When I first heard there was a shooting in Charleston and that a white man was the main suspect in killing nine people in a historic black church, I knew, like too many of us, that this had everything to do with race. When I saw photos of him with a disaffected stare and wearing a jacket with patches of the flags of segregated Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, I knew immediately he was connected in some way to the white nationalist movement. And when I heard the statement he made about rape and take-over, I was pretty sure I knew where Roof had been spending time online.
I knew that the attack would be linked to a white nationalist because I have spent a significant amount of time monitoring Stormfront.org( using do not link URL), the main online hub of the white nationalist movement. As a white anti-racist, I began studying the website in 2004 as part of research for my master’s degree on the contemporary white supremacist movement. At the time, the site boasted over 30,000 views per day, while today the site claims over 300,000 members.
This is what Ms. Sylvia Johnson told the world she heard from a survivor of the attacks. This statement by Dylann Roof made during his killing spree is loaded with white nationalist paranoia. It is a claim to victimhood and innocence, even in the act of perpetrating a massacre. The statement frames the twin concerns of the contemporary white nationalist movement succinctly, uniting sex and space, morality and politics, the home and the nation.
As yet, we do not know if Roof spent time on Stormfront (although I’d be surprised if he did not), but in his recently exposed manifesto he does identify as a white nationalist. He also names the Council of Conservative Citizens specifically as helping to foster his racist views. While Stormfront offers a “big tent” approach to white nationalism, and thus represents a variety of political perspectives, it collectively represents the key tenets of white nationalism. Discussing them sheds light on this violent act and may help us understand it.
So, what are the themes that make up the white nationalist ideology? There are three key themes that appear at Stormfront and in Dylann Roof’s manifesto.
1. White Innocence
By 10:41PM on June 16th a discussion thread had already been created on the site responding to the Charleston massacre, and over the next two days the forum generated over 1,100 posts. Participants on Stormfront were almost immediately discussing whether or not the perpetrator was one of them. Just after 11:00PM, user WhiteNationhood wrote, “there’s been some dude over at /pol/ who has posted about scenarios where you could shoot up a black church and make an escape. I always assumed it was a (tasteless) copy pasta [sic] but with this I’m worried it might be him.” After Roof’s rape statement and photos with apartheid badges were circulated Thursday morning, Darling Blade posted, “Dare I ask the question? Was he on here?”
While a few Stormfront members made statements either supporting the murders or dismissing them as insignificant, the majority of posters claimed they do not support violence and some even offered condolences to the victim’s families. However the collective ideological response was one of deflection of blame, and a claim to innocence.
Robin DiAngelo has written on what she calls white fragility, the idea that whites are institutionally guarded from racial stress and so experience even minor racial stress as deeply troubling. Framing whites as targets of racial violence allows individuals who experience whiteness as fragile to develop a framework where violence is justified. Since the founding of Stormfront moderators have focused on rules that limit threats of violence or illegal activity and people who make such threats are censured or banned. Most participants claim they support white pride and segregation, not violence. Shortly after the shooting MattwhiteAmerica wrote, “White nationalism is about the survival of the white race. WE do not promote violence..> [sic] Certainly, we do support separation, but not violence. This piece of human filth is condemnable. I hope all guest [sic] can understand this and join us in our journey to preserve our race.” This is a popular opinion on the site, however the logical response to their ideological position is to engage in violence against people of color and Jews, although this violence is seen as self-defense.
Roof certainly came to this conclusion, writing: “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” After encountering the barrage of selectively curated crime stories on these sites that portray whites as always innocent victims, many participants come to the conclusion that they also must join the race war by enacting violence.
2. Whiteness is about gender and the family, and it is good
The foundational assumption and understanding of white nationalism is that whiteness is morally good and whites are superior. Much scholarly work on the white nationalist movement has shown that the white nationalist movement is primarily a movement designed to defend white masculinity and white femininity, to defend the always already heterosexual white family as the source of all things good.
If you want the deep dive on the research on this, check the following: Daniels, White Lies (Routledge, 1997) Daniels, Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009); Ferber, White Man Falling (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998) and Statzel, R. S. (2006). “The Apartheid Conscience: Gender, Race, and Re-Imagining the White Nation in Cyberspace.” Ethnic Studies Review 29(2): 20-45.
This understanding of the white family and white (hetero)sexuality as inherently moral allows for a justification of white violence, as white violence is framed as a defense of the good. Roof’s claim that he is defending white women from the threat of black rape is shaped by this ideology of white morality, so that even in the act of murdering innocent people—primarily black women—his narrative implies his actions are defensible.
The morning after the massacre, Stormfront member Freedom lover discussed Roof’s statement that the murders were a defense of white women, writing: “Dare I say it, if this is true and this is the real reason, then it’s karma being visited on the negro race. Someone was going to react sooner or later. If they thought we would accept being slaughtered like lambs, this guy has answered them in no uncertain terms.” Freedom lover continues, “This will just happen more and more often as the embattled white race are forced into a corner. We need people to stand up and instead of condemning this guy’s actions, they should condemn the vile brutes who made this possible, the liberal marxists who now run white countries. These are our real enemies. ”
This history of whiteness is a history of racial terror, which bell hooks so clearly discusses (bell hooks, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination.” Cultural Studies. 1992, Eds. Lawrence Grossberg et al. London: Routledge: 338-342) but white racial terror has consistently been justified as a defense of white femininity. In this framing, an imagined hyper-sexual black terror circulated as the inverse of a purported white innocence.
3. Whites are under attack.
The savvy use of new media has allowed white nationalists to circulate their ideology that whites are already under attack, that a race war is already underway and most whites are oblivious of this to their own peril. In his manifesto Roof credits his racial radicalization to the news surrounding Trayvon Martin’s murder, writing that the media response to Martin’s murder, “prompted me to type in the words ‘black on White crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day.’’
Circulating the idea that there is an epidemic of black on white crime is perhaps the most popular theme on Stormfront, and the two main forums in the popular Newslinks section are the “Ethnic Crime Report” and the “Jewish Crime Report.” For over a decade these forums have chronicled hundreds of purported crimes committed by people of color against whites. The Council on Conservative Citizens hosts a similar site, with the title, “Our black on white murder study has shocked even us,” replete with photos and a numerical tally of white victims. As on Stormfront, dozens of photos of smiling white faces alongside mug shots of primarily African Americans and vivid descriptions of murder and rape provide visual and narrative proof that whites are the victims of racial violence.
The tagline for Stormfront is, “We are the voice of the new, embattled White minority!” Circulating the false idea that whites are an embattled minority already under attack by racial others inverts the history of institutionalized white supremacy to portray whites as victims of history. This false portrayal allows white nationalists to frame anti-racist efforts as part of a conspiracy to destroy the white race, and leads at least some to feel compelled to violence to protect whites.
The anti-racist challenge
In this time of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, with so much attention being paid to the dehumanizing racism of police brutality, the Charleston massacre reminds us to remain concerned about the threat of organized racism. The recent Southern Poverty Law Center’s report on the link between Stormfront and nearly 100 murders provides a broader context for concern about the online white nationalist movement. For people concerned with racial justice, we must be aware of ongoing threats the racist right poses. The white nationalist movement has proven adept at utilizing online venues to pursue their goals and engage in pedagogical projects, with devastating effects for many. Anti-racists are now challenged to also engage in savvy new media interventions to work to challenge this threat.
Any strategy for countering the effects of the organized white nationalist movement is complex, and should not involve posting anti-racist challenges to these sites. Many white nationalist actually enjoy responding to “antis,” the name given to everyone who challenges white nationalist ideas, and responding to these posts can actually serve to solidify white nationalist views. The challenge to anti-racists is how to also utilize the power of new media to both challenge white nationalist logic, and to provide a different lens for disaffected whites to interpret their malaise within.
~ Sophie Bjork-James is an anthropologist and a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University. She is an expert in conservative and white supremacist social movements in the US and has monitored the largest white nationalist website, Stormfront.org, since 2004. Bjork-James has published her findings in “The Apartheid Conscience: What the white nationalist movement can teach us about the reproduction of white supremacy in America” and the chapter titled “Cybersupremacy: The new face and form of white supremacist activism” in Tactics in Hard Times: Practices and Spaces of New Media.