Charlottesville and the Definition of ‘White Supremacist’

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By now you’ve at least heard about what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday. A 20-year-old Army dropout named James Fields Jr. slammed his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal. Heather was a native of Charlottesville, but Fields wasn’t, having driven his grey Dodge Challenger to Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally all the way from his home in Maume, Ohio, just south of Toledo.

The rally was advertised as merely a gathering of President Trump’s “alt-right” supporters, yet even the quickest glance at the event’s roster betrays its true purpose. Headlining the event was Richard Spencer, the notorious white supremacist who coined the term “alt-right” in 2010 as a euphemism for the racism, nativism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Christian fundamentalism that have had their hooks in the far-right since time immemorial. Jason Kessler, the event’s racist organizer, told the host of a white-nationalist radio show in late July that he hoped the event in Charlottesville would help “destigmatize Pro-White advocacy.”

As Spencer Sunshine wrote for Truthout only days before the rally:

Kessler originally sought the attendance of a wider swath of Trumpist activists, going so far as to denounce the earlier KKK rally. But as the event approaches, it has become more clearly an open white nationalist — and even neo-Nazi — event. Four groups in the Nationalist Front, a national umbrella organization of racist groups, are attending. Matthew Heimbach of the fascist Traditionalist Worker Party and Michael Hill of the neo-Confederate League of the South will both speak. The National Socialist Movement, the largest US neo-Nazi party, recently announced it will attend. (Their presence is the welcome sign for hardened, open neo-Nazis — who’ve generally shied away from being visible at past alt-right events — to come in force.) And last, the fascist alt-right group Vanguard America, which recently joined the Nationalist Front, will be there.

They will be joined by alt-right figures who stop just short of claiming the mantle of racial purity for themselves, but will happily collaborate with those who do. These include Augustus Invictus, a Florida lawyer who has defended the neo-Nazi skinhead gang American Front and ran as a Libertarian Party candidate for Senate, and Baked Alaska, a former Buzzfeed editor who now promotes white nationalism. Members of the alt-right fight gang the Proud Boys are also expected.

The event would begin the night before, on Friday, as Amy Goodman reported on Democracy Now! this morning:

[H]undreds of torch-bearing white supremacists held a surprise march on the main quadrangle of the campus of the University of Virginia, chanting “Blood and soil,” ‘You will not replace us,’ and ‘Jew will not replace us.’ They walked to a statue of Thomas Jefferson, surrounded a small group of counterprotesters gathered there, including a small group of students with a banner reading ‘Virginia Students Act Against White Supremacy.’ ProPublica reports that despite intense interest from the media, police and local anti-racists, the white supremacists kept the location of their intimidating Friday night march secret until the last minute. In a Facebook post, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, called it a, quote, ‘cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance’ and said he was ‘beyond disgusted by this unsanctioned and despicable display of visual intimidation on a college campus.’

In an initial profile by The New York Times, Saturday’s terrorist attacker is described as having been a quiet yet menacing boy whom a female middle-school classmate says “wasn’t afraid to make you feel unsafe.” “On many occasions there were times he would scream obscenities, whether it be about Hitler or racial slurs,” said the woman, who requested that her name not be published for fear of reprisals.

From The New York Times:

As a freshman at Randall K. Cooper High School he wrote a report that, one teacher recalled, fell ‘very much along the party lines of the neo-Nazi movement.’

‘A lot of boys get interested in the Germans and Nazis because they’re interested in World War II,’ the teacher, Derek Weimer, told The Cincinnati Enquirer. ‘But James took it to another level.’ Mr. Fields was ‘a very bright kid but very misguided and disillusioned,’ Mr. Weimer said.

Mr. Fields enlisted in the Army after he graduated from high school in 2015, but military records show that his service lasted less than four months. Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokeswoman, said Mr. Fields had been ‘released from active duty due to a failure to meet training standards.’ Mr. Fields, Colonel Johnson said, ‘was never awarded a military occupational skill nor was he assigned to a unit outside of basic training.’

The sources of Mr. Fields’s ideology were unclear on Sunday, but his Facebook page included memes and symbols associated with the far right.

Fields’s hatemongering somehow failed to catch the attention of his own mother, Samantha Bloom, who told The Toledo Blade she was unaware of her son’s politics and racist views. She knew her son was driving down to Charlottesville to attend the alt-right rally, she says, but that she didn’t “really understand what the rally was about or anything.”

Bloom: I just knew there was a — he did mention, what is it? ‘Albright’? What is it? ‘Al-‘?

First reporter: Alt-right?

Bloom: Albright.

First reporter: No, it’s alt-right. It’s like ‘alternative right.’

Second reporter: Right-leaning, conservative, ultra-conservative.

First reporter: White supremacist organizations.

Bloom: I didn’t know it was white supremacist. I thought it had something to do with Trump. Trump’s not a supremacist.

Isn’t he though?

My stepdaughter, hearing about the news out of Charlottesville (however 13-year-olds get their news), asked me to fill her in, which I did, delicately. Having described the makeup of the rally and explained that it was held in support of President Trump and his agenda, she naturally asked if Trump himself is a white supremacist. My reflex was to say no, since Trump isn’t a card-carrying member of a group the likes of Vanguard America. But as my answer began to slide off my tongue, I stopped myself, realizing “No” as being only half-true. Trump may not be a white supremacist officially, but technically, by the rules of the duck test, the only thing distinguishing Trump from any Klansman is the white sheet.

Does he not speak like they do? We know what the president has said about Mexican immigrants being rapists, murderers and drug dealers; we know he meant to accuse all Latinos, immigrant and not, but merely lumped them together under a grossly inaccurate blanket term — something racists are wont to do. We know he wants to build a wall between the United States and Latin America. We know he is trying to ban Muslim immigration. We know that in 1989 he spent $85,000 on full-page ads in newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty after five black and Latino teens were accused of raping a white woman in New York’s Central Park.

President Trump certainly doesn’t look like a white supremacist, at least not how they’re popularly imagined. But they’re not all inbred, toothless hicks under those hoods. Many white supremacists, the most dangerous ones, in fact, wear expensive suits to work, where they make their money — millions, billions — in things like real estate and banking. They may never utter the word nigger in private or even attend a Trump rally, but so long as they are aware of the widening inequalities between whites and people of color — in income, wealth, education, housing, hiring, etc. — and think nothing of these trends, or even tacitly support them, they are by definition in favor of the supremacy of the so-called white race. In short, being a white supremacist means doing and saying things which support the current white-supremacist system, a broad definition which encompasses Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other outwardly racist people, but also many teachers, police officers, soldiers, businesspeople, judges, politicians and, yes, even presidents.

Don’t be fooled by the hood of the Klansman, the shaved scalp of the skinhead or the pressed uniform of the neo-Nazi. Those are used by white supremacists to give one face to their hateful ideology, to form a specific stereotype in the public mind so that we fail to notice the white supremacist occupying the White House, or the house next door. White supremacists all quack the same, but they come in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of feathers.


Featured image: Kevin Simmons/Flickr

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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