At least for this week, the nation focuses on the fatal shooting of officer Stephen T. Johns at the Holocaust museum on 10 June by alleged gunman, and white supremacist, James W. Von Brunn. Various networks such as CBS, Fox , MSNBC , and ABC provide palatable narratives on how such a distasteful act came to pass. For example, on NPR’s 12 June edition of “Tell Me More” Mark Potok, from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Randy Blazak, a sociology professor at Portland State University, spent the allotted radio time responding to host Michel Martins’ introductory question: “… there are plenty of people who seem to want to ‘talk trash,’ you know in leaflets, on websites, or whatever, but do we have any sense of why and when this crosses over into violence, is there some tipping point?”
Martin’s query seems to miss the point. Reflecting on the program and what is left unsaid helps us recognize how framing Von Brunn as the proverbial “bad apple” mystifies white supremacy in the everyday. Dominant folk wisdom tells us “racism” is something practiced by overt hate-mongers, therefore Von Brunn is merely a manifestation of a rare kind of white male exceptionalism. This portrayal creates a picture of social reality in which battle lines are clear: the racists are easily identified, victims sympathetically portrayed, and the difference between the “good” and “bad” whites is certain.
Such thinking can hold severe repercussions. For example, the Department of Homeland Security was recently pressured to backtrack on an April report which suggested (drawing from examples like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh) that disaffected veterans with military training might serve as recruiting targets for right-wing, racist extremists. Many folks, particularly American Legion National Commander David K. Rehbein, took issue with the report’s insinuation that mainstream, patriotic, even military veteran, whites could become vehicles for white racial supremacy and domestic terrorism.
Moreover, in my doctoral work, “White Guise: The Common Trajectory of the White Antiracist & Racist Movement,” I found that white male racists and white male anti-racists relied on strikingly similar racist worldviews. (For example, both groups relied upon and often accepted views of blacks and Latin@s as culturally or biologically dysfunctional and dangerous, while simultaneously treating racial “otherness” as a kind of “epidermal capital” which served as a temporary alleviation of their collectively-shared understanding of whiteness as “bland,” “boring,” and “meaningless.”) These shared dimensions of what I call “hegemonic whiteness” were solidified in the nation’s founding as a white male supremacist state. And while these racialized and gendered violent foundations may be invisible to most, their influence is continuously present among varied contexts of predominantly white male groups like white supremacists, American Legion outposts, and even some “white antiracists.”
From this perspective, the logic motivating Von Brunn, evident in his book “Kill the Best Gentiles,” his website, and various leaflets such as the one he left in his car on 10 June that states “The Holocaust is a lie. Obama was created by Jews. Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do,” is commensurate with the dominant logic and performances expected of white men across varied contexts. Whether acting on the impulse that whiteness is a stigmatized or even oppressed racial identity in need of (violent) defense, believing in the biological or cultural pathologies of non-whites, justifying segregation as “natural,” harboring a white-savor complex, or appropriating items and practices marked with the “exoticism” of racial “otherness”—the various dimensions of “hegemonic whiteness” are not limited to that of Von Brunn, and Von Brunn is anything but a “bad apple.”
~ Matthew W. Hughey is assistant professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Mississippi State University. He can be reached at MHughey@soc.msstate.edu. (See his blog at http://mississippilearning.wordpress.com/).