As outraged Baltimore residents took to the streets protesting Freddie Gray’s murder, a North Carolina teenage Neo-Nazi ranted about black people taking over the country. He lamented that the killers of Gray and Trayvon Martin were unfairly vilified when they should be lionized. Eventually, the teenager developed a plan to stage a massacre at the College of Charleston. The plan was thwarted when he realized that he could not get past the institution’s security.
But the teenager was not detracted. Instead, he sauntered into the Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and gunned down twelve African Americans at Bible Study. When asked why he carried out the shooting, the perpetrator said it was “a call to arms,” and that he wanted to start a “race war.”
Two years later, in the thick and darkened August air of 2017, torchlight punctured the University of Virginia’s academic quad. Confederate flags waved among chants of “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil.” The chants were references to Nazi philosophies that linked white blood to the land, and so were references to White Nationalism.
After each of these events, national outrage ensued. Artifacts like the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals became focal points in a national debate about racism’s past and its place in the present. Some people claimed that the artifacts displayed the nostalgia of southern history; others defined them as symbols of the oppression, pain, and racism that were often repressed by that same nostalgia.
These oppositional views reveal the current racial tension in American society and prelude America for decades to come. On one hand, there is a desire to maintain what Benedict Anderson calls the “imagined community” of America that is righteous and lacks systemic racism by marginalizing any knowledge or identity that would make whites uncomfortable with having to confront the reality of systemic racism. Conversely, there is a desire to challenge such nostalgic and mythological views of the country and in the process widen the imagined borders of what it means to be ‘American’ as part of the project of dismantling systemic racism. In each is a fundamental acknowledgment that the way the nation is constructed and situated in citizens’ minds defines what it means to be ‘American’ in the present. As such, the battle for America is also a battle for how Americans imagine their country in relation to its history.
College campuses, which study and construct that American history, play a significant role in how future leaders perceive the world. These institutions have been a target for white supremacists and protectionism of whiteness for over a decade. White supremacists’ targeting of higher education institutions has therefore extended beyond the extreme examples of Charleston and Charlottesville. The focus on higher education is part of a greater ethos and strategy of The New White Nationalism that seeks to ensure white power by mainstreaming what were once considered extreme examples.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alt-Right activists have sought to “inject their views into spaces they view as bastions of liberal thinking and left-wing indoctrination…” such as college campuses since 2010. Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League underscores that The New White Nationalism is now focused on “influenc[ing] mainstream whites by exposing them to the concept of white identity and racial consciousness…[and] reject[ing] multiculturalism or pluralism in any form.”
The New White Nationalism, in short, is very much concerned with how academics and other professionals legitimatize particular peoples’ experiences as indicative of the ‘American’ experience.
What is particularly concerning is that the tactics of The New White Nationalism are no longer characterized by the skin-headed, boot-stomping stereotype of the past. The New White Nationalism “instruct[s members] to blend in at political rallies with polo shirts, khakis, and military-style haircuts.” Their goal is to integrate themselves into mainstream white society while also justifying the further marginalization of knowledge and individuals to bolster white society both in the present and future.
Just as white supremacists desire a nation that privileges whites, they want to protect white narratives. They want to ensure that mainstream, white Americans are not exposed to more knowledge about the power and privilege of whiteness throughout history. They have thus labeled professors who teach about systemic racism ‘Anti-American,’ added them to watchlists, and sent them threatening voicemails and emails. They also have begun to infiltrate political spheres more and more, in attempts to manage what is taught in academia and therefore manage how students, the future leaders of America, imagine their country and any systemic racism therein.
The New White Nationalism has elevated its tactics by infiltrating political spheres and mainstreaming the preposterous idea that America is void of systemic racism. Part of this project has been to twist the definition of ‘critical race theory’ to seem as if it suggests individuals rather than systems and structures are inherently problematic.
Using this tactic, the Trump administration developed an “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which claimed to confront “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and…[to reject] misrepresentations of our country’s history.” The Executive Order targeted “instructors and materials teaching” what was labeled as ‘divisive concepts.’ This order characterized critical race theory as something that it is not, and was more an attempt to preserve the curriculum of a nostalgic 1950s and thereby support the notion of an America void of racist pasts or systemic racism in the past. Although this Order was ultimately rescinded by the Biden administration, the damage was done, as similar bills are either passed or in the process of being debated in 22 states.
The seriousness of The New White Nationalism’s tactics to mainstream its philosophies cannot be underscored enough. To be sure, the proposed ban on critical race theory is not isolated from the goals of The New White Nationalism. Over thirty states have openly stated that systemic racism does not exist in America or proposed or passed a bill regarding critical race theory. Not un-coincidentally, each of the states that has over 100 lynchings in its history appears on the list of those opposed to critical race theory. Many of these same states have the highest counts of police murders of minorities. Many of these states have supported the separation of immigrant children from their parents as a method of deterrence for illegal border crossing, resulting in manifold families being broken. Many are among those seeking to limit voting rights for minorities< /a>.
These bans, in short, are not isolated policies protecting a version of academic truth that is debatable. Rather, they are but one of many initiatives and modes of thinking that find their nexus in The New White Nationalism. It is a form of thinking that works to marginalize histories and people who do not align with a nostalgic and whitewashed past.
The dangers of not understanding how this nexus perpetuates white supremacy and violence were crystallized in Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley’s defense of being well-read and understanding critical race theory in order to be a good citizen. His response, in a nutshell, illustrates that America does better by being educated and that ‘wokeness’ is not weak. Limiting knowledge is dangerous and invites violence, as Milley noted of the white supremacist insurrection on January 6, 2021.
The battle over critical race theory, therefore, is not a small one, nor should it be divorced from other attempts to limit the concept of ‘Americannes’ and the history from which it comes. Even the current discourses that claim higher education is not of value feeds into the goals of The New White Nationalism. Indeed, The New White Nationalism is well aware that less education spurs more marginalization. And the more that mainstream, white Americans attend college classrooms where there is no challenging of the nostalgic past, the more likely it is that The New White Nationalism will continue to infiltrate new spaces in dangerous ways.