White Power, White Terrorism, White Mainstream

As you’ve probably heard by now, Jared Lee Loughner is accused of a horrific attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ.) and the murder of six other people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old little girl.  Loughner also injured 14 other people.  Remarkably, Giffords survived – in no small measure due to the heroic actions of a gay, Latino intern who rushed to administer first aid – and doctors are cautiously optimistic that she will recover.   While the facts in this terrible case are still unfolding, the initial indications are that the shooting points to some profound connections between white power, terrorism and the mainstream political culture of the U.S.

Hate group monitors, including Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates and Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC),  have noted the ties Loughner had to white power groups through his posting to various web sites and his YouTube channel.   Elise Foley, reporting at the Huffington Post, suggests that Loughner had ties to the American Renaissance, a white nationalist group that operates under a pseudo think tank called the New Century Foundation.  Among a number of notions it holds rooted in white supremacy, the American Renaissance is also opposed to the entry of “non-whites” into the United States and supports Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law.  The group is known for its anti-semitism and a number of media outlets have pointed to the fact that Hitler’s Mein Kampf was listed as one of Loughner’s favorite books, leading to questions about whether anti-semitism and anti-immigrant hostility were motives in the shootings.  Giffords is the first Jewish U.S. representative to be elected in Arizona (and an opponent of SB 1070) and Gabe Zimmerman, a Giffords aide who was killed in the shooting, was also Jewish.    Potok is more circumspect when he observes:

I didn’t see anything that suggested racial, anti-Semitic or anti-immigrant animus in Loughner’s writings. Certainly, there’s nothing I saw at all reminiscent of American Renaissance, which focuses heavily on the alleged intellectual and psychological inferiority of black people.  At this early stage, I think Loughner is probably best described as a mentally ill or unstable person who was influenced by the rhetoric and demonizing propaganda around him. Ideology may not explain why he allegedly killed, but it could help explain how he selected his target.

One thing that seems clear is that Giffords … was the nearest and most obvious representative of “the government” that Loughner could find. Another is that he likely absorbed some of his anger from the vitriolic political atmosphere in the United States in general and Arizona in particular.

I tend to agree with Potok here.  I doubt that any official ties between Loughner and white supremacist (or nationalist) groups will be unearthed.  But, even though he Loughner isn’t much of a “joiner” doesn’t mean he’s not a political terrorist – he is.  He even calls himself a terrorist.  And, that’s what he is.  The only problem is that he’s white, so lots of people are going to have trouble recognizing him as a terrorist.

Academic blogger Juan Cole (h/t @tandmark) makes this point:

“[He] was clearly mentally unstable. But the political themes of his instability were those of the American far Right. Loughner was acting politically even if he is not all there. He is said to have called out the names of his victims, such as Roll and Gifford, as he fired. As usual, when white people do these things, the mass media doesn’t call it terrorism.

While lots of liberal bloggers have picked up this white-terrorism meme, there is almost nothing in the mainstream media about the whiteness of this suspect.  The white mainstream is already framing this shooting as the act of a crazed, lone gunman, rather than part of a consistent pattern of right-wing violence perpetrated almost exclusively by white men who are responding to a political climate that is increasingly stoked by vitriolic rhetoric.

Sarah Palin has been a chief instigator, although certainly not alone, in generating this deadly rhetoric.  Palin bears a special responsibility for the shooting given her frequent, and reckless, use of the gun metaphors such as her Twitter update: “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” (Indeed, Palin’s rhetoric was so inflammatory during the presidential election that the Secret Service blamed her remarks about Obama for increasing the number of death threats against him.)   Giffords was well aware of the threat posed by Palin campaign rhetoric like this map with cross hairs mimicking a gun scope on 20 Democratic districts, including Giffords’ own:

After the shooting, Palin’s political action group tried to scrub the Internet of traces of the map, but to no avail. Lots of evidence of Palin’s vitriol still exists on the web, including an interview Giffords did last spring directly addressing the poster.  Speaking to MSNBC reporter Chuck Todd after her office was vandalized in March of this year, Giffords tells Todd:

GIFFORDS:   Community leaders, figures in our community need to say “look, we can’t stand for this.”  This is a situation where — people don’t — they really need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up and, you know, even things, for example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district.  And when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.

TODD:  But in fairness, campaign rhetoric and war rhetoric have been interchangeable for years.  And so that’s — is there not, is there a line here?  I understand that in the moment it may look bad, but do you really think that’s what she intended?

GIFFORDS:  You know, I can’t say, I’m not Sarah Palin.  But I can say that in the years that some of my colleagues have served — 20, 30 years — they’ve never seen it like this.

Todd dismisses Giffords concerns here, and I have to wonder if part of the dismissal has to do with the fact that Sarah Palin is a white woman, and thus, somehow less threatening.   What’s relevant here for my point is that Chuck Todd is part of the white mainstream that initially dismissed this violent political rhetoric as worthy of concern, and will continue in his role on MSNBC to be one of the framers of this event as the act of a “lone gunman” who is “mentally unbalanced.” These are partial truths.

What Todd and others like him in the white mainstream do when they repeat these partial truths over and over again, is that they hide from view the larger truth about the way whiteness and white supremacy are implicated in this violent political era.

White Women, Race Matters (Pt.1)

White women are at the forefront of the Tea Party, a political movement that’s trying to move American backward on race and civil rights.   Sarah Palin, former Vice Presidential candidate, half-term governor of Alaska and likely presidential candidate in 2012, is the charismatic leader of the Tea Party movement, if not the official head of it.  Palin has a new book, America by Heart, due out soon (just in time for pre-presidential-run campaigning).  In passages leaked from the book on perceptions of racial inequality in the U. S., Palin slams President Obama, who, she asserts, “seems to believe” that “America — at least America as it currently exists — is a fundamentally unjust and unequal country.” And then she goes after First Lady Michelle Obama:

“Certainly his wife expressed this view when she said during the 2008 campaign that she had never felt proud of her country until her husband started winning elections. In retrospect, I guess this shouldn’t surprise us, since both of them spent almost two decades in the pews of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church listening to his rants against America and white people.”

(Sarah Palin at an event launching her new bobble-head doll
from Scott, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Sarah Palin’s dog-whistle racism should be no surprise to anyone that has followed her or paid attention to the rise of the Tea Party.  (She’s wrong, of course, but that’s another matter.) In fact,
recent research from The Nation Institute‘s Investigative Fund, documents the ways that the Tea Party is working hand-in-glove with white Patriot movement radicals — many of whom have close ties to neo-Nazis and anti-government armed militias (reported by Alternet).  Yet, what many writers on the left are missing in this important story is the key role that white women are playing in the movement.  Sarah Palin is not the only woman involved in the Tea Party.  At a recent Tea Party rally in Paducah, Kentucky, singer Diana Nagy performed for the crowds (pictured below).

(Diana Nagy performing at Tea Party Rally,
from Gage Skidmore, Flickr/CreativeCommons)

Nagy’s song, “Where Freedom Flies,” (she composed and sings it) has become something of an anthem for the Tea Party movement, and Nagy something of a poster girl.   The song is in the genre of Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to be an American,” and it’s fine if you like that sort of tune: heavy on the patriotic lyrics, light on the social criticism, and completely devoid of a driving back beat. The video of her song on YouTube, is a short clip (2:01) with about 19,000 views.  There are a couple of telling features of the video: the images used and the link at the end.   The song is meant to be a tribute to those serving in the military (although, presumably not the gay/lesbian soldiers – but I digress).  It makes sense that the images used in the video would all be of soldiers, but after the first :30 seconds or so (flags, promotional slide of Nagy, another flag), all the images of soldiers are almost entirely white (near the end the backs of two men are shown that may be men of color, but it’s hard to tell).  Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I suspect it’s part of the larger iconography of the Tea Party, which is intentionally appealing to white peoples’ fears, rooted in racism.  It’s the end of the video clip which is the most telling, however, as it invites viewers to “get the entire song” at MoveAmericaForward.org.

As it turns out, MoveAmericaForward is another far-right group, also run by a white woman, Melanie Morgan (pictured below).

Morgan, along with Howard Kaloogian (another Tea Partier), formed Move American Forward in 2004 as a pro-war group. According to SourceWatch, Morgan gained national notoriety in the summer of 2006 when she suggested that Bill Keller, an editor of The New York Times, be killed in a “gas chamber” for the crime of “treason” after the Times’ reporting on US government spying on Americans.  Perhaps that’s just Morgan’s brand of hyperbole, but when I hear someone suggest “gas chambers” I immediately conjure Nazis and antisemitism, but maybe that’s just me.  She seems undaunted by criticism that she might be fomenting racism and antisemitism with her remarks.

In a July 2007 appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, Morgan repeated her claim that Keller and other journalists who reported on the government’s SWIFT program for tracking terrorist bank transactions “should be tried for treason. If they were found guilty of treason, I would have no problem with them being executed.”  Morgan continues to make such claims on her website, and, is a promoter of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.   Today, the underlying MoveAmericaForward message is conveyed in the website’s imagery: soldiers are white, terrorists are black, and the government needs to be “taken back,” preferably by George W. Bush.

So, why does it matter that these are white women, and what does it have to do with race? It matters for a few reasons.

  • Because of sexism, white women get a pass on racism. – There’s a pervasive myth that women are somehow less racist, less capable of evil, than men.  It’s not true, and it’s an idea rooted in a kind of sexism – that women are inherently somehow kinder, gentler, and by extension, less racist, than men.  It’s just not the case, but it’s a powerful idea that still holds a lot of sway, nonetheless.   What this means is that white women are called out less, taken to task less than men are for their racism.
  • White (straight) women benefit from all kinds of unacknowledged privilege. The fact is that all these women, like other women on the far-right, benefit from privilege – heterosexual privilege, white skin privilege, and many of them, class privilege.   That unacknowledged privilege makes them not that different from the men in the Tea Party and other far-right movements.    It also feeds into the “born on third base, thought I hit a triple” version of meritocracy that they espouse.
  • Asking if these women are “feminists” is the wrong question. Lots of people have been posing the question, “Is Sarah Palin a feminist?” and I would argue that’s the wrong question.    Sure, Sarah Palin’s a feminist if she wants to call herself one.  So are Diana Tagy and Melanie Morgan.   I get that makes some feminists who don’t share the racist agenda of the Tea Party uncomfortable.   What we should be asking instead is why is (white) feminism so easily compatible with racist, far-right movements like the Tea Party?

I’ll be back tomorrow with Part 2 of “White Women, Race Matters,” in which I’ll explore the media and cultural portrayal of white women beyond the realm of political parties.