In the wake of the recent murders by white supremacists, blame has been apportioned partially to President Trump’s rhetoric and to the availability of white replacement theory and white genocide conspiracy material. Both are relevant but the policy challenge is far greater. Even in the absence of both, white supremacists will persist.
Trump didn’t create the white supremacists and his departure in 2020 or 2024 will not see their disappearance. Frequently after a mass shooting events in the US comparisons and connections are made to right wing violence in Europe and other places. While conspiracy theories on social media and the internet have produced a common glossary among racist groups, white supremacist ideology in the US has its sources in a distinct history. It seems to be entrenched in parts of the culture.
The correlation between President Trump and hate crimes is disturbingly strong. Whether he has stimulated and energised latent white supremacist sentiments, or existing white supremacists have been attracted to a kindred spirit, is debatable. Probably a bit of both. In any event, in those counties in which Trump held a campaign rally in 2016 there was ‘a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes compared to similar counties that did not host one’. Under Trump most Americans say ‘it’s now more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views’ and that race relations have become worse under his Administration. At a minimum Trump provides license.
Although there is a causal relationship between Trump and the growing number of incidents of hate crimes and the flourishing of white supremacist groups in the US, it would be misguided to hope his removal from the scene would have an impact on the overall trend. In their report A Dark and Constant Rage the Anti-Defamation League describes 25 years of right-wing terrorism in the United States. The report compiles a list of ‘150 right- wing terrorist acts’ between 1993-2017 that have killed 255 people and injured over 600 more. At 64 (43%) white supremacists accounted for the largest proportion of attacks. 2018 was worse!
‘African-Americans, Hispanics, and multi-racial couples/families have been the most common groups victimized’ by white supremacists. The targeting of miscegenation along with the popularity of the Confederate flag provide a deeper insight into the roots of white supremacy in the US that go far further into the past than 25 years.
In the post-Civil War era miscegenation was a great fear of Americans from the Southern states. The 39th Congress addressed a number of issues in 1866 that related directly to the rights of former slaves (the Freedman’s Bureau, Civil Rights, and the 14th Amendment) and, notably, the former Confederate states were not represented. In the debates, some senators and representatives from the victorious North showed how strongly white supremacy had a grip there.
Senator Justin S. Morrill of Vermont claimed a conspiracy was behind the proposed legislation, accusing ‘the men who devised this cruel and revolting system’ of seeking miscegenation in order to bring about ‘a deplorable condition of the white race’ in the South. Senator Andrew J. Rogers of New Jersey avowed that he didn’t believe Providence would ‘allow such degradation here as will result in amalgamation and miscegenation, and end in insurrection and murder and a war of races’.
The debates also perpetuated a conviction that only white men can govern; one echoed in Trump’s attacks on Congress women of colour, on Elijah Cummings and Baltimore, references to Latin American and African nations as ‘shithole countries’, and lashing out over Puerto Rico’s governance. The presumed inadequacy of non-whites to mange their affairs is more than just implicit in Trump’s comments. In 1866 Representative John W. Chanler from New York Cityasserted America had ‘a white man’s Government, founded by white men to preserve and perpetuate the laws and customs of their race’. Representative John L. Dawson from Pennsylvania argued ‘[N]egro suffrage’ will ‘force down the Anglo-Saxon to the negro level, and result inevitably in amalgamation and deterioration of our race’.
However, even the strong abolitionists and those who didn’t believe whites were innately superior, or that intermarriage would lead to the degradation of the white race, held views that lend support to contemporary racist apologia. In Bind Us Apart, Nicholas Guyatt documents how even enlightened Americans adopted an ‘equal but separate’ segregationist philosophy to deal with the race issue, urging that blacks be sent back to Africa. Thus, ‘almost from the outset, the idea of separating the races was built into the DNA of the United States’.
The strong themes of miscegenation, degradation, whites being displaced through black suffrage, and swamped by non-white birth rates weave through the history of racial relations in the United States. This has prepositioned significant portions of the population to be receptive of contemporary white replacement and white genocide theories. Along with Trump’s tolerance, these conspiracy theories have certainly found a warm welcome among white supremacists. But their core concepts would not have been foreign to the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s easy to forget that the curse of racism is not new to America. It has infected the American body politic since the early days of the Republic, and despite the efforts of determined and dedicated politicians, religious leaders, and civil rights advocates, it has proved impossible to extirpate. Any expectation that the absence of Trump from the national stage, gun control, background checks, education and public awareness programs, or the banning of hate speech and its removal from the web, will be efficacious is fanciful. As is the notion the death penalty will deter racist extremists.
The scourge of white supremacists appears to be the perfect wicked policy problem.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.