diversity, and persistence of white supremacist ideas and politics.
Across the long twentieth century, white supremacist activists nurtured an exclusionary racial nationalism. They envisioned a nation safely in the hands of its “rightful” owners, redeemed from misrule by “unfit” peoples, and made great again. Although their work relied extensively on white women’s organizational and ideological labors, they posited a world of white patriarchal families in which men spoke and fought while women sustained and reproduced. Responding to successive challenges, these activists developed new languages and new coalitions, but they remained consistently suspicious (at a minimum) of political authority that they could not directly control. Partly for this reason, they usually saw electoral politics as a critical arena of struggle, and they rarely abandoned it. Across the century, this ideological and organizational landscape has been home to hustlers, activists, and insurgents playing distinct but often complementary roles. White supremacy has always been at once a political movement, an armed struggle, and a long con.
Gordon’s Second Coming of the KKK shows how a white supremacist and nativist movement reset the boundaries of political discourse, clarified that the nation existed in the image and service of a particular kind of American, and took control of governments from school boards to Congress to give those imperatives life. Klansmen nurtured a politics of resentment against both “elites” who looked down on them and the immigrants, blacks, and radicals who seemed to challenge their world.
To many of its white contemporaries, the KKK of the 1920s was a respectable organization that promised to restore white Protestants to their proper place of authority.
The first Ku Klux Klan was founded in the 1860s by former Confederate soldiers and for a few years became the spear and symbol of the war against Reconstruction. This first Klan was actively suppressed by legal and military action in the early 1870s, and the campaigns of racial terror and political intimidation that finally overthrew Reconstruction were largely conducted under other names. The second Klan was founded in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons in response to that year’s blockbuster film, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which reworked memories of the Reconstruction-era KKK into a mythos of white male chivalry combatting black sexual barbarism. Beginning in 1919, the Klan exploded in size and power as organizers channeled the era’s powerful currents of nativism and violent white supremacy through the heroic image and visual style of the film’s Klansmen. They coupled the anti-black rhetoric of the Reconstruction-era Klan with a pervasive hostility toward non-Protestant immigrants and what Simmons derided as their anti-American propensities for “Bolshevism, Socialism, Syndicalism, I.W.W.ism.” Gordon encourages us to understand that, to many of its white American contemporaries, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was an “ordinary and respectable” organization that promised to restore white Protestants, mainly of the lower middle and skilled working classes, to their proper place of authority in U.S. cultural and political life. She reminds us that many of the Klan’s hobbyhorses—anti-black racism, antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, and nativism; censoriousness about sex and alcohol; support for eugenics; and narrow-minded nationalism—reflected broad and sometimes hegemonic aspects of 1920s U.S. culture.
Gordon also asks us to understand the movement as producing, not just reflecting, social concerns. The Klan channeled preexisting hatred of racial inferiors and haughty elites, but it also ginned up those expressions and provided new outlets for them. Conspiracy thinking was central to Klan rhetoric and ideology. Everywhere lurked sinister forces that sought to take over the U.S. government and subvert the country’s way of life. Indeed, those forces might already have taken power. Jews, Catholics, Bolsheviks, and African Americans were always about to swamp “true Americans” with rising birthrates; take control of U.S. police forces and public schools; undermine cherished values with sex, alcohol, or pornography; and oppress real Americans from the safety of powerful, distant institutions.
Such conspiracy talk effectively transformed grievances and insecurities into well-defined targets that local Klans could then organize against. In Madison, Wisconsin, for example, the Klan took up the cause of fighting illegal liquor trafficking in a neighborhood populated by Italians, blacks, and Jews. There and elsewhere, the Klan infiltrated or worked alongside police departments. Beatings, whippings, cross-burning, death threats, and fatal shootings marked the outer edge of the Klan’s activities, but in some locales—Dayton, Ohio; Williamson County, Illinois; large swaths of Oklahoma—assaults were common and condoned.