By Chauncey DeVega / Salon
August 25, 2017
Two weekends ago, the world watched with horror while white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other elements of the so-called alt-right rampaged throughout the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. Their orgy of hatred against Jews, Muslims, gays and lesbians, liberals, African-Americans and other people of color would culminate in a terrorist-style attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens more.
Condemnation and disgust at the white supremacist thuggery in Charlottesville should be universal; instead the response has largely been processed through a partisan lens. Donald Trump coddled the Nazis and other white fascists by suggesting that there were “very fine people” among the group of right-wing extremists in Charlottesville. Republicans have issuing mealymouthed condemnations of “hatred” and “racism” but have largely refused to criticize Donald Trump and his apparent decision to provide aid and comfort to white supremacy and fascism. No Republicans have publicly resigned from positions in the Trump administration to protest the president’s comments and his pattern of racism and bigotry. Even more troubling, recent public opinion polls suggest that a majority of Republicans support Donald Trump’s coddling of the white supremacist and “alt-right” forces who sowed havoc and death in Charlottesville.
One of the common threads across divides of party and ideology is that the violence and hatred in Charlottesville was perceived as a “surprise,” something “un-American” that does not reflect “who we are.” Such claims rely on a fantasy. Violence by whites against people of color — be it genocide against First Nations peoples, chattel slavery and exploitation of African-Americans, ethnic cleansing and racial pogroms against nonwhites or the mass internment of Japanese-Americans — is a central element of our nation’s character. It may be an inconvenient and uncomfortable fact for many people, but the United States was founded as a white male racial democracy. This is a cornerstone of the country’s history and legacy that still haunts the United States 240 years after its founding.
Will Americans ever properly process these unfortunate truths in a healthy, positive way? In an effort to answer this question, I recently spoke with Tim Wise, one of our nation’s leading anti-racism activists. Cornel West has memorably described him as “a vanilla brother in the tradition of John Brown.”
Chauncey DeVega: The mainstream media keeps advancing a narrative that the white supremacist terror in Charlottesville was somehow “unpredictable” or “surprising.” The myth of white racial innocence is important here as well.
Tim Wise: The media again lacks a critical historical context, but even more so, they engage in these silly, simplistic binaries which say people are either really good people or they’re racist. So in other words, you can’t be someone who’s nice to old people and animals and also a Nazi. Well why can’t you be?
CD: Thank you. Hitler loved his dogs.
TW: Clearly this binary thinking is preposterous. When I started doing this work, it was fighting David Duke in Louisiana. When you have a politician, whether it’s Duke or Trump, who appeals to the base instincts of a section of our society using themes that have worked for 200-plus years and, really, 400 years, going back to the colonies — why would you be surprised that it’s effective?
The fact that a statistical handful take it to the extreme that the Charlottesville Nazis did shouldn’t really be surprising. Is that the way that most people think and act? No, thankfully. But you can’t be surprised by this when a subset of white America is told all of their lives that this country belongs to them. No one should be shocked by that; this is a natural outcome of a society that has inculcated white male entitlement, in particular, for hundreds of years.
CD: How did white privilege play out in Charlottesville?
TW: Well, I mean, the easy one is that if a thousand or so majority black and brown men were marching on a campus anywhere in this country with torches and talking about wanting to create a black ethno-state, I think we know what would have happened in terms of police response.
CD: A bloodbath. Black people open-carrying with guns, beating up on people with poles and sticks, threatening white clergy …
TW: Good Lord, we know what would have happened. We know what the discussion would have been if this had been a Black Lives Matter rally or this had been an immigrants’ rights rally, and they were shown beating white people in a garage or surrounding them at a statue with torches — I mean, give me a break. If you don’t understand what white privilege is after you process and understanding THAT, then you’ll just never get it.
CD: What do you think the future holds? And how should people — white people especially — resist the “alt-right” and its cabal of white supremacists and domestic terrorist wannabes?
TW: We obviously have to resist through a number of different ways, because I don’t think it’s going to get better before it gets worse. We are at a defining moment right now. What are white folks going to do? Because these people — and now I’m talking about white supremacist leaders such as Spencer and [Matthew] Heimbach and Anglin — are all very clearly saying, “We speak for white America.”
I know there are millions of white folks offended by this. Now it is time for them to act like it. That means stop posting pictures of your damn cat and dog on Facebook, stop posting pictures of “Oh, I just checked in at the Olive Garden” or whatever the hell online. Start addressing white racism and white supremacy with your friendship circles, whether that’s online or in person. That’s one tactic, and there are lots of different ones. But you have to stand up and say, “I’m going to choose a different way to live in this skin, and by God you don’t speak for me.”
CD: I have an intuition that many Trump voters, tens of millions of white voters, may not like the overt Nazi and white supremacist rhetoric, but when they hear words like “white nationalism” it makes sense to them. “White pride” is also compelling to conservatives and other white voters. Do you think I’m overstating this dynamic?
TW: No, I don’t. Obviously there are various permutations, and if you take the 63 million folks who voted for Trump, and of that number maybe 50 million are white, then obviously there are going to be some who are just hardcore white supremacist types. Let me point out, it’s not a small number. I would suggest that it is certainly enough to have made a difference in those three key states: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Keep in mind that Pennsylvania, at least as of a couple years ago, had the highest concentration of hate groups in the United States, per capita. So do I believe that there are at least 70,000 overtly white supremacist people across those three states, which is [the margin] he won by? Absolutely I do. I think it would be naive not to believe that.
Obviously there’s another group of his white supporters who reject the overt bigotry part, either because it seems tacky or because it really does scare them and they are offended by it. But nonetheless, they adhere to a lot of the more “dog-whistle” racist attitudes against people of color, especially blacks. That’s another group who are not necessarily hardcore white nationalist, but they absolutely feel aggrieved, they feel victimized. They buy into this narrative of entitlement in ways that some of them might not even consciously realize they’re doing.
The third group would be white folks who are in significant pain, whether that’s economic or just in their lives, and they’re horribly misdiagnosing the cause of their pain. They really are struggling, and unfortunately they’re falling prey to a politics that has worked for generations. Which is why someone like Donald Trump, whose only real success in life has been marketing — these are the people for whom Donald Trump serves as an opiate. He comes to them and says, “You’re struggling, you are in pain. I can tell you the source and I can take it away.” These are folks who, if they weren’t turning to Donald Trump, they’d be using real opiates. In some cases they’re doing both to smooth over the pain.
CD: Isn’t it true that Trump voters are basically the Tea Party on steroids? White supremacists have written openly about using the Tea Party to recruit new members by leveraging a sense of racial grievance and alienation to radicalize white people.
TW: Absolutely. I mean, going back to 2009 when the Tea Party movement got momentum, Stormfront and other white supremacist chat boards and websites said they were going to Tea Party events with the intention of taking people who were sort of susceptible but not quite what they would call “red-pilled” yet.
CD: Yeah. To get what they call the “normies.”
TW: To some extent it was very effective. I think white nationalists, white supremacists, these new fascists, are incredibly strategically adept. It is very important for us to take the threat seriously. The news media will focus on the handful of folks missing their teeth or who look like absolute morons and miss the fact that Richard Spencer is no dummy. Fact far from being a dummy, Richard Spencer has a far better understanding of the historical origins of this country than most liberals and progressives do. By this I mean that when he says the founders intended America to be a white male country, he is not wrong. He’s not making that up; he is absolutely 100 percent right. That doesn’t mean we have to accept that vision of America in the present.
CD: Are you surprised by what happened in Charlottesville?
TW: No. I was convinced that something would go horribly wrong because I knew there were a number of folks within that contingent who were going there with the express purpose of terrorizing the community, of terrorizing folks of color, terrorizing liberal white folks, terrorizing anyone who stood in their way. They were trying to make this show of force that would seem really powerful and overwhelming and frightening to people who saw it from the outside, and I think in some ways they accomplished exactly that.
I do think that because of the murder of Heather Heyer and the injuries which were caused by the white supremacist terrorists in Charlottesville, the so-called alt-right overplayed their hand pretty dramatically. In the long run it is going to hurt them.*