In a country of immigrants, white supremacy has been a curious and lasting preoccupation. Not just African Americans, but Catholics, Eastern Europeans, Italians, Jews, and all races not of Western European origin have been singled out as inferior at one time or another in United States history. But where did such behavior come from, and why do so many continue to cling to such a backward creed? The simplest answer is that racism and racist organizations provide a comprehensive world view in times of social turmoil, a way to interpret changes in social mores and often mystifying economic setbacks. But this is not enough. In virtually every country, bigotry exists, but in ostensibly classless, egalitarian America, it remains one of the most paradoxical features of our social landscape.
Until recently, white supremacy was very much the norm. At the turn of the twentieth century, most labor unions were overtly racist, as were many social activists of a radical stripe. The author Jack London was both a socialist and white supremacist, preaching the brotherhood of workers, provided they were lily white. It was London who first coined the term "great white hope" in articles beseeching a challenger to step forward against Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champion. In London's view—and he was regarded as a progressive—African Americans and Chinese ranked as hardly human. For the more conventional, the truth of racism was hardly given a second thought; it was self-evident.
Like religious mania or consumer habits, white supremacy is not a constant, but is inherently tied to historical conditions. It is a consolation in times of trouble, and a rationale in times of prosperity. In the 1920s, it was tied to the growing antipathy between city and country; during the Depression, it became inextricably linked to anti-Communism and opposition to Roosevelt's New Deal. Father Coughlin, a virulent anti-Communist radio personality, and William Pelley, leader of the fascist Silver Shirts, were both vocal enemies of the New Deal, and each embraced racist nationalism to explain the country's ills.
The world-wide Jewish conspiracy theory imported by Henry Ford in his Dearborn Independent had been integrated into supremacist beliefs during the 1920s. The next development was a theological justification for their beliefs. Soon after the conclusion of World War II, California preacher and Klansman Wesley Swift latched onto aracist Christian theology known as British Israelism. Swift renamed the theology Christian Identity. Exponents of British Israelism believe that the lost tribe of Israel immigrated to Britain; hence, Anglo Saxons were inherently superior, and were in fact God's chosen people. Christian Identity proved to be a popular idea, and under Swift's tutelage, the belief spread to Idaho, Michigan, and the South. Almost every supremacist group after World War II has in some way been influenced by Christian Identity, with Swift followers forming the Aryan Nation, Posse Comitatus, and the Minutemen, the most committed among the later waves of white supremacists.
By the 1960s, white supremacy was a vigorous movement. Lurking behind the Goldwater far right, white supremacists wielded enormous influence and political power. Frightened by a world that appeared out of control, many Americans found solace in the strident rhetoric of the American Nazi Party or the Minutemen. The publications of the Liberty Lobby and the John Birchers clearly explicated this dissatisfaction. The Ku Klux Klan mobilized visibly, and sometimes violently, against desegregation activists white and black alike; militia-like cells organized in the Midwest, and the John Birch Society, while professing no racist sentiment, actively supported the supremacist ideology through their political activities. As manifested in the 1964 presidential campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the openly racist platform of Governor George Wallace in his 1968 and 1972 primary campaigns, and Ronald Reagan's 1968 gubernatorial race, white supremacy was a force to be reckoned with.
Political positions and economic conditions go hand in hand, as any student of Hitler's rise to power will attest. In 1970s America, a rash of bank foreclosures and declining agricultural prices sent tremors of fear across the heartland. In many places thus stricken, groups like the Posse Comitatus, an organization vocally opposed to the Federal government, often organized to combat what was perceived as unfair bank practices by rigging auctions and seizing land and equipment, sometimes provoking gun battles between law enforcement and farmers. In the declining industrial areas, the loss of lucrative union jobs swelled the ranks of the unemployed, mobilizing soldiers in a new racial movement; they called it the Fifth Era. Groups like WAR (White Aryan Resistance) mobilized around white unrest, often reaping a tidy profit with marketing schemes and paraphernalia. Complete segregation was the goal most frequently advocated, and terrorism and paramilitary training the preferred method to attain it. Many groups published detailed maps that limited minorities to gerrymandered homelands. In Idaho, the quasi-military group The Order took a more direct approach, pulling off several profitable armed robberies (dispensing the proceeds among many supremacist groups) and murdering Denver talk-show host Alan Berg. The group was finally eradicated by the FBI, but not before they had distributed much of their illicit bounty, and there is evidence that their crimes have financed several campaigns and training camps.
Meanwhile, a new generation of disenchanted, working-class youth, having seen their parents lose a farm or well-paid factory job, had adopted the skinhead style and rhetoric of British youth, compensating for their helplessness with acts of racially motivated violence. For a time, skinhead gangs enjoyed a high visibility, and just as quickly, they learned the disadvantages of that conspicuity. Harassment by the police was a constant, and by the 1990s, skinhead leaders were urging their dome-headed minions to grow their hair and recede quietly.
It is easy to picture white supremacy as a marginal ideology. This would be a mistake. White supremacy is hydra-headed, springing up in unexpected places. Many supremacists, like David Duke, for example, have tempered their rhetoric sufficiently to win public office. Other groups cloak their agendas under neutral-sounding names like the League of Conservative Citizens, who made headlines in 1998 after Republican Senator Trent Lott addressed the group on several occasions and then was forced to disassociate from the group and their openly racist agenda. While the constant splintering off of the many organizations makes it difficult to ascertain how many active supremacists there are or how much political clout they wield, it can be safely asserted that White supremacy has become a permanent feature of the socio-political terrain.
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Higham, Charles. American Swastika. New York, Doubleday, 1985.
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