In the weeks following the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, that cost 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer her life, many tweets will be tweeted, and much ink spilt, by stressed white folk seeking to distance themselves from the murderous scene, while also suggesting that this violent white nationalism isn’t definitive of core American values. It’s un-American! This racist parade does not represent our real America! It must be the fault of identity politics — on both sides, dammit! It must be a neo-Nazi invasion infecting the minds of the pale American youth!
While hollow critiques of white sadism will always receive national play, this latest framing of white supremacy — as some sort of residual contagion from World War II — works to absolve white people from engaging with the many ways in which they benefit from their whiteness. It’s also a reductive lie. As historian Lindsey E. Johnson tweeted in a thread on Saturday, we must “be specific to our own national and regional context […] The United States of America, the South, Virginia, and Charlottesville have rich histories of white nationalism and white supremacy that get conveniently erased when liberals/progressives reduce Richard Spencer’s ilk to ‘Nazis.'”
For those just getting a taste of America’s unseasoned and overcooked racist gumbo, let me put you on game: white supremacy, the American variety, created Nazism, not the other way around. It isn’t much of a secret; Hitler admired America and its domination of the West, calling it the “one state” making progress toward the creation of the white nationalist order he desired for Germany. So when it comes to naming America’s genre of white oppression, leave the Germans out of it or risk an ass-kicking. White supremacy in its many manifestations in the United States — the genocide of the indigenous population, transatlantic slavery, the Jim Crow South, a densely populated prison system capitalizing on the unpaid labor of Black people, etc — predates Nazism by centuries and remains the white power du jour.
In 1945, Germany, under the watchful eye of the newly-formed United Nations, publicly tried and executed Nazi leaders during the Nuremberg Trials, and uprooted supremacist ideologies by administering reeducation programs that still persist today. Meanwhile, surviving Confederates avoided the guillotine, lived well-paid lives in the Reconstruction era, and had monuments erected in their names in bloody rebellions from the 1890s to the 1920s — roughly 25 years after emancipation. Last weekend’s chants of “blood and soil” and “Make America Great” dredge up a history of racialized language that suggests that no matter how many angry whites want Black people to “get over” slavery, it’s extremists on the right who have a hard time letting go.
Americans can’t even call white people white without getting up in arms. Even considering contemporary culture’s preoccupation with naming and signifying, we Americans still hardly ever call things exactly what they are.
Especially when it comes to white nationalist groups. For the better part of a century, American governments have taken issue with identifying anti-Black groups as terrorist organizations, even as they commit acts of terror against Americans on American soil. Maybe that has something to do with the fact members of white nationalist groups infiltrate local and state police, and are able to elude federal investigations after public demonstrations of racially motivated violence. It definitely has something to do the large legal loophole that white nationalist groups enjoy: they do not show up on the State Department’s list of 60 terrorist organizations, which are all foreign and, in the aftermath of 9/11, largely Islamist. In other words, the blatantly terroristic KKK is not actually a terrorist organization, according to the United States.
The public face of terrorism changes over time to serve the dominant culture — and, unsurprisingly, is rarely seen as white, even when the numbers tell a different story. A study conducted by The Nation Institute and Reveal found that between 2008 and 2016 there were almost twice as many plots and attacks by right-wing extremists in the U.S. than by Islamist groups. Even more telling is the way the legal system prosecutes. In cases that involve Muslim extremists, the average prison sentence is about 14.5 years, and there have been 7 death sentences; while whites charged with mosque and temple burnings serve an average of 9 years, never serve life in prison, or receive the death penalty.
It is worth noting that it wasn’t until after World War II that American legislatures established the legal precedent for handling domestic terror that, more or less, falls in line with its admittedly vague definition in courts around the world: a nongovernmental actor with ties to terrorist organizations threatening violence and intimidation against a population of citizens in the name of said organization. Though many attacks on American soil between 1947 and the 1980s had terroristic elements — most notably the 1958 bombing of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple and the 16th Street Church Bombing in 1963 — none of the white men perpetrators brought to trial were charged with terrorism, hate crimes, or conspiracy.
Instead, the first arrest and charge for domestic terror in America was against a Black man, Jeff Fort, in a culturally Black city, Chicago, that implicated the leader of an African nation, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Fort, who was tried and convicted in 1987, received 155 years for conspiracy to commit terroristic acts on behalf of a foreign government, amongst other charges, and has lived in a cell with no other human contact since.
Considering white nationalist groups (or alt-righters, right-wing extremists, etc) are not presently regarded by the U.S. government as terrorist organizations, one wonders how Attorney General and noted racist Jeff Sessions intends to investigate James Alex Fields Jr., the man charged with killing Heather Heyer, for domestic terror as he announced on Monday’s edition of Good Morning America.
You’ll have to excuse the skinfolk for the hard eye-roll: Sessions’ statements about a terrorist investigation sound empty because a charge of domestic terrorism probably won’t happen. Greg Myre at NPR notes — and the Department of Justice later confirmed — ”it’s simply not possible for the government to file charges of domestic terrorism because no criminal law exists […] but so defining the incident does allow it to investigate not only an individual suspect, but also any group the suspect may be affiliated with.”
After Trump’s racist, ahistorical rant on August 15, however, even an investigation into Fields’s nationalist leanings sounds unlikely. Instead, he’ll probably be tried for second degree murder — at worst, a “hate crime” — and likely deemed a lone wolf assailant despite his own history of Nazi sympathy, Confederate and Nazi symbolism at the rally and on his person.
Just as slave masters and the governments that supported them were silent about the daily terror inflicted upon enslaved Black people, the American legal system continues to evolve its methods of advocating for white domination. Strengthened by imbalanced mass media coverage of nonwhite terrorist as public enemy number one, and their white counterparts as singular actors, the white terrorist scrub job is in full effect.
Which brings us back to the term “neo-Nazism”: its modern-day use obscures the rootedness of white supremacy and nationalism across American history, and suggests that white people know very little about the historic intricacies of their own culture — leaving them open to make it up as they go along. In the ‘60s, politicians attempted to quiet Black Civil Rights leaders and their disciples with amendments and unifying speeches. In line with Descartes’s famous refrain cogito ergo sum, or “I think therefore I am,” they thought the country would magically stop being racist if they simply believed they were not racist. This methodology is recognizable because it seeps through most forms of white narrative culture.
In an ideal world, Charlottesville and its aftermath would be a moment in history where white people begin to ruminate on why they had to believe the self-conjured lie of their superiority in the first place. But we don’t live in an ideal world. So when we meditate on how we got here, it cannot start with the election of a fool; it did not just spring up in 2008 or 1908. It is only when we can consider the bloody archive, the dissolving Black and Brown husks in the Atlantic; only when we walk out of that cryogenic chamber called American history and seriously name America for what it is, will we be able to move forward.
The problem with cogito ergo sum is that it’s written in the present tense. For this country to be anything greater than what it is today, the people in power — from white layfolk to political leaders — must realize how they got there. If something is truly understood, it can be dismantled. Only then can we taste the sweetness of a free future and the energy it calls to rewrite Descartes’s line with new understanding: we have thought and therefore we have become.
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