If you’ve been reading the news lately, I’m sure you’ve run across at least some coverage of a rather raucous Neo-Nazi rally that took place around noon on 17 April on the south lawn of Los Angeles City Hall. Approximately 50 members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) attempted to stage a permitted rally, where they evinced their white nationalist call for all people of color to be forcibly removed from the Southwestern United States.
However, according to officials and media reports, about 500 predominantly white counter-protesters shouted down the NSM with cries of “racists go home” and “stop the Nazis” before things turned a little ugly—both police and the white supremacists were pelted with rocks, bottles, eggs and other items by the counter-protesters. Los Angeles Police Detective Gus Villanueva reported that several people received minor injuries and some were arrested (all those arrested were counter-protestors). In the wake of Saturday’s clash, an anonymous policeman was quoted in one report as saying, “It’s just one group of racists protesting another group of racists.”
(Photo Source: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / April 17, 2010)
That quotation caught the blogosphere ablaze, with left-leaning sites such as the Daily Kos proclaiming:
“… this is disturbing, beyond the obvious false equivalency being made as if Neo-Nazi’s are the same as those people who are offended by Nazi’s, and those people who are organizing for immigration reform,”
and respective comments on right-leaning blogs like Free Republic and American Power that the police officer’s remark was the “best line ever” and that the counter-protesters “are more dangerous, despite what the MSM keeps feeding us about ‘right-wing terrorists’ and ‘tea party violence’.”
What this kind of media framing accomplishes is the dichotmatizing of racial conflict qua whiteness into a war between the quintessentially “good” versus “evil” whites. Once the comparison is made, it begs us to answer the question: who is worse? Such discussive and ideological missteps then threaten to trap us in a public discourse in which talking heads battle back and forth over who is the “real” racist, a point that writer Ta-Nahesi Coates makes frequently at his blog for The Atlantic. Sociologists have long noted this phenomenon, Alastair Bonnett (2000: 10) writes the story of racism and antiracism is:
“…staged with melodrama, the characters presented as heroes and villains: pure anti-racists versus pure racists, good against evil.”
So also, Jack Niemonen (2007: 166-166) remarks that we often:
“… paint a picture of social reality in which battle lines are drawn, the enemy identified, and the victims sympathetically portrayed. … [distinguishing] between ‘good’ whites and ‘bad’ whites.”
Of course, there is hardly any question that racism exists, only over where it is, and who wields it—and that finding it is a matter of utmost importance. In “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
“It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of those good and respected things, consists precisely in their being insidiously related, knotted, and crocheted to these evil; and apparently opposed things—perhaps even in being essentially identical with them.”
Accordingly, my own sociological research (Hughey forthcoming – opens pdf) bears out an eerie resemblance between White Nationalist and White Antiracist understandings of white racial identity. In previous posts here, I’ve shared research based on fourteen months of ethnographic study amidst a white nationalist and a white antiracist group. From this research, I found that both groups often relied on similar “scripts,” if you will, to construct a robust and strikingly similar understanding of white and nonwhite identity on a personal, interactive, micro-level.
Now don’t get me wrong.
Both pose different kinds of threats and there remain deep differences between White Nationalists (not to mention within that “movement”—it’s a heterogeneous bunch) and White Antiracists (so too, they are diffuse and varied) (for more on these points see: Zeskind 2009; O’Brien 2001). Yet, members of both engaged in what I call an “Identity Politics of Hegemonic Whiteness.” That is, they both possess analogous common-sensed “ideals” of white identity that function to guide their interactions in everyday life. These “scripts” serve as seemingly neutral yardsticks against which cultural behavior, norms, values, and expectations are measured. Hence, white identity is revealed as an ongoing process of formation in which (1) racist and reactionary scripts are used to demarcate white/non-white boundaries, and (2) performances of white racial identity that fail to adhere to those scripts are often marginalized and stigmatized, thereby creating intra-racial distinctions among whites.
We seem to resist this understanding because of the seductive reach of pop-psychology explanations about racism. For example, in The Nature of Prejudice (1954: 9) Gordon Allport remarked that prejudice is an individual “antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization.” A facile reading of Allport’s work has, unfortunately, saturated our culture and has turned many a layperson into self-professed experts of “hate.” In this model, “racism” is assumed to belong to the realm of ideas and prejudices and is little more than the collection of a few nasty thoughts that a particular “bad apple” individual has about another person or group. With this understanding in play, we can too easily come to think of racism as a bad thought or moral failing, and then proceed to divide the world into those that are “sick” with the “disease of prejudice” and those that are “healthy” anti- or non-racists. As Desmond and Emirbayer (2009: 342-343) recently penned in the Du Bois Review:
“This conception of racism simply will not do, for it fails to account for the racism that is woven into the very fabric of our schools, political institutions, labor markets, and neighborhoods. Conflating racism with prejudice … ignores the more systematic and structural forms of racism; it looks for racism within individuals and not institutions. Labeling someone a “racist” shifts our attention from the social surroundings that enforce racial inequalities and miseries to the individual with biases. It also lets the accuser off the hook—“He is a racist; I am not”—and treats racism as aberrant and strange, whereas American racism is rather normal.”
Simply put, white supremacy is the ether which we all consume.
Beliefs that racism is perpetuated by “stereotypes” and “prejudice”—that we all carry along in the black-box of our minds—absolves our social structures and culture of any blame. Concentrating either on neo-Nazi’s or counter-protestors or trying to weigh and balance which one is more or less racist, misses the point completely. And while the anonymous officer’s comment that “It’s just one group of racists protesting another group of racists” remains a violent oversimplification and slander ignorant of the nuances and difference, perhaps such a remark might invite us to consider the habitual, unintentional, commonplace, polite, implicit, and supposedly well-meaning dimensions of racist ideologies and practices that collude with the dominant expectations of white racial identity.
~ Matthew W. Hughey, PhD is Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate faculty member of African American Studies and Gender Studies at Mississippi State University. His research centers on racial identity formation, racialized organizations, and mass media representations of race. He can be reached at MHughey [at] soc.msstate.edu. His website is http://mwh163.sociology.msstate.edu/
>>>PS: If anyone is attending the Southern Sociological Society Meetings in Atlanta this week, I invite you to my panel where I will present some of my research on this topic. The title of my talk is “Beyond Good and Bad Whites: Ugly Couplings of Racism and White Identity.”