35 Years of Demonization: The Criminalization of Black Women

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This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

In December 1990, when Alice Johnson lost her job, she never imagined she would end up in prison. The African-American single mother had been supporting her five children as a manager of a FedEx store in Memphis. She soon found another job, but at one-third the pay. Meanwhile, the bills mounted. When she was offered a quick way to make money—by passing phone messages about where to buy drugs—she took it. Johnson is now serving a life sentence for conspiracy to possess cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine, and money laundering.1

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people in U.S. prisons and jails increased from 292 per 100,000 to 481 per 100,000.2 But the number of women in prison rose even more sharply, doubling over the ten-year period.

The numbers keep growing. The number of women sent to prison grew by another nearly three percent (or 2,800 people) between 2012 and 2013. The imprisonment rate for Black women is 113 of every 100,000, more than twice that of White women (who are imprisoned at a rate of 51 per 100,000). At the end of 2013, nearly one quarter (or 23,100) of the 104,134 women in state or federal prison were Black.3 In contrast, Black women make up just 13 percent of women in the United States.4 Today, approximately 206,000 women are in jails or prisons nationwide.5 Johnson, who was arrested in 1994 and charged with conspiracy to possess cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine, and money laundering, is one of those women.

In July 2015, hundreds of people marched in Minneapolis to honor Sandra Bland and protest the deaths of Black women who have died in police custody. Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

In July 2015, hundreds of people marched in Minneapolis to honor Sandra Bland and protest the deaths of Black women who have died in police custody. Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

Johnson’s imprisonment did not happen in a political vacuum. The same policies of mass incarceration and racial policing that have sent disproportionate numbers of Black men to prison have also hit Black women hard.6 In 1996, the year Johnson was convicted, the rate of incarceration for Black women was seven times higher than for White women. The right-wing rhetoric that fueled those policies affecting Black men also reinforced a narrative in which Black women are seen as inherently criminal, a narrative that continues to influence public perception and law enforcement today.7

In 1971, Richard M. Nixon declared a War on Drugs. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan expanded that war. But, as Michelle Alexander notes in her pivotal study of the hyper-incarceration of African Americans, The New Jim Crow, this expansion came at a time when neither media nor most members of the public were particularly concerned about drugs. Reagan’s administration launched a public relations campaign, focusing largely on crack, to build both public and legislative support for his drug war. The war was not race-neutral—images of Black people addicted to crack, whether in the form of “crack whores,” “crack dealers” or “crack babies,” were utilized to strike fear into the public and garner support for harsher laws and more punitive sentences.8

The image of Black women continues to be fueled by the right-wing narrative of Black women as welfare frauds, liars, and cheats.

In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, mandating a five-year sentence for a five-gram sale of crack cocaine; in contrast, the same sentence only took effect for 500 grams of powder cocaine. Although Whites and Blacks used drugs at similar rates, enforcement of the Act targeted Black people, drastically increasing the number of Black people sent to prison—in 1980, African Americans made up 12 percent of the country’s population, but 23 percent of all people arrested on drug charges. By 1990, however, they made up more than 40 percent of those arrested for drugs and over 60 percent of those convicted.9 The Act also took its toll on women, particularly Black women. Under the Act, police and prosecutors were able to arrest and charge spouses and lovers with drug trafficking “conspiracy” for everyday actions such as taking a phone message or sharing finances. This is what happened to North Carolina mother Phyllis Hardy, whose ordeal I have described elsewhere.10 In 1991, Hardy’s husband was arrested for conspiracy to import and sell cocaine. He told me that prosecutors asked him if he had ever given money to his wife. “She’s my wife. Of course I gave her money,” he told them.

Andrea Ritchie, co-author of the "Say Her Name" report speaks at the 2015 New York City #SayHerName vigil in remembrance of Black women and girls killed by the police. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr.

Andrea Ritchie, co-author of the “Say Her Name” report speaks at the 2015 New York City #SayHerName vigil
in remembrance of Black women and girls killed by the police. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr.

But, under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, sharing money with a spouse—even for household expenses like groceries or the mortgage—ropes him or her into the conspiracy. Phyllis Hardy was arrested and charged with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine as well as money laundering. Believing that justice would prevail, she went to trial. She lost and was sentenced to 30-and-a-half years in federal prison. Her husband, who accepted a plea bargain, served 15 years.

Reagan’s War on Drugs coincided with a less-trumpeted right-wing war on women. Invoking images of Black welfare mothers driving Cadillacs and having children solely to collect more taxpayer dollars, Reagan and his acolytes whipped up public furor against welfare recipients and the idea that society should support those most in need. The frenzy continued past his presidency; in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was introduced as part of the Republican Contract with America and heavily pushed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans, as well as right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, home of Charles Murray, whose racist writings formed the foundation for welfare reform. In 1996, Clinton signed it into law. The bill, popularly known as “welfare reform,” placed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare, excluded benefits to children born to mothers already on welfare, required recipients to work after two years, and enacted a lifetime ban on welfare benefits for people with drug felonies or who had violated probation or parole.11

The demonization of Black women extended beyond welfare and, even 35 years later, continues to inform police interactions. In 2013, of all women stopped by New York City police, over 53 percent were Black although Black people make up only 27 percent of the city’s residents.12

“The image of Black women continues to be fueled by the right-wing narrative of Black women as welfare frauds, liars and cheats,” Andrea Ritchie, a Soros Justice Fellow examining police violence against women and LGBT people of color, told The Public Eye. “These images drive interactions from whether to write someone a traffic ticket or arrest them for not putting their cigarette out to what to charge someone.” Ritchie pointed to the example of Charlena Michele Cooks, a Black mother in Barstow, California, who was eight months pregnant when she was brutally arrested in January 2015. While dropping her second-grade daughter off at school, Cooks had a driving dispute with another mother. The other mother, who is White, called the police. According to his body cam footage, the officer, after listening to the White mother’s statement, said, “I don’t see a crime that’s been committed,” but offered to speak with Cooks. The officer approached Cooks and, when she refused to give her full name and began to walk away, the officer twisted her hands behind her, forced her against a fence and arrested her as she screamed in pain and fear. She was charged with resisting arrest. A court later dismissed the charge; the ACLU of Southern California confirms that Cooks did indeed have the right to refuse to give her name.13

Whenever interactions like this occur, the underlying justification demonizes Black women, noted Ritchie. “Every police interaction is informed by the perception that they’re lying, cheating and not worthy of protection.” The brutal 2015 arrest of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas following a questionable traffic stop, illustrates the way in which these ingrained perceptions can be deadly.

National Day Of Action to end State violence against Black girls and women. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr

National Day Of Action to end State violence against Black girls and women. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr

Even when they are not deadly, the narrative informs who police choose to target—and arrest. In the 1990s, New York City, under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, instituted a policy of “stop, question and frisk,” soon shortened to “stop and frisk,” in which police stop and search people whom they perceive to be acting suspiciously. Not surprisingly, most of the stops involved people of color. In 2011, nearly 90 percent of these stops involved Black or Latina/o people.14 But stop and frisk is not limited to New York; other cities also employ the tactic and, as in New York, people of color are often the targets.

Those stopped and frisked can be arrested not only for weapons or drugs, but also for carrying legal items such as condoms. Until recently in New York, police could—and would—seize condoms as evidence of sex work. But this policy didn’t just affect people engaged in sex work. Trans and gender non-conforming people, particularly people of color, also felt the brunt in a phenomenon known as “walking while trans.”15 Nearly 60 percent of trans and gender non-conforming people of color living in Jackson Heights, one of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods, reported being stopped by police, who profiled them as sex workers solely because of their race and gender identity. None were actually sex workers, but they were charged with prostitution-related offenses if they were carrying condoms.16 Considering that the city’s Department of Health distributes over 35 million condoms each year, the practice of using condoms as evidence seems particularly absurd. But not absurd enough to abolish the practice. In May 2014, Bratton (once again New York’s police commissioner) announced that police will no longer use condoms as evidence—unless they suspect people of sex trafficking or promotion of prostitution.17 

Nearly 60 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people of color living in Jackson Heights reported being stopped by police, who profiled them as sex workers solely because of their race and gender identity.

Undoing 35 years of demonization requires approaches on several different levels. Andrea Ritchie is the co-author of Say Her Name, a July 2015 report examining police violence against Black women and girls, which includes some examples of policy demands that address Black women’s particular experiences of policing, such as a ban on using Tasers and excessive force on pregnant women or children and the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, which prohibits any agency from engaging in racial profiling.18 In New Orleans, years of organizing and attention to the city’s racist policing practices ended in a 2012 consent decree in which the New Orleans Police Department was ordered to implement bias-free policing.19

At the same time, the underlying narrative that promotes these policies and interactions needs to change. The popular hashtag and associated movement #BlackLivesMatter have helped challenge this script, calling attention to the racism and violence against Black people. While #BlackLivesMatter, started by three Black women, does not focus exclusively on the violence against Black men, activists and media makers made sure that the call was expanded to ensure that Black women and Black trans people were not forgotten with calls for Black Trans Lives Matter and Black Girls Matter. Activists, media makers and members of the general public need to continue challenging the stereotypes of Black women and rewrite the script so that gender and gendered violence remain integral in the struggle to transform the criminal justice system.


About the Author

Victoria Law is a freelance writer focusing on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.


Endnotes

[1] Victoria Law, “Mothers Serving Long-Term Drug Sentences Call for Clemency,” Truthout, September 11, 2015, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32745-mothers-serving-long-term-drug-sentences-call-for-clemency.

[2] Allen J. Beck and Jennifer C. Karberg, Prisons and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2000, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice, March 2001, 3, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pjim00.pdf.

[3] E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2013, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, September 30, 2014, 9, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p13.pdf.

[4] Maria Guerra, Fact Sheet: The State of African American Women in the United States, Center for American Progress, November 7, 2013, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2013/11/07/79165/fact-sheet-the-state-of-african-american-women-in-the-united-states/.

[5] Aleks Kajstura and Russ Immarigeon, States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context, Prison Policy Initiative, http://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/women/ .

[6] Department of Justice, “State and Federal Prisons Report Record Growth During Last 12 Months,” December 3, 1995, 4, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pam95.pdf.

[7] This past summer, Texas district attorney called Sandra Bland “it” and re-directed the blame for Bland’s brutal arrest and subsequent death on her own behavior, stating, “It was not a model traffic stop … and it was not a model person that was stopped on a traffic stop. I think the public can make its own determinations as to the behaviors that are seen in the video.” Michael Gracezyk, “Texas Prosecutor Says Too Soon to Say How Woman Died in Cell,” Associated Press, July 21, 2015, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/00ba536ef2c24db1bb1609e9bcb6df1d/texas-officials-release-video-jail-sandra-bland-case.

[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 5.

[9] Jonathan Rothwell, “How the War on Drugs Damages Black Social Mobility,” Brookings, September 30, 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/social-mobility-memos/posts/2014/09/30-war-on-drugs-black-social-mobility-rothwell.

[10] Victoria Law, “Will Obama’s Commutation Allow Grandma Hardy and Thousands of Drug War Prisoners to Finally Go Home?” Truthout, August 20, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/25497-will-obamas-commutation-allow-grandma-hardy-and-thousands-of-drug-war-prisoners-to-finally-go-home; Victoria Law, “Phyllis ‘Grandma’ Hardy is Home! But Over 98,000 People Remain Prisoners of the Drug War,” Truthout, April 7, 2015, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/29973-phyllis-grandma-hardy-is-home-but-over-98-000-people-remain-prisoners-of-the-drug-war.

[11] Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” The Nation, September 6, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/169788/clinton-touts-welfare-reform-heres-how-it-failed.

[12] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie, Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, (New York: African American Policy Forum, 2015). 7, http://static1.squarespace.com/static/53f20d90e4b0b80451158d8c/t/55a810d7e4b058f342f55873
/1437077719984/AAPF_SMN_Brief_full_singles.compressed.pdf
.

[13] Michael Martinez and Kyung Lah, “Police Video Shows ‘Horrifying’ Arrest of Pregnant Woman, ACLU Says,” CNN, May 29, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/28/us/barstow-california-police-video-pregnant-woman-arrest/.

[14] New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop‐and‐Frisk 2011 Report 8 (2012). 5.

[15] People’s Law Office, “Criminalization of LGBTQ People,” n.p., n.d., http://peopleslawoffice.com/issues-and-cases/criminalization-of-glbt-people-in-the-us/.

[16] Make the Road New York, Transgressive Policing: Police Abuse of LGBTQ Communities of Color in Jackson Heights, October 2012, 4, 15, http://www.maketheroad.org/pix_reports/MRNY_Transgressive_Policing_Full_Report_10.23.12B.pdf.

[17] Emma Caterine, “Condoms as Evidence: Terrible for Sex Workers, Terrible for Public Health,” RH Reality Check, March 8, 2013, http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/03/08/condoms-as-evidence-terrible-for-sex-workers-terrible-for-public-health/.

[18] Crenshaw and Ritchie, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” African American Policy Forum, July 2015, 33 (See also: Cassandra Osei, “Reports in Review,” The Public Eye, Fall 2015, 20); End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, H.R. 1933, 114th Congress (2015), https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1933.

[19] New Orleans Police Department, “NOPD Consent Decree,” City of New Orleans Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu, n.d., http://www.nola.gov/nopd/nopd-consent-decree/. It should be noted that, three years later, “the pace of reform continues in many areas to be slower than desired.” Ken Daley, “Third Year in Consent Decree ‘Critical’ for New Orleans Police,” The Times-Picayune, October 5, 2015, http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2015/10/federal_monitors_warn_nopds_th.html.

Franklin Graham: Falwell Prodigy, Putin Lover, and Trump Fan

This week, Franklin Graham—son of famed evangelical Billy Graham and current president of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse—begins a 50-state tour of the United States. The “Decision America Tour” will feature prayer rallies across the country, calling on Christians to vote, run for office, and “boldly live out their faith.” He insists that he won’t tell people whom to vote for, and even announced recently that he was formally cutting ties with the Republican Party, opting to declare himself independent instead.

Donald Trump chats with Franklin Graham at Billy Graham's 95th birthday party in 2013. Image by Demoss.

Donald Trump chats with Franklin Graham at Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party in 2013. Image by Demoss.

But distancing himself from established political parties doesn’t make him any less political. In December, Graham expressed support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump following Trump’s comments calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Whereas prominent leaders from across the political and religious spectrum responded with sharp criticism (even Christian Right leader Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called on Christians to denounce the candidate’s “reckless, demagogic rhetoric,” and former Vice President Dick Cheney argued that Trump’s anti-Muslim plan “goes against everything we stand for and believe in”), Graham quickly jumped to the multi-billionaire’s defense. In a Dec. 9 Facebook post, he pointed out that Trump’s proposal is actually similar to what Graham himself has been saying for months.

Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, called Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump “the political version of Franklin Graham.” Both Graham and Trump are well known for their bombastic diatribes, and the two seem to be increasingly ideologically synchronized.

On social media, at public engagements, and in interviews, Graham regularly rants against Muslims, LGBTQ people, and just about anyone else who doesn’t fit into his specific Christian Right paradigm. Historically, his comments have been filed away as irrelevant and isolated to a particular breed of [dying] Christianity (like those of the late Fred Phelps of “God Hates Fags” infamy), but with Trump making outright bigotry seemingly acceptable in mainstream media outlets, Graham’s previously dismissible rhetoric is increasingly validated.

And unlike the late Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church followers, Graham’s bigotry is backed by some significant capital. With a reported revenue of over $460 million (according to 2013 tax returns), his Boone, NC-based Samaritan’s Purse is a powerful organization with an expansive global reach (the organization currently operates country offices and/or relief programs in over 14 countries. To better understand the potential impact of Samaritan’s Purse on LGBTQ people internationally, consider its local work: in 2012, Samaritan’s Purse contributed over $150,000 to North Carolina’s anti-marriage equality amendment, and more recently, Graham mobilized opposition against an ordinance proposed in Charlotte, NC that would have expanded the city’s nondiscrimination protections to include “marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.” The ordinance did not pass.

In some ways, the Decision America Tour seems inspired by the elder Graham’s ambitious travel schedule—over the course of this career, Billy Graham is said to have conducted more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories on six continents. Franklin’s father, however, was comparatively more moderate, and on some issues even took relatively progressive stands. As early as the 1950s, Billy Graham insisted that his revivals and crusades be racially integrated, and he was a strong supporter and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1965, following the brutal attack against Civil Rights activists attempting to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, Graham canceled a trip to Europe in order to host a 10-day, racially integrated crusade in Montgomery.

But as anti-Black violence continues to rage in the U.S. today, BGEA’s Franklin Graham has abandoned his father’s efforts toward a more racially just America. Not unlike Trump’s comments that a Black Lives Matter protester who disrupted a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama deserved to be “roughed up,” in a Facebook post published in March 2015, Graham callously responded to the growing national outrage about racist police brutality by suggesting that Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jessie Hernandez, and countless other victims of police violence were at fault for their own deaths.

“Most police shootings can be avoided,” he wrote. “It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air.” For Franklin Graham, racism isn’t an issue. For him, the real crisis facing America is that LGBTQ people are emerging from their closets, daring to demand rights and recognition; that women are asserting their bodily autonomy and demanding safe, affordable reproductive healthcare; and that Islam, which he previously described as a “very evil and wicked religion,” simply exists.

If anything, Franklin seems to be following in the footsteps of the late right-wing evangelical Jerry Falwell. In 1976, exactly 40 years ago, Falwell also went on a 50-state expedition called the “I Love America Tour.” The effort is credited with laying the groundwork for the eventual establishment of the Moral Majority, which played a pivotal role in mobilizing conservative Christians into a voting bloc, ultimately advancing a sharp rightward shift in American politics. The fallout of this shift is still deeply evident today, and Graham seems determined to lead a new phase of right-wing Christian influence in local, state, and federal elections across the country.

Graham’s interests and influence also extend far beyond U.S. borders. On a recent trip to Moscow, he met with President Vladimir Putin and discussed “the critical role of the church in restraining evil and fostering biblical values in society.” Lest there be any question as to what “evil” Graham was referencing, he continued: “Thankfully, Russian leaders in the church and government have stood steadfastly against the rising homosexual agenda in their country.”

Specifically, Graham praised Putin’s protection of “traditional Christianity” and for “protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda” (a reference to the 2013 “anti-gay propaganda” law which effectively criminalized public LGBTQ advocacy efforts). Graham, who has blamed the Syrian refugee crisis on President Obama’s support for LGBTQ rights, was also full of praise for Russia’s alignment with Syria, and emphasized the importance of protecting Christians there.

Over the last decade, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has flirted with various elements of the U.S. Christian Right (most notably with leaders and affiliates of the World Congress of Families—who convened their latest international gathering of culture warriors in the U.S. for the first time this year), but Graham’s appearance on the scene suggests a whole new level of game-changing developments. Bill Yoder, an American working for the German Evangelical Alliance of Eastern Europe, reported that during his visit, Graham appealed for a new East-West alliance in order to “ward off present-day dangers.”

Yoder indicates that the ROC, which enjoys increasingly friendly relations with President Putin, is endeavoring to form “an alternative global movement” to the historically progressive World Council of Churches. At a press conference in Moscow, it was announced that in the next 12-18 months, BGEA and the ROC will jointly organize an international conference to “discuss the problems of persecution of Christians in different countries of the world.”

So the ROC is aligning itself with Putin, Putin is aligning himself with the Assad regime in Syria, and Franklin Graham is aligning himself with the Putin and now Trump. This can only spell trouble for Muslims, the LGBTQ community, women, reproductive justice, true religious freedom, and for human rights more broadly.

U.S. Hard Right Being Bolstered by the Mainstream

On Monday, November 23, 2015, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis, Minnesota were shot at—leaving five wounded. Shortly afterward, the police made four arrests, and it became clear that those allegedly involved in the shooting were influenced by the Hard Right Patriot movement. The day before the shooting, in a video that went viral on social media, two of those who were later arrested recorded themselves making racist comments and flashing a gun while driving to the #4thPrecinctShutdown, an Occupy-like encampment that had sprung up in the wake of the police shooting death of Jamar Clark.

Black Lives Matter demonstration in Minneapolis, 4th Precinct Shut Down. Photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

This most recent shooting fits into an escalating pattern of confrontation between social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, and the Right, both in terms of terror attacks and in mainstream discourse. This reality played out in Olympia, Washington in September, when neo-Nazi skinheads and White nationalists took to the streets (but were quickly driven from them) in support of the police, who faced protests after officers shot and wounded two young men accused of shoplifting alcohol. Harkening back to their heyday of the 1990s, the Racist Right is brazenly gathering in public.

Only four days after the shooting in Minneapolis, a Hard Right activist opened fire inside a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing three and injuring nine. Planned Parenthood, which provides free and reduced-cost medical care to poor and working people (including abortions), has already faced a series of cuts in Colorado and other states, as well as media attacks from the anti-abortion movement and the Republican establishment. The recent video from The Center for Medical Progress, which generated much of this aggression, features doctored videos of Planned Parenthood staff discussing the donation of fetal tissue for purposes of medical research. The videos falsely characterize this as the “illegal sale of baby parts,” and many believe they helped set in motion a string of arsons, protests, and attacks against clinics across the U.S. What’s more, the alleged gunman, Robert Lewis Dear, after surrendering to police, is reported to have stated “No more baby parts,” in apparent reference to the manipulated videos.

The recent shooters may be different in terms of motivations and targets, but they may also be joined by radicalization via internet as well as a social movement. It could be said that the keyboard is the new gun show.

The recent shooters may be different in terms of motivations and targets, but they may also be joined by radicalization via internet as well as a social movement. It could be said that the keyboard is the new gun show. For instance, the shooters in Minneapolis were part of —and met through—the infamous internet message board website 4chan, which they also used to organize their armed “disruption” of the BLM encampment. Launched in 2003, 4chan is an internet image sharing and message board website, that has helped to launch key players on both the Left and Right, including the “hacktivist” group Anonymous. Likewise, Robert Dear may have been driven to act by the right-wing campaign this summer that went viral due to a YouTube video, although it is unknown if he actually watched the video itself. It is important to note, as Naomi Braine pointed out in her Public Eye article “Terror Network or Lone Wolf,” those taking part in these “lone wolf” actions, like Dylann Roof in Charleston, are tied to and influenced by larger movements and aboveground groups, although they may only interact with them from afar.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

But while the internet continues to be a fertile recruiting ground, segments of the Hard Right are also acting in a context where their discourse continues to push into mainstream and is magnified around Donald Trump’s campaign trail. From making heinous comments about Latinos and immigrants, telling protesters to “go back to Africa,” retweeting neo-Nazi sound-bytes, declaring that all Muslims should be barred from the U.S., to proclaiming that Black Lives Matter demonstrators should have been “roughed up,” Trump has encouraged a new generation of White nationalists—much like David Duke did in the late 1980s. It is no surprise, then, that the Minneapolis shooters were reported to have fled the scene while yelling, “Donald Trump 2016” and “Race War!” Like the shooting in Minnesota, other collective acts of violence across the U.S.— from beatings in the street to confrontations at Trump rallies—have all been given steam by “The Donald’s” campaign. This is not to mention the shot in the arm White nationalists have received thanks to Traditionalist Worker Party leader Matthew Heimbach getting invited to do media interviews on White working-class voter dissatisfaction. Indeed, at the most recent Stormfront—a popular White nationalist message board website—convention, undercover anti-racists reported lots of pro-Trump paraphernalia.

Trump is quick to distance himself from violence, while at the same time feeding off its promotion. Likewise, anti-abortion Republicans were largely silent on the Colorado slayings. In so doing, these leaders seek to obscure the connections between this “lone wolf” and the broader right-wing movement.

This is true in the Right’s backlash against the movement for Black lives and advances in LGBTQ rights, as well as in the attacks, both in legislatures and on the ground, against Planned Parenthood. This reality continues to stack up the corpses of everyday people, gives support to the ramping up of government repression, and fosters and deepens systems of oppression and exploitation.

‘Trumping’ Democracy: Right-Wing Populism, Fascism, and the Case for Action

This article is part of the Winter issue of The Public Eye magazine.

The candidacy of Donald Trump has prompted a vigorous public debate over whether or not Trump is flirting with fascism. Some analysts suggest his political dance partner is leading him to the tune of right-wing populism. Other analysts say Trump’s marriage to fascism already has been consummated. Either way, Trump is stomping on the dance floor of democracy in a way that could collapse it into splinters. It’s a “scary moment for those of us who seek to defend civil rights, civil liberties, and democracy itself,” warns political analyst Noam Chomsky.1

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Flickr, Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Back in 2010 Chomsky started lecturing about the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany into the abyss of Hitler’s totalitarian Nazism.2 There are parallels to our current political climate than need to be examined cautiously, even though conditions in the U.S. are not nearly as bad as those faced by the Weimar Republic.

Is it really fair to suggest Trump—neofascist or not—poses a danger to civil society itself, as occurred in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic? A review of Trump’s rhetoric makes this a legitimate question. Trump keeps gaining ground. As New York Daily News columnist Shaun King wrote in November:

For nearly six straight months, no matter how racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, or anti-Muslim Trump gets, he has maintained his lead in the polls. In fact, from all indications, it appears the more his public talk resembles that of a white supremacist, the more rabid and entrenched his support gets.3

The examples of Trump’s fascist-sounding rhetoric are numerous. In June, Trump tweeted, “I love the Mexican people, but Mexico is not our friend. They’re killing us at the border and they’re killing us on jobs and trade. FIGHT!”4 In July Trump falsely asserted, “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”5

Trump’s sexism was displayed at the Republican debate on August 6 when he was asked by Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly about referring to women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump later attacked Kelly on CNN, saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” The London Guardian reported that the “insinuation that Kelly was menstruating crossed a line for organisers of the Red State Gathering, a conservative event featuring GOP presidential hopefuls.” That group cancelled an appearance by Trump.6

Forging ahead, Trump claimed in September that the United States had become the “dumping ground for the rest of the world” for undocumented immigrants and proposed rounding up and deporting some 11 million of them, including their children, who are U.S. citizens.7 In a series of rambling and contradictory statements, Trump called for widespread surveillance of Muslims and refugees in the United States, and seemed to agree to the need for a federal database registering all Muslims, although he later backed off to say he was only considering it as a possibility. He confirmed that he wanted such a database for all Syrian refugees.8

As Trump’s viciousness ballooned, the corporate press shifted from portraying him as a carnival sideshow geek to recognizing that he posed a threat to civil society and even democracy itself.9

The media reported with palpable disgust when, during a press conference, Trump mocked the physical disability of New York Times seasoned political reporter Serge Kovaleski.10 Amid mounting disruptions of his campaign rallies by anti-Trump activists, Trump began to mock them, tried to silence them, and even ask that they be forcibly removed. In one incident Trump appeared to approve of the physical attack on a Black Lives Matter protestor who interrupted a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama.11

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

The Washington Post reported that Trump yelled, “Get him the hell out of here… Throw him out,” whereupon the protestor “fell to the ground and was surrounded by several white men who appeared to be kicking and punching him,” while CNN filmed video.12 Trump later remarked on Fox News that “Maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”13

This was the same rally at which Trump announced to his cheering supporters, “I want surveillance of certain mosques.”14

Trump’s appeal to White Nationalism became increasingly obvious. While Trump can’t control who supports his candidacy, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos observed with disdain that even “the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, had endorsed him for President.”15

Writing about Trump’s nasty rhetoric, and the alarming welcome it has found during the Republican pre-primary media blitz, American Prospect journalist Adele Stan put it bluntly:

What Trump is doing, via the media circus of which he has appointed himself ringmaster, is making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.16

A Weimar Moment?

The Weimar period is crucial to understand because it was that precise moment in Germany’s history when a broad united front, crossing traditional political boundaries to defend democracy, could have blocked the mass base of a right-wing populist movement threatening to morph into a fascist juggernaut.17

Professor Paul Bookbinder at the University of Massachusetts in Boston has studied the Weimar Republic as it eroded into fascism in Germany. His collection of essays at the Facing History and Ourselves website, in a section entitled “The Fragility of Democracy,” explores the moments when public interventions might have altered what happened in Europe.18

As Bookbinder told me, “right now our society is facing some of the same tensions as seen in the Weimar Republic. People didn’t take seriously the threat to democracy when they could have; and when they did see the dangers it was too late.”19 He continued:

There are certainly some similarities to the rhetoric of the Weimar Period in Trump’s speeches, but also in that of some other Republican candidates, and Trump especially seems to be playing to an audience of angry White men who have held a privileged status as a group, but now see their status being challenged by people who they see them as undeserving.

Some commentators now are referring to Trump as a fascist demagogue, and Bookbinder thinks “they have a point” since “Trump is a strange combination of a fascist demagogue and a late night talk show host comedian. But we shouldn’t laugh at him because his is dangerous. When I watch Trump, even his facial expressions have the character I associate with the fascist demagogue Adolf Hitler. Trump’s crude humor also plays to some of the prejudices of many in his audiences.”

Mass Media, Demagogues, and Scripted Violence

Perpetrators of ethnoviolence and attacks based on race, religion, or gender “often take their cues from what they hear in the media,” wrote Robert Reich in a column on his website after the deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November.20 Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, warned that “the recent inclination of some politicians to use inflammatory rhetoric is contributing to a climate” in which fear of violence is real and growing among targeted groups.

Reich, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was shocked when Republican Presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina continued to allege “that Planned Parenthood is selling body parts of fetuses,” even though the claim has been proven baseless. Fiorina isn’t alone, Reich continued. Mike Huckabee calls it “sickening” that “we give these butchers money to harvest human organs,” noted Reich. And after the Colorado shootings, Trump falsely claimed “some of these people from Planned Parenthood [are] talking about it like you’re selling parts to a car.” Much of Reich’s column consists of a horrific list of physical attacks on facilities operated by Islamic groups and Planned Parenthood in recent months.21

While violence is often used by ultra-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and various neonazi groups in the U.S., it is less common in conservative social and political movements. But Trump’s use of alarming right-wing populist rhetoric, aimed at mobilizing his predominantly White base, is changing that status quo.

The conservative Right generally tries to avoid this obvious and threatening sort of inflammatory language. In the Washington Spectator, political journalist Rick Perlstein, who has written several books about U.S. conservatism, observed of Trump that, “Previous Republican leaders were sufficiently frightened by the daemonic anger that energized their constituencies that they avoided surrendering to it completely, even for political advantage.”22 The Nazis cultivated the idea of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. This, coupled with claims of a Jewish financial conspiracy and a sense of national humiliation that demanded redress, helped mobilize the mass base for fascism among the electorate in Weimer Germany. And it also legitimized the violence that followed Hitler’s rhetoric. Street fighting became rampant during the collapse of the Weimar Republic, as “Brownshirts” took to the streets to attack the targets singled out in Hitler’s speeches as a “threat” to Germany.

Similarly, Trump’s use of demagoguery aimed at scapegoated targets is laced with references to conspiracy theories involving President Obama—namely that he was not born in the United States. Tea Party conspiracists claim Obama is a secret Muslim and part of an evil plot. Trump also portrays Muslims in an apocalyptic framework, implying Muslims are a threat to the survival of the United States. Journalist Deborah Caldwell suggests this has touched a chord precisely because “people find his apocalyptic rhetoric enticing and familiar—because America has end-times obsession deeply embedded in its national psyche.” Conspiracism and apocalypticism are among the core components of right-wing populism, along with demonization, scapegoating, and “producerism,” which is the division of the population into “productive” members of society struggling against the “parasites” above and below who are subversive, sinful, or lazy.23

In their study of how media manipulation for political ends can help incite genocide, Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin looked at “content intended to instill fear in a population,” or “intended to create a sense among the population that conflict is inevitable.”24 They point out that “media content helps shape an individual’s view of the world and helps form the lens through which all issues are viewed.” According to the authors:

  • In Rwanda prior to the genocide a private radio station tried to instill fear of an imminent attack on Hutus by a Tutsi militia.
  • In the months before [conflicts] in Serbia, state television attempted to create the impression that a World War II–style ethnic cleansing initiative against Serbs was in the works.
  • Throughout the 1990s Georgian media outlets sought to portray ethnic minorities as threats to Georgia’s hard-won independence.

Frohardt and Temin found that demagogues facilitated the likelihood of violence against specific demonized and scapegoated target groups by creating a widespread fear in the general population that serious—perhaps lethal–attacks on them were “imminent;” even though “there was only flimsy evidence provided to support” these false claims. They continued:

When such reporting creates widespread fear, people are more amenable to the notion of taking preemptive action, which is how the actions later taken were characterized. Media were used to make people believe that “we must strike first in order to save ourselves.” By creating fear the foundation for taking violent action through “self-defense” is laid.

Thus demagogic rhetoric can produce “scripted violence,” in which the demagogue can claim there is no direct link between the inciting language and the violence of “random” perpetrators.25

Using the F-word — Why Terminology Matters

There are good reasons why Trump’s statements cause our progressive antennae to wiggle. Trump’s swaggering demeanor recalls that of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. A number of journalists have suggested that Trump is using rhetoric similar to that used by Adolf Hitler in mobilizing Germans to support fascism. Some just call Trump an outright fascist.26 In doing so, however, some writers have fallen victim to a hoax quote on fascism wrongly attributed to Mussolini: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”27

It’s not clear where this fake quote originated, but it confuses Italian corporatist syndicalism with modern business corporations. The spelling is the only major similarity. Mussolini and his adviser, fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, consistently wrote that under fascist rule corporations (and all other sectors of society) must bend to the iron will of the fascist ruler.28

Despite how loosely or inaccurately the terms are sometimes used, “fascism” and “totalitarianism” have very specific meanings. A totalitarian state is a central goal of fascist movements, including neofascism and neonazism. Totalitarian states enforce total control over every aspect of a person’s life—political, economic, social, and cultural—in order to reshape the individual and unify society. Totalitarianism is like authoritarianism on methamphetamines. Public debate and opposition are not tolerated. Core democratic systems are crushed. Dissidents are rounded up and sometimes executed. Political theorist and author Hannah Arendt argued that Nazism and Stalinism were the prime examples of totalitarian movements that gained state power.29

However frightening Trump’s ascent might be to progressives, the candidate is neither a neofascist nor a totalitarian ideologue, but a right-wing populist bully. And the distinction matters for reasons that go beyond simple taxonomy. Calling Republicans fascist or totalitarian leads progressive organizers into a dead-end of crafting the wrong tactics and strategies for the moment in which we live.

Professor Roger Griffin is a world-class authority on the subject of fascism, and author of several books including The Nature of Fascism.30 Griffin defines fascism as:

… a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the “people” into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

Another expert, Emilio Gentile, author of The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, says fascism raises politics to the level of a sacred struggle seeking totalitarian control over society. It is “a mass movement with multiclass membership” that

…believes itself invested with a mission of national regeneration, considers itself in a state of war against political adversaries and aims at conquering a monopoly of political power by using terror, [electoral] politics, and deals with leading groups, to create a new regime that destroys [electoral] democracy.31

Despite Trump’s campaign slogan—the promise to “Make America Great Again”—neither of these definitions describe his program, even though he appears to be getting close to neofascist rhetoric. Trump’s obvious early mass appeal is built around right-wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons and I defined the term in our book Right-Wing Populism in America:

Populism is a way of mobilizing “the people” into a social or political movement around some form of anti-elitism. Populist movements can occur on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, inclusive or exclusionary, forward-looking or fixated on a romanticized image of the past. They can either challenge or reinforce systems of oppression, depending on how “the people” are defined.32

Populism is confusing because it is at once an ideology, a strategic organizing frame, and a rhetorical narrative storyline that names friends and enemies. While left-wing populism often organizes people around expanding economic fairness, right-wing populism relies on prejudice and bigotry, demonization and scapegoating of an “Other,” and fears of traitorous, subversive conspiracies.

Trump uses populist rhetoric to appeal to “the people,” even as he campaigns on his status as an elitist member of the one percent. Margaret Canovan, author of Populism, a key academic book on several populist variants, calls this “politicians’ populism.”33 It’s a cynical scam, but one with a history of short-term success in political contests as the means of one set of elites unseating the faction of elites currently running the government. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco called this a “selective…qualitative populism” and warned that there “is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Thus we now have Trumpism: the use of right-wing populism to mask the fascistic demonization of targeted groups.

Although they can look similar, right-wing populism is distinct from fascism. As the University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, an internationally-recognized expert on global right-wing movements, told the Washington Post in an article on Trump, “The key features of the populist radical right ideology—nativism, authoritarianism, and populism—are not unrelated to mainstream ideologies and mass attitudes. In fact, they are best seen as a radicalization of mainstream values.”34

Mudde, author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, sees Trump’s ideology and rhetoric as comparable to several European movements,35 particularly Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the Danish People’s Party. These right-wing populist movements flirt with fascist themes, but are not full-blown neofascist movements, although they share many similarities in terms of exclusionary rhetoric, organic nationalism, and nativist bigotry.36 The trickiest part is that many scholars now see right-wing populism as a building block of neofascist movements. Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation facing a crisis. Fascism is the last resort of those in power trying to maintain control.

Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation.

Terminological distinctions matter because some of the strategies and tactics we craft while organizing against a right-wing populist movement must be categorically different from organizing to block the rise of a totalitarian fascist state.

To challenge the current wave of vicious anti-democratic attacks in the United States we must study the forces that have unleashed them as well as determine the exact moment in history in which we struggle against them. People’s lives may depend on it.

As fascism builds toward grabbing state power, the situation quickly unravels.37 Sporadic attacks and acts of terrorism against the named scapegoats become more frequent and widespread. People need to focus on organizing around physical self-defense. This is not that moment. Things are bad, but not as bad as when Weimar collapsed into the hands of Hitler and his thugs.

During a period of right-wing populism, as we are experiencing now, the focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump. Millions of White people seem to be having panic attacks in the face of the changing racial demographics of our nation. Our task is to build citywide and even neighborhood coalitions to defend economic and social equality. The coalitions must be multi-issue and cross boundaries of race, gender, class, age, ability, and more.

The focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump.

Suzanne Pharr, author of In the Time of the Right, talks about “divisions that kill.”38 By keeping us divided, the defenders of the status quo have an easier time exploiting us. She suggests that in the current political climate, organizers must bring the discussion back to the neighborhood level. “We have to get people to talk about what duress they are experiencing and the losses their communities are experiencing. Then we need to talk about what has been stripped away from our community and family support systems.” This is how we can reach out to our neighbors and convince them to “stop blaming poor people and people of color and start looking in the direction of the forces holding us down.”

But be aware that the targeting by our right-wing adversaries is opportunistic and can shift in an instant to reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community, the environment, or “tax and spend” liberals. Back in 1994 the main target of the Right was the gay community, and right-wing strategists were using race as a wedge issue to get Black ministers to denounce the “Homosexual Agenda.”

The current crop of Republican candidates includes several active with the Christian Right and their agenda to curtail reproductive rights, force gay people back into the closet, and make women handmaids to male supremacy. Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina makes wildly inaccurate statements about Planned Parenthood and Jeb Bush is beating the militarist war drums with a frenzied ad campaign. Behind these candidates are millions of dollars of donations from wealthy “Free Market” fanatics pushing “neoliberal” policies to gut government services and cut taxes for the rich.

No matter who becomes the Republican candidate for President in 2016, the damage is already being done, and it is increasingly harming a range of scapegoated targets. This is a new political and social moment. Republicans have used bigoted rhetoric in the past, but anger has grown as buying power and status have shrunk among many Whites. This is producing a more virulent strain of White Nationalist nativism and masculinist rage.

Why Are These People So Angry?

The crowd listening to Trump’s stump speech in Massachusetts this October cheered his attacks on Mexican immigrants. The supporters my partner and I spoke with were fed up with the status quo, suspicious of President Obama, and very much liked Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Great for whom? Cleary not everyone. Trump supporters are angry. They resemble the folks in the film Network, who were told by a raving demagogue to open their windows and shout: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”39 This is the quintessential right-wing populist primal scream. Who is kicking them down the ladder of success? Someone has to be blamed for turning their American Dream into a liberal, “politically correct” nightmare.

When Trump uses the phase “politically correct” he is using a concept re-engineered by the Right in the 1980s as a way to silence activists demanding equality for traditionally oppressed peoples and groups in the United States. This is similar to the propagandistic use of terms such as “radicalization” and “extremism” to demonize dissent on both the Left and the Right.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Trump’s rhetorical propaganda is aimed at appealing to a growing base of angry and frustrated White middle and working class people. In a script broadcast by Trump ad nauseum, he is telling them who to blame for their slipping economic, political, and social status. According to sociologist Rory McVeigh, people who join right-wing movements tend to be convinced they are losing or about to lose status, power, or privilege in one or more of three civic arenas: economic, political, or social.40

We have seen exclusionary, repressive, or right-wing populist movements in the United States before. President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was cheered as a champion of “the people” even as he kept Black people in chains and forced the Cherokee nation out of their ancestral homeland to make room for White pioneers.41 After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan launched a murderous wave of violence against freed slaves and their supporters in the South. The large populist movements of the late 1890s began as an overwhelmingly progressive force, seeking economic fairness and curtailing the abuses of economic elites, but some supporters later turned their anger against Jews and Blacks. The backlash against the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s frequently used populist-sounding conspiracist rhetoric, suggesting that communists and Jews were stirring up otherwise happy Black people in order to prepare the United States for a takeover by the Soviet Union. The presidential campaigns of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan were built using clear and coded right-wing populist appeals to a White nationalist base.42

In more recent history, the rise of the Tea Party exemplified right-wing populism, as an angry constituency was mobilized back in 2009.43 The Tea Party idea originated with supporters of uber-libertarian Ron Paul, but the franchise was scooped up by conservative billionaires who funded trainings and rallies around the country. Over time Christian Right activists played a leading role in local Tea Party groups, shifting the focus to a toxic blend of nativist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric coupled with homophobia and antiabortion propaganda.44 Now the Tea Party grassroots is heavily populated by White nationalists.45 This is Trump’s voter base.

Folks who support the Tea Party and other right-wing populist movements are responding to rhetoric that honors them as the bedrock of American society. These are primarily middle class and working class White people with a deep sense of patriotism who bought into the American dream of upward mobility.46 Now they feel betrayed. Trump and his Republican allies appeal to their emotions by naming scapegoats to blame for their sense of being displaced by “outsiders” and abandoned by their government.

Emotions matter in building social movements. The linkage of emotion and politics are at the heart of a forthcoming book by University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author Arlie Hochschild. In it, Hochschild reports on many conversations with Tea Party members in the South, where the movement is strongest.47 Many she spoke with long doubted that Obama was American; even after the publication of his long-form birth certificate some still suspect that he is Muslim and harbors ill will toward America. Hochschild also observes that this set of beliefs was widely shared among people who otherwise seemed reasonable, friendly, and accepting. How she wondered, could we explain this?

Her premise is that all political belief

is undergirded by emotion. Given the experiences we’ve undergone, we have deep feelings. These shape our “deep story.” And this is an allegorical, collectively shared, “honor-focused,” narrative storyline about what “feels true.” We take fact out of it, judgment out of it. A “deep story” says what happened to us from the point of view of how we feel about it.

The “deep story” of the Tea Party is that the American Dream has leveled off. Ninety percent of Americans between 1980 and 2012 received no rise in salary while dividends from a rising GDP rose dramatically for the top 10 percent.

Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the one percent has enriched itself while pushing most of us into a downward spiral of exported jobs, lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and tax breaks for the wealthy. Government social services such as public health and food stamps have been slashed. Public works projects, from bridges to sewers, have been gutted. Shifting tax dollars to private charter schools has strangled public education, the keystone of democracy. This has been happening in communities of color for decades. Now it is front-page news because research shows it is devastating White working class and even middle class communities.48

Amid a rising gap between the rich and poor, the middle has been pressed out—especially blue-collar men, the bottom of the middle. Their search for other sources of “honor”—what Hochschild feels is an underlying crisis among Tea Party members—has also encountered resistance, and they have met with criticism, insult, and injury, from upper-middle class liberals who look down on them as “rednecks.”

Most Tea Party supporters feel the government is allowing them to be shoved aside, displaced, dispossessed, and disrespected by newcomers, outsiders, and immigrants who they don’t see as proper citizens (no matter their legal status).

Trump is popular among many Tea Party movement activists, although national leaders are remaining coy in terms of an endorsement.49 The Tea Party and Trump conspiracy theories feed off each other, and bolster a sense that there is a plot to disempower White people.

Trump and other Republican candidates capture their hearts and minds by telling them their anger is justified and then point them at scapegoats rather than the institutions that have failed them. A culture permeated by the legacies of White supremacy leads the White middle and working class to blame their real downward mobility on people of color and “non-White” immigrants, and in that way reproduces both structural racism and the class-based power of the one percent.

Much of this rhetoric, like Trump’s, began as a specific attack against Mexicans and Latinos, but it keeps expanding. There is a “Trump Effect increasingly sweeping through the country,” warned immigrant rights activist Pablo Alvarado, Director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network.50 For example, after the Paris attacks a number of Republican governors banned all refugees from entering their states.51 The Puente Human Rights Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix quickly responded with a statement declaring, “Scapegoating and xenophobia don’t make us safer.”52 But the attacks aren’t only coming from the Republican Right. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, for example, is now criticizing immigrant-sheltering sanctuary cities.53

The center of the entire political spectrum in the United States is being shifted to the Right. The political views of today’s “centrist” Democrats resemble the views of many Republicans during the Nixon administration. White voters have been maneuvered into choosing White racial privilege over their own economic security. This explains the question asked in Tom Frank’s 2014 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?54 In 2015, the same mass base cheers Trump while he is mobilizing resentment. That tactic, which Jean Hardisty explored in her 1999 book of the same name,55 is a longtime part of right-wing politics in the U.S. But now, as demographers predict that the majority of the U.S. will be non-White by the middle of the century, the existing emotional response behind that resentment is getting stronger.

From Analysis to Action

The debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage. The current wave of right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a backlash movement that will take creative and bold strategies and tactics as we organize to defend democracy and diversity in the public square.

Debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage.

Trump is a political performance artist portraying the psychological Id of the American Dream. He unleashes the fearful and angry feelings of people who live in a society run as a zero sum game requiring the successful to climb up over those labeled as inferior. So as the old “Liberalism” consensus collapses from the center while the Right is on the rise, what do we do?

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future. At the same time we need to put pressure on backsliding liberals who now have the space to abandon justice for unauthorized immigrants and other targets of Republican venom.

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future.

Activists need to build broad and diverse local coalitions that tactically address local issues while strategically linking them to national struggles. Building broad, inclusive, and egalitarian coalitions is hard. Bernice Johnson Reagon is a progressive scholar, singer, and activist. She helped found the women of color a Capella vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagon advises that, when doing real coalition building, “Most of the time you feel threatened to the core, and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”56

There are times when liberals and progressives can form alliances, but it can be frustrating. PRA’s founder, Jean Hardisty, explained this in her essay My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism. At times when the Right is a growing threat and the Left is weak, she argued, “liberal reforms have to be defended. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril…and like it or not” progressives must “work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors” in a “united front against the agenda of the Right.”57 Also keep in mind the right-wing backlash is a coalition that has fissures and cracks that can be wedged apart. We need to analyze and take advantage of the stress cracks in any right-wing coalition while making sure in our coalition work these strains are openly discussed and resolved honestly and equitably.

The late progressive activist Audre Lorde reminded us that there is “no hierarchy of oppressions.” Race, class, and gender issues are all complex and related, and no single form of oppression trumps another. That’s why the concept of intersectionality is so important. All systems of oppression need to be unraveled. Currently the focus is on the hierarchies of power and privilege that maintain the system of oppression on which this nation was founded: White Nationalism. That’s the primary text and subtext of the Trump campaign rhetoric. At the center of our struggle today is the idea of a “White Race”—which in scientific terms is nonsense. But in terms of the struggle we face, “Whiteness” is at the center. There is a White Race in the minds of millions of Americans. Whiteness is a social, cultural, political, and economic fact.

Right now we need to be organizing against right-wing populist scapegoating, especially racist White Nationalism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken. We all need to be engaging in struggles in our local communities, schools, workplaces—even on the supermarket checkout line.

White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken.

Back in 2010 as the Tea Party Movement was first brewing, Chomsky raised the example of the Weimar period in Germany as a warning. At a meeting held by Z Magazine, Chomsky fielded a set of questions on how the Left should organize against the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and antigay backlash arising out of the Tea Party.58

“First of all,” he said, “you need to understand it. They say to themselves ‘We work hard, we’re Christians, we’re White…and now They are taking it all away from Us.’”

Chomsky points out that, though often bigoted, these “feelings are genuine…and they have to be dealt with.” Organizing has to be “done in a way which doesn’t frighten people,” that doesn’t “elicit their worst emotions and reactions.” Hochschild’s sociological analyses and Chomsky’s political analysis reinforce each other.

According to Chomsky, we need to pay attention to the feelings of resentment which are “very understandable” from their point of view. You begin by recognizing that their anger “does have legitimate roots. People feel…seriously threatened…people’s way of life is being taken away from them.” It’s not the immigrants who should be blamed, however, but the greed of the financial sector, Chomsky says.

And when organizing, “You don’t want to brazenly flaunt in front of people your attacks on their values.” You need to help them understand that their values should lead them to tolerance instead of hate. Chomsky was asked how activists can build a successful movement. He replied to the whole room, “We all know how…by education, by organizing, by activism.”


Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, has written scores of scholarly and popular articles on human rights, fascism, and right-wing movements. He served as a researcher at Political Research Associates for 30 years, and is creator of Trumpism.usAn expanded set of resources is being updated at Research for Progress.


Endnotes:

1 Correspondence with author.

2 Chomsky first raised the issue of Weimar at a lecture at Left Forum in New York City. Another Chomsky lecture mentioning Weimar presented at the Haven Center at the University of Wisconsin is available as a transcript, http://chomsky.info/20100408/

3 Shaun King, “King: Donald Trump shows he’ll do anything to appeal to his racist supporters,” New York Daily News, (updated) November 22, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/king-trump-hits-new-racist-tweet-article-1.2443413

4 Affan Chowdhry, “Trump leads in polls despite gaffes,” The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2015. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/trump-leads-in-republican-race-despite-gaffes/article25516246/.

5 Washington Post, “Fact Checker” column, July 8, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/.

6 Edward Helmore and Ben Jacobs, “Donald Trump’s ‘sexist’ attack on TV debate presenter sparks outrage,” August 8, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/09/megyn-kelly-donald-trump-winner-republican-debate.

7 David Leopold, “The shocking reality of Donald Trump’s plan to deport millions, MSNBC, 09/15/15. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/donald-trump-shocking-reality-deportation-plan

8 Lauren Carroll, “In Context: Donald Trump’s comments on a database of American Muslims, November 24th, 2015, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2015/nov/24/donald-trumps-comments-database-american-muslims/.

9 Jason Stanley “Democracy and the Demagogue, Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web, The Stone, October 12, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/democracy-and-the-demagogue/

10 The Guardian,New York Times slams ‘outrageous’ Donald Trump for mocking reporter’s disability,” November 26, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/26/new-york-times-outrageous-donald-trump-mocking-reporter-disability.

11 Jenna Johnson and Mary Jordan, “Trump on rally protester: ‘Maybe he should have been roughed up’,” November 22, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/11/22/black-activist-punched-at-donald-trump-rally-in-birmingham/.

12 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

13 http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/22/politics/donald-trump-black-lives-matter-protester-confrontation/

14 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

15 Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated: Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition takes shape—for now, The New Yorker, “The Political Scene,” August 31, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated.

16 Adele M. Stan. 2015, “A Nation of Sociopaths? What the Trump Phenomenon Says About America,” American Prospect, September 9, 2015. http://prospect.org/article/nation-sociopaths-what-trump-phenomenon-says-about-america.

17 Paul Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany,” Section: The Fragility of Democracy, (Weimar Republic Readings): four essays (Brookline, MA, Facing History and Ourselves, no date), https://www.facinghistory.org/weimar-republic-fragility-democracy/readings/choices-and-consequences.

18 Ibid.

19 Interview with the author, December 9, 2015.

20 Robert Reich, “Why Hate Speech by Presidential Candidates is Despicable,” November 29, 2015 http://robertreich.org/post/134235925280.

21 Ibid.

22 Rick Perlstein, “Donald Trump and the ‘F-Word’: An unsettling symbiosis between man and mob,” Washington Spectator, September 30, 2015. http://washingtonspectator.org/donald-trump-and-the-f-word/

23 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 6-9. Terms explained in right sidebar here: http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

24 Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin, Use and Abuse of Media in Vulnerable Societies, Special Report 110, Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace. October 2003, http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/websites/usip/www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr110.pdf, (accessed 26/9/2012). Although an excellent study, the report is flawed by the failure to include a single footnote. See also Kofi A. Annan, Allan Thompson, and International Development Research Centre of Canada, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2007).

25 Chip Berlet. 2014. “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1945 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2014). Excerpts at http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/scripted-violence/.

26 Chip Berlet, “Trump a Fascist?” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/trump-a-fascist/.

27 Chip Berlet, “Mussolini: The Fake Quote,” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/mussolini-fake-quote/

28 Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), “The Doctrine of Fascism,” in Enciclopedia Italiana (1932); Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), The Doctrine of Fascism (Firenze: Vallecchi Editore, 1935), this was the official English translation of the article in the Enciclopedia Italiana;  Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (Rome: ‘Ardita’ Publishers, 1935), an expanded version of “The Doctrine of Fascism.” A discussion of the use of the fake quote is at

29 Hannah Arendt,  The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951). See also: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

30 Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993).

31 Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, translated by Keith Botsford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); See also regarding Nazi Germany as sacralized politics: David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2005); Klaus Vondung, The Apocalypse in Germany ( Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2000). An expanded bibliography is at http://tinyurl.com/toxic-mix.

32 Chip Berlet and Matthew Nemiroff Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000) http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

33 Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt, 1981).

34 Cas Mudde, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right,“ Washington Post, The Monkey Cage, August 26, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/08/26/the-trump-phenomenon-and-the-european-populist-radical-right/ .

35 Cas Mudde. Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

36 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

37 Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany.”

38 Suzanne Pharr, “Divisions that Kill,” in Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, ed. Chip Berlet (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995) http://www.publiceye.org/eyes/div_kill.html.

39 Network, Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky (Hollywood, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1976), Full quote at Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/quotes.

40 Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell. “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and Its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000 (American Sociological Review 79, no. 6 2014): 1144-171; Rory McVeigh, “Ku Klux Klan activism in the 1960s is linked to the South’s swing to the Republican Party, London School of Economics, the LSE US Centre’s daily blog on American Politics and Policy, December 17, 2014, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2014/12/17/ku-klux-klan-activism-in-the-1960s-is-linked-to-the-souths-swing-to-the-republican-party/.

41 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, pp. 40-46; Google Educational Resources, “Jacksonian Era: Populism,” online resource, https://sites.google.com/site/jacksonianera/Home/populism.

42 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

43 Chip Berlet, “Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party Movement.” In Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, eds. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2014); Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015, online report, (Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, 2015). http://www.irehr.org/2015/09/15/the-tea-party-movement-in-2015/.

44 Abby Scher and Chip Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment,” in Nella van Dyke and David S. Meyer, eds., Understanding the Tea Party Movement (Farnham and London: Ashgate, 2014).

45 Burghart and Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015.

46 Scher and Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment.”

47 The book is tentatively entitled Strangers in Their Own Land: a journey into the heart of the right, (New York: The New Press, 2016)

48 Michelle Chen, “Now White People Are Dying from Our Terrible Economic Policies, Too,” The Nation, November 6, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/now-white-people-are-dying-from-our-terrible-economic-policies-too/ Chauncey Devega, “Dear White America: Your working class is literally dying—and this is your idea of an answer?” Salon, Nov 6, 2015 http://www.salon.com/2015/11/06/dear_white_america_your_working_class_is_literally_dying_and_this_is_your_idea_of_an_answer/.

49 S.A. Miller, “Donald Trump enjoys support of tea party movement that refuses to fully embrace him,” The Washington Times, November 22, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/22/donald-trump-enjoys-support-of-tea-party-movement-/.

50 Pablo Alvarado, “Reaction: L.A. Sheriff Reverses Course on Jail Deportations,” National Day Laborers Organizing Network, September 22, 2015 http://www.ndlon.org/en/pressroom/press-releases/item/1165-reaction-l-a-sheriff-reverses-course-on-jail-deportations

51 Scott Oathout “Gov. Ducey calls for immediate halt of new refugees to Arizona” KVOA Television, Nov 16, 2015 http://www.kvoa.com/story/30529819/gov-ducey-calls-for-immediate-halt-of-new-refugees-to-arizona.

52 “Puente Responds to AZ Gov. Ducey’s Announcement on Refugees,” Puente Movement, http://puenteaz.org/press-releases/puente-responds-to-duceys-announcement-on-refugees/.

53 Courtney Coren, “Dianne Feinstein Under Fire for Sanctuary City Bill,” August 3, 2015http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/Dianne-Feinstein-sanctuary-city-bill/2015/08/03/id/665214. Newsmax is a right-wing website cited here to encourage touring the page to review the rhetoric.

54 Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004), http://www.whatsthematterwithkansas.com/.

55 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). http://www.jeanhardisty.com/writing/books/.

56 Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1983, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983; Rutgers University Press, 2000. See also http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/publications.shtml.

57 Jean Hardisty, “My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism,” The Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities), in the Brown Paper series, March 1996. Republished with permission by Political Research Associates, 2015 http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/24/my-on-again-off-again-romance-with-liberalism/.

58 Chomsky’s comments are assembled by the author from a transcript of a videotape of the event. He was speaking at Z Magazine’s Media Institute (for progressive journalists). Video: “What Went Wrong: A Q & A with Noam Chomsky,” a Z Video Production. Chomsky confirmed these are still his views in an e-mail to the author.

What Is ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorism in the Digital Age?

On July 23 of this year, John Russell Houser opened fire inside a Lafayette, Louisiana movie theater, killing two women and injuring nine others before turning his gun on himself. Houser was a disaffected loner with a history of publicly expressing Far Right views, although most of his political activity had taken place online. In January 2014, reacting to the arrest of a Greek neo-Nazi parliamentarian, Houser wrote on one of the party’s affiliated websites, “you must realize the power of the lone wolf.”

Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof

The concept of autonomous “Lone Wolf” terrorism as a dominant strategy for U.S. political extremists has been widely discussed recently, especially after the horrific mass shooting in Charleston earlier this year, which was allegedly planned and carried out independently by Dylann Roof. It is also the focus of Naomi Braine’s research report “Terror Network or Lone Wolf,” published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine. Braine demonstrates the tendency of U.S. law enforcement and media to frame Far Right terrorists as Lone Wolves, while Muslim militants who act similarly are usually described as part of international jihadist terror networks. She raises the question of whether the Lone Wolf paradigm is a realistic approach to combating right-wing terror: is a landscape of disparate Lone Wolves, standing apart from political networks, really the most accurate representation of domestic terrorism in the United States today?

Indeed, Roof’s case suggests that in the digital age, it may be easier than ever before for individuals to be turned towards political violence in a relative vacuum. But it also suggests that the very concept of what group membership means has shifted with technological changes, thereby blurring the distinction between Lone Wolves and traditionally organized political actors—a difference that is central to the Lone Wolf paradigm.

A long-running debate exists concerning what, exactly, a Lone Wolf is. The concept is linked to the notion of “leaderless resistance”—a tactic promoted by White nationalist Louis Beam in his 1983 essay of the same name. Beam suggests that, in order to avoid detection by the authorities, White nationalists should eschew traditional top-down organizational structures and instead form small “phantom cells,” which operate independently of higher leadership and are more difficult to track. To further enhance security, he also discourages communication between cells. In Beam’s formulation, both individuals and small groups can constitute cells. Lone Wolf terrorism represents an even more strictly decentralized variant of leaderless resistance: it refers to actions wholly planned and carried out by an individual working outside of any organized groups.

The best-known proponents of the strategy under this name were White nationalists Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger; Metzger’s essay “Laws For The Lone Wolf” urges right-wing terrorists to avoid involvement with any and all “membership groups.”

While Lone Wolf terrorists are influenced by the ideologies of external groups, they cannot be affiliated with them in any significant way.

Defining and identifying Lone Wolf terrorism is important because, according to former PRA senior analyst Chip Berlet, “different investigative techniques with different levels of government intrusiveness are required depending on the type of target. Therefore accurate descriptions of target terrorist formations and potential terrorist cells are crucial for the effectiveness of stopping actual acts of terrorism.”

The matter quickly becomes more confusing, however. It is impossible to determine how many White nationalist Lone Wolves have existed who were directly inspired by these doctrines. It is also unclear how much contact Lone Wolves can have with their political milieu, and what forms that contact can take.  Beam, for example, said they could keep abreast of their movement through “newspapers, leaflets, computers, etc.”

The notion of the Lone Wolf has been adopted by right-wing monitors and academics and applied more broadly to include other political movements; it has also changed meaning. Some extend the term to describe people who are members of political groups, but acted alone in their crimes (such as Michael Wade Page, the Oak Creek gunman, who was a member of a Nazi skinhead gang). Others use it interchangeably with leaderless resistance, referring to the actions of more than one person. Some insist that to be true Lone Wolves or members of phantom cells, participants can never have had prior involvement in political organizations. Could a Lone Wolf ever have belonged to a membership group, and if so, how long in the past—one day or twenty years? Finally, the mainstream media has recently tended to erroneously use the term to imply that Lone Wolves are not ideologically motivated actors.

So, does Dylann Roof qualify as a true Lone Wolf? Thus far, under the traditional definition, the answer seems to be yes. Although he self-identifies as a White nationalist in his so-called “manifesto,” Roof was not a member of any organized racist group. The closest he may have come to formal participation was potentially commenting on the White nationalist website The Daily Stormer. And while Roof had expressed White supremacist views in pictures on his Facebook page and personal website, he did not inform anyone in advance of his attack that he was planning to commit racially motivated mass murder.

Nonetheless, something is different here: Roof’s manifesto reads like the testimony of a committed racist partisan, referencing organized White nationalist groups by name and weighing in on some of the movement’s internal debates. Even if he acted alone and never held group membership or had in-person social ties, there is more to the relationship between Roof and the larger White nationalist movement than simply referring to him as a Lone Wolf would suggest.

Tom Metzger

Tom Metzger

There could, perhaps, be a more complicated relationship between Lone Wolf actors and the larger political movements they are aligned with. In 2003, Simson Garfinkel, a researcher who has studied domestic terrorism, wrote that the de facto outcome of leaderless resistance was the division of the Far Right movement into two parts: one seemingly innocent element that publically expressed Far Right ideals, using coded language to name targets for domestic terrorism; and the other an underground element made up of phantom cells, that derived its objectives and views from the first group. The only connection between the two is that the second group is aware of the first’s opinions; the two elements do not communicate directly. (Braine’s article goes further, showing how many so-called Lone Wolves have longstanding social and political ties to larger political movements.)

Newer, Internet-based groups further cloud these questions about what “group membership” means. The Internet is filled with groups and organizations of every conceivable ideology and belief set, but each can have its own version of what constitutes “membership.” For example, the “hacktivist” network Anonymous presents itself as a membership group, but has no formal membership protocols and no membership list, public or otherwise. Inclusion in the group is contingent only on one’s awareness of its cause and willingness to identify as a member—journalist Carole Cadwalladr wrote that “if you believe in Anonymous, and call yourself Anonymous, you are Anonymous.”

Despite well-reasoned claims to the contrary, Dylann Roof may indeed have been what is traditionally considered a Lone Wolf terrorist—but that distinction is based on analytical frameworks developed before the rise of today’s Internet.1

Determining whether an actor fits into the category of Lone Wolf, or is better described as a participant in leaderless resistance or organized terrorism, is based on an outdated binary definition of group membership, in which actors and larger groups are unequivocally either affiliated or unaffiliated with one another. In the digital age, now that belief in the cause and self-identification as a group member can be the only prerequisites for inclusion, it might be entirely possible for a Lone Wolf to act completely independently and still be fully politicized members of political movements, participating in movement debates and interacting with other members online—indeed, for Roof, this seems to have been the case.

To best represent the new nature of domestic terrorism, a new set of terms and a new model of these concepts and acts may be necessary.

*PRA associate fellow Spencer Sunshine contributed to this report.


 

[1] It’s important to note that early proponents of leaderless resistance tactics, such as Beam and Metzger, were no strangers to the Internet’s potential benefits for Far Right political actors. In 1984, one year after publishing “Leaderless Resistance,” Beam established a computer bulletin board system (BBS) called “Aryan Liberty Net,” affiliated with the Aryan Nations white supremacist organization. Soon afterwards, Metzger started his own BBS—the “W.A.R. Computer Terminal,” affiliated with his White Aryan Resistance group. By posting racist literature on their U.S.-based BBSes, Beam and Metzger were able to disseminate White supremacist ideas to people in foreign countries where hate speech was banned or restricted. Despite these computer networks’ connections to the progenitors of Lone Wolf terrorism, however, one aspect of their implementation and content distinguishes them from today’s Far Right Internet: unlike the ubiquitous Internet of today, the narrowly focused BBSes were explicitly affiliated with established hate groups and primarily intended for use by group members; in an article in the Inter-Klan Newsletter and Survival Alert, Beam claimed to be implementing “special electronic code access available only to Aryan Nation/Klu Klux Klan officers and selected individuals.” Although Beam and Metzger employed the Internet for political purposes at the same time that they were promoting leaderless resistance and Lone Wolf terrorism, the engagement of White supremacists with early Far Right BBSes is significantly different from the relationship between the contemporary Internet and Lone Wolf terrorists. Whether users of those BBSes constituted Lone Wolves, under Metzger’s original definition, remains an open question.

 

Policies That Make People Disappear: Activist Shana griffin on Post-Katrina New Orleans Housing

Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

To mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this August, a conservative member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, Kristen McQueary, wrote that she wished that a similar “swirl of fury,” “a real storm,” would whip through Chicago and prompt a citywide “rebirth.”1 While 1,833 people died, and more than 400,000 others were displaced by Katrina—many permanently—McQueary found a silver lining in the catastrophe: slashed city budgets and mandatory unpaid furloughs; the demolition of old housing stock, labor contracts, and teachers’ unions; and the rise of “the nation’s first free-market education system.”

“That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans,” McQueary wrote. “Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.”

Thousands of working-class, African American families were displaced by the Housing Authority of New Orleans in favor of corporate development after Hurricane Katrina. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography.

Thousands of working-class, African American families were displaced by the Housing Authority of New Orleans in favor of corporate development after Hurricane Katrina. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography.

Although McQueary was forced to walk back her language after commenters nationwide pilloried her callous “prayer,” she was merely repeating a powerful narrative that’s been created over the past decade. Just weeks after the hurricane made landfall, The New York Times’ longtime conservative columnist David Brooks wrote:

The first rule of the rebuilding effort should be: Nothing Like Before. Most of the ambitious and organized people abandoned the inner-city areas of New Orleans long ago, leaving neighborhoods where roughly three-quarters of the people were poor…. If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.2

January 15, 2007 - Martin Luther King Day. St Bernard Public Housing Development. New Orleans, LA. Four to five hundred people assembled on St. Bernard Avenue to force an entry into the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

January 15, 2007 – Martin Luther King Day. St Bernard Public Housing Development. New Orleans, LA. Four to five hundred people assembled on St. Bernard Avenue to force an entry into the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography.

Dreams of a blank slate on which to carry out a market-driven recovery weren’t confined to op-eds. Government officials began speculating about how the storm and the area’s subsequent evacuation would change New Orleans’ demographics. Alphonso Jackson, HUD Secretary to President George W. Bush, urged against rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward and told the Houston Chronicle, “Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time.

New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”3 Rep. Richard H. Baker, a Republican congressman from Baton Rouge, was quoted as telling lobbyists in September 2005, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”4

Democrats got on board with the blank slate narrative as well. The efforts to get rid of large swaths of the city’s public housing units couldn’t have been successful without the unanimous support of New Orleans’ largely Democratic City Council. Arne Duncan, the Obama administration’s secretary of education, expressed a kind of gratitude for the devastation, telling an interviewer, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’”5

Rep. Richard H. Baker, a Republican congressman from Baton Rouge, was quoted as telling lobbyists in September 2005, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Now, 10 years later, the results of this enthusiastic promotion of a new New Orleans—one rebuilt along corporate-friendly, neoliberal lines—are clear. A recent New Orleans Advocate article6 describes the city as being “smaller, whiter and wealthier” than it had been prior to Katrina. New Orleans has 79 percent of the population it had in 2000, according to Census data. The city has lost almost a third of its Black population since 2000, but only about eight percent of its White population.7 White residents made up about a quarter of the city’s population before the storm. Now they make up just under a third8 (See also our 2010 report, “The Long Hurricane”).9

Now, 10 years later, the results of this enthusiastic promotion of a new New Orleans—one rebuilt along corporate-friendly, neoliberal lines—are clear.

Shana griffin (lower-case intentional), an activist and New Orleans native, spends much of her time thinking about how the changes of the past decade fit into a longer history of discriminatory housing policy and displacement. As cofounder and board president of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI), a hybrid community development non-profit and advocacy organization, she implements solutions she hopes will keep the city affordable for longtime residents. The organization’s first development, a renovated four-unit historic building in the Mid-City neighborhood, is scheduled to open this fall.

I spoke with griffin about how not-in-my-backyard attitudes toward public housing residents and housing voucher recipients, weak laws protecting tenants’ rights, and recovery policies that favored homeowners with high property values—conceived of in right-wing policy circles, but embraced by a bipartisan coalition of pro-business politicians—have all contributed to changes in New Orleans’ makeup since Katrina.

In the years since the storm, four of the city’s 10 public housing developments have been demolished.10 Those 5,000 units were replaced by just more than 600 units. The number of housing vouchers, which are often promoted as a way to de-concentrate poverty, tripled from 2000 to 2010.11 How are changes to federal and local housing policy related to changes in the city’s demographics?

We had Rep. [Richard] Baker (R-La.) making the comment that, “We could not clean up public housing, but God did.”12 The idea [being that] those who occupy public housing were dirty, a social ill that the state, in its paternalistic role, could not deal with, but God did. And seeing Hurricane Katrina as a metaphor, something that cleaned up this problem where the government had struggled to.

Shana griffin (lower case intentional) is a New Orleans activist, and cofounder of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative

Shana griffin (lower case intentional) is a New Orleans activist, and cofounder of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative

I grew up in public housing here in New Orleans called Iberville. I resided in public housing almost 23 years, almost half of my life. I grew up always feeling extreme shame about where I lived. I cringed when people would ask me where I lived. It caused an extreme level of anxiety to say I live in the projects. Just to say “public housing” was basically saying that you’re dirty, you’re bad, you’re dumb, you’re lazy, you’re a problem. I have these memories of extreme shame. As I got older, I realized that shame wasn’t based on my family or me or people who live in public housing being bad, dirty, dumb, lazy, or ugly people; it was based on the fear of being blamed for something that we didn’t cause.

I think that’s what we see now when I think about the demolition of public housing in New Orleans. It’s like these are people that you can blame. It’s like if we have social problems, it has to be the people that are utilizing public assistance; it has to be people living in public housing; it has to be kids going to public schools. There’s something that’s almost inherently bad about anything public. It’s like these people are problems, so if you get rid of them, “the problem” goes away.

These are policies that make people disappear. You don’t see the remnants of what once was public housing. When the buildings are gone, the assumption is the people are gone.

You’ve written13 about the specific impact of such policies on women and girls. Did the displacement in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have a disparate impact on low-income women?

New Orleans after Katrina Photo via Flickr / drp and courtesy of The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

Housing is not a gender‑neutral issue. Public and subsidized housing programs are disproportionately utilized by women of color and poor women. Black women represent a vast majority of leaseholders within public housing, and the same is true for voucher holders. So you see the ways in which gender and racial inequality came together to deny black women in the city a right to return home.

If you see an advertisement for housing that says, “Blacks not welcome,” that’s an obvious violation. If you see, “Children are not welcome,” that’s a clear violation as well. But whenever you see “No Section 8”—and you see that all the time—that is not a violation. Those who are likely to be poor and who are receiving Section 8 housing vouchers are women, and in the context of New Orleans, Black women.

Women’s perceived fertility rates are often used as an underpinning for affordable housing opposition. It’s this typical, unfortunate thing when there are articles around public housing or affordable housing in the local newspaper, and it’s seen also nationally, when you read the comments section, there are always comments about, “These women are having too many kids. They’re breeding criminals.”

In 2008, John LaBruzzo, Louisiana state representative, Republican, made statements about exploring legislation to pay poor women, those who are on welfare and in public housing, $1,000 to be sterilized because they’re having so many kids they can’t afford to take care of.

In 2008, John LaBruzzo, Louisiana state representative, Republican, made statements about exploring legislation to pay poor women, those who are on welfare and in public housing, $1,000 to be sterilized because they’re having so many kids they can’t afford to take care of.14 He made the statement in the context of people evacuating because of Hurricane Gustav, but also during the same week that the House of Representatives overwhelmingly denied support of President Bush’s $700 billion dollar stimulus plan.

How have homeowners fared in the wake of Katrina?

Under the [federal] Road Home program [which provided funds that could be used to rebuild homes], Black homeowners’ properties were devalued compared to White homeowners and many White homeowners received more Road Home funding. The formula that was used [to determine who got grants] was based on homes’ pre‑Katrina value, not on the destruction that the homes suffered through Hurricane Katrina. The disparities were obvious and resulted in several lawsuits [which led to a $62 million settlement].15

In general, the policies that were enacted did not show any investment or commitment to supporting people’s right to return home, and also sent a clear message in terms of who was wanted, who can come back, who can’t come back.

The lack of affordable housing in New Orleans seems to be caused by a number of factors, including soaring rents, stereotypes about low-income residents, and policies such as the federal Road Home program that left out both renters and Black homeowners. What solutions are you working on?

JPNSI creates the opportunity, rather than waiting for something to occur. We’re not just advocating for this, we’re also developing affordable housing in our communities.

When I think about the housing crisis in the city, I see the community land trust model as being one of many avenues to address the problem. At JPNSI we put a particular focus on permanent affordability as well as advocacy to improve equitable forms of development and resident-controlled development.

Affordability loses its strength in markets where you have poor tenant rights laws.

But a community land trust is not a silver bullet. You can create permanent affordability in an area like New Orleans and still be able to put somebody out of a unit. Affordability loses its strength in markets where you have poor tenant rights laws. Inclusionary zoning, a rental registry [to address blight through code enforcement], and tenant rights unions all need to play a role in broader strategy.

This spring, your organization broke ground on a four-unit development that you’ve said will be the first permanently affordable apartment building owned by a community land trust in New Orleans. In Mid-City, the neighborhood where this project is located, 79 percent of residents rent and rents have increased 44 percent since 2000.16 The need is so great and yet you’ve decided to smart small.

The scale of the project may seem small, but it’s characteristic in terms of New Orleans neighborhoods. It’s these small neighborhood projects that have seen the least of the funding and attention. Our effort to explore different possibilities to turn the tide is really important.

These small-scale projects are important and have a big impact on people. They feel like, “I can see a change.”


About the Author:

Dani McClain reports and writes on race, gender, policy, and politics. She is a contributing writer at The Nation and a fellow with the Nation Institute.


Endnotes:

  1. Kristen McQueary, “Chicago, New Orleans, and rebirth,” Chicago Tribune, August 13, 2015 http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/Katrina-Chicago_Tribune.pdf

  2. David Brooks, “Katrina’s Silver Lining, The New York Times, September 8, 2005 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/08/opinion/katrinas-silver-lining.html?_r=0
  3. Lori Rodriguez and Zeke Minaya, “HUD chief doubts New Orleans will be as black,” Houston Chronicle, September 29, 2005 http://www.chron.com/news/hurricanes/article/HUD-chief-doubts-New-Orleans-will-be-as-black-1919882.php
  4. Charles Babington, “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2005 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/09/AR2005090901930.html
  5. Nick Anderson, “Education Secretary Duncan calls Hurricane Katrina good for New Orleans schools,” January 30, 2010 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/29/AR2010012903259.html
  6. Jeff Adelson, “Hurricane Katrina transformed New Orleans, the region’s makeup after unrivaled exodus in U.S.,” The New Orleans Advocate, July 11, 2015 http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/12479410-123/hurricane-katrina-transformed-new-orleans
  7. Paula Martinez, David Eads and Christopher Groskopf. “Post-Katrina New Orleans Smaller, But Population Growth Rates Back On Track,” August 19, 2015 http://www.npr.org/2015/08/19/429353601/post-katrina-new-orleans-smaller-but-population-growth-rates-back-on-track
  8. Katy Reckdahl, “Katrina scattered New Orleans’ entrenched social networks far and wide as census says nearly 100,000 fewer black residents after storm,” The New Orleans Advocate, June 27, 2015 http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/katrina/12479401-186/katrina-scattered-new-orleans-entrenched
  9. BondGraham, Darwin. “The Long Hurricane: The New Orleans Catastrophe Predates Katrina.” The Public Eye, Nov. 1, 2010, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2010/11/01/the-long-hurricane-the-new-orleans-catastrophe-predates-katrina/#sthash.jvhnrLgA.dpbs.
  10. Rachel E. Luft with Shana griffin, “A Status Report on Housing in New Orleans after Katrina: An Intersectional Analysis,” Katrina and the Women of New Orleans (2008): 50 – 53 https://tulane.edu/newcomb/upload/NCCROWreport08-chapter5.pdf
  11. Stacy Seicshnaydre andRyan C. Albright, “Expanding Choice and Opportunity in the Housing Choice Voucher Program,” The New Orleans Index at 10, The Data Center, July 8, 2015 http://www.datacenterresearch.org/reports_analysis/expanding-choice-and-opportunity-in-the-housing-choice-voucher-program/
  12. Babington, “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina.”
  13. Luft with Griffin, “A Status Report on Housing in New Orleans after Katrina: An Intersectional Analysis,” 50 – 53 https://tulane.edu/newcomb/upload/NCCROWreport08-chapter5.pdf
  14. Mark Waller, “LaBruzzo considering plan to pay poor women $1,000 to have tubes tied,” The Times-Picayune, September 23, 2008 http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2008/09/labruzzo_sterilization_plan_fi.html
  15. Michael J. Fletcher, “HUD to pay $62 million to La. homeowners to settle Road Home lawsuit,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2011 http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/hud-to-pay-62-million-to-la-homeowners-to-settle-road-home-lawsuit/2011/07/06/gIQAtsFN1H_story.html
  16. Kate Scott, “Neighborhood Organization Rehabilitates Historic Apartment Building to Provide Permanently Affordable Homes in Mid-City,” Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative Press Release, April 21, 2015 http://media.virbcdn.com/files/54/98c3c2df59d3e8b1-2015-04-21ProjectLaunchPressRelease.pdf

 

History Wars Exposed: Right-Wing Influence in APUSH Curriculum Update

Co-authored by Katherine Stewart.

Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

On July 30, 2015, the College Board, creators of college-level curricula and testing for high school students, released an update to its Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course.1 The revision came after what had already been a two-year battle and was quickly criticized by all sides. Digital news outlet Quartz published an article detailing “All the ways the new AP U.S. history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,”2 while conservative media sites like The Daily Caller quoted conservative “experts” who groused that the changes were merely cosmetic and still don’t adequately emphasize “American Exceptionalism.”3 But as to why the changes had been undertaken in the first place, the media consensus was, as The Washington Post put it, that “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history.”4 Were these headlines just clickbait or had there been mounting pressure on the College Board to appease right-wing critics?

Jeremy Stern, an independent historian who had consulted on the College Board overhaul,5 cast the revision in a more positive light, telling The Christian Science Monitor, “This is a major success for an unpolitical look at American history.”6 However, there was nothing “unpolitical” about the events preceding the revisions.

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

The fight over APUSH had been simmering ever since the College Board released its new version of the framework in 2012; it boiled over in several states after the new curriculum was implemented for the 2014-2015 school year. The original redesign of the course—in the works since 2006—was intended to reflect an ongoing shift in history classrooms from rote memorization to critical thinking skills.7 As the authors of the new curriculum explained in Education Week, 8 they’d been motivated by the concerns of AP teachers who felt the existing APUSH curriculum “prevented them and their students from exploring in any depth the main events and documents of U.S. history.” They sought greater opportunities for their students to “understand the ‘why’ of U.S. history,” and to “make its deeper meanings come alive to students.” The 2014 redesigned APUSH was greeted warmly by academic associations, including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for Social Studies, and the National Council for History Education.

But the College Board’s attempt to change how students learn U.S. history was greeted by conservatives as a revision of what U.S. history is.9

Education has long been a front in the U.S. culture wars. In particular, conservatives have argued for at least two decades that secular progressives have taken over history studies to inculcate students with a negative view of the American past and present.10 Thanks to a concerted effort from members of the State Policy Network,11 such as the Boston-based Pioneer Institute12 and the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, high school history has remained a controversial subject on a national level.

“Ben Carson said that ‘most people’ who complete the course would then be ‘ready to sign up for ISIS.'”

The APUSH controversy of the past several years is reported to have started when Larry Krieger, a retired high school history teacher who had started each year with the theme of American exceptionalism,13 slammed APUSH in numerous articles,14 including several written for the Heartland Institute,15 a conservative think tank known for its role in promoting climate-science denial. The Republican National Committee picked up the beat and condemned APUSH as “radically revisionist.” Peter Wood, President of the right-leaning National Association of Scholars and a critic of environmentalism and LGBTQ equality, penned an extensive piece criticizing the APUSH redesign last year,16 using the term “Bowdoin Syndrome” to describe what he called the “intellectual arrogance” fostered by that college as well as by AP examinations. Eventually, Tea Party hero Ben Carson, author of One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future, went so far as to say that “most people” who complete the course would then be “ready to sign up for ISIS.”17

“Little Rebels”

In 2014, the fight received national media attention when nearly 400 high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado, engaged in an unusual form of political theater. A newly elected school board was attempting to create a “curriculum committee”18 that could review any course’s instruction materials, starting with APUSH. Its review criteria held that “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”19 A Colorado school board member, Julia Williams, summed up this sentiment in an interview with a local TV news station, saying, “I don’t think we should encourage our kids to be little rebels.”

In protest of the school board’s attempt to write civil obedience into the curriculum, the students dressed themselves up as historical figures, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and sundry founding fathers, and staged a walk out. Some county schools were closed when too many teachers failed to show up for work in protest.20 Jefferson County Board of Education President Ken Witt dismissed the students as “political pawns”21 for the teachers’ unions, but the walkout succeeded in stalling the school board’s plan to change the curriculum22 and helped garner support for the recall of three board members.23

Local Battles, National Strategy

The Jefferson County history battle was colorful enough to capture national headlines. But it was just one in a string of conflicts over APUSH curricula taking place nationwide over the last few years, in Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, and North and South Carolina.

While the vehement state battles appeared to be driven by local personalities and agendas, there was a larger, national strategy at work.

“In Texas, the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.”

The opposition to APUSH occurred on two levels. The first, as in Colorado, concerned control of local school boards and school communities. A second prong of the attack focused on legislation at the state level, bolstered by a resolution passed by the Republican National Convention denouncing the course and urging Congress to withdraw funding to the College Board.24 Policymakers in the Carolinas agitated to eliminate or doctor APUSH at the end of 2014. In Texas, a state that represents 10 percent of the College Board’s market,25 the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.26 In February 2015, Oklahoma state representative Dan Fisher introduced a bill that would bar funds from being used on AP History, although public outcry effectively killed the bill within a month.27 And in March 2015 in Georgia, a lobbyist from the American Principles Project, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, D.C., reportedly showed up urging legislators to adopt anti-APUSH legislation, resulting in a bill that passed the state Senate in March28 (but ultimately stalled in the House).

The American Principles Project (APP), which has been advocating against APUSH since at least the Jefferson County protests, was founded in 2009 by Princeton University professor and Catholic neoconservative Robert P. George in order to ensure that the “dignity of the person” is reflected in local and national policies. Some of the APP’s best-known work has been produced in the fight against Common Core, but its leadership is invested in a broader slate of culture war issues. After the publication of the Manhattan Declaration in 2009, The New York Times called George “the country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.”29 George was the primary author of the Declaration—part of an effort to unify conservative Catholics and evangelicals around a three-part agenda, which they described as “life, marriage, and religious liberty”30—but other APP figures are also proven culture warriors. APP chairman Sean Fieler also heads the Chiaroscuro Group, whose radio ads attacking a pro-choice politician once featured a talking fetus; the APP’s board president, Francis Cannon, coauthored a post-2012 report on “Building a Winning GOP Coalition”;31 and other board members include anti-marriage equality activist Maggie Gallagher and Luiz Tellez, cofounder of the anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion legal advocacy group the Witherspoon Institute (which helped fund a thoroughly debunked 2012 study by conservative sociologist Mark Regnerus suggesting negative outcomes for children of same-sex couples32).

In their 2015 lobbying document,33 APP charged that APUSH “requires American History to be taught through a leftist, revisionist lens.” According to APP, the course gave “special attention to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities” and “presents American business in a consistently negative light.”

This type of accusation is an old one, dating back to at least 1994, when Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (and wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney) condemned the National Standards for U.S. History as revisionist political correctness in her now-famous Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The End of History.”34 Over twenty years later, Cheney, currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, resumed the attack in another Journal op-ed, “The End of History, Part II,” arguing, “The [APUSH] curriculum shouldn’t be farmed out, not to the federal government and not to private groups. It should stay in the hands of the people who are constitutionally responsible for it: the citizens of each state.”35

Whose History?

At the core of this debate over “revisionist” versus “traditional” history is the question of whether U.S. history curriculum should be about facts or a primer on civic duty and citizenship. The College Board’s new curriculum already had to stand the test of certain state laws such as North Carolina’s Founding Principles Act, which since 2011 has required that high school students pass a course on the “Founding Principles” (because “the survival of the republic” depends on students being better “guardians of its heritage”).36

A professor of history at the University of Oklahoma asserted that the 2014 “framework represents a shift from national identity to subcultural identities” and warned, “We will not be able to uphold our democracy unless we know our great stories, our national narratives, and the admirable deeds of our great men and women. The new AP U.S. History framework fails on that count, because it does not see the civic role of education as a central one.”37 (Scholars of Native American history pushed back on this, arguing in Indian Country Today that, “American Indian history is part of the fabric of the state of Oklahoma and who we are today…therefore all of that history is American history.”38)

“At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts.”

In September 2014, the Board had responded to critics, writing in a memo, “At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts…the most vocal critics have prioritized their own agenda above the best interests of teachers, students, and their families.”39 Nonetheless, the force of the pushback was enough to convince the Board to solicit public feedback on their course, which they did through their website from late 2014 through early 2015.40

In the end, with no sign of the debate relenting, the College Board agreed to another revision, which was released this July. News coverage pointed to the pressure the College Board had received using phrases such as “gives in” and “caves to.”

Zachary Goldberg, Director of Media Relations for the College Board, objected to these characterizations, saying that inaccurate media reports about the revision had misled many readers into thinking the Board had removed numerous mentions of slavery from the course. Not only was that incorrect, he wrote, but the revision was hailed as a success “by historians and teachers representing a range of political views [for] presenting a richer and more balanced view of American history. This was achieved not by reducing or minimizing the important narratives of underrepresented groups, but by adding to those narratives and including other important themes and concepts that the 2014 edition was rightly criticized for having minimized.”41

Whether or not the curriculum was rightly criticized, and the College Board was simply “responding to legitimate criticism while avoiding excessive overcompensation” (as consultant Jeremy Stern put it),42 the events preceding the revisions appear to suggest that APUSH, like much school curricula, has been politicized by a right-wing agenda.

The areas of the curriculum that the College Board noted had received the most criticism—the treatment of the founding fathers, founding documents, free enterprise, and America’s role in wartime victories—underwent the most significant changes and expansions.43 And a side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the course shows concrete examples of right-wing influence—some blatant, and some more coded.

“Mention of ‘white superiority’ as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation.”

Analysis of White racial identity and power as an undercurrent of U.S. history is all but erased. Mention of “white superiority” as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation. From 2014 to 2015, the coverage of Native American history under colonialism shifted from describing indigenous people’s attempts to “forge advantageous political alliances” in order to “maintain their tribal lands” to having “repeatedly evaluated and adjusted their alliances” in order to “maintain control of tribal lands and natural resources”—a subtle tweak that seems to speak more to contemporary conservative complaints about Native American control of natural resources on sovereign lands than an impartial reassessment of what happened during colonial times. Where the issue of White racial identity was added, it often seemed intended to mitigate injustices perpetuated against Blacks, by linking the experience of White indentured servants and poor White sharecroppers with the experience of enslaved Africans and impoverished African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

While Goldberg argues that “The struggles and challenges experienced – and that continue to be experienced – by minorities as America seeks to live up to its ideals in no way are minimized in the new edition,” many complexities of those struggles seem to have been lost in the Board’s new revision. Quoted in a September article in Indian Country Today, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation and a professor at Arizona State University, pointed to the consolidation of “Latino, American Indian, and Asian American movements” into one statement in the course as an example of how the newest curriculum is “once again erasing indigenous sovereignty and sliding American Indians in as just another piece of the so-called racial-ethnic mix.”44

To The National Review, which was pleased with the revision, the changes amounted to “a good rewrite,” and “balanced handiwork.”45 But the biggest question about teaching U.S. history remains: how can you balance coverage of a heritage that was never based on equity?

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board's AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board’s AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description

APUSHchart2


About the Authors:

Gabriel Joffe is the program coordinator at Political Research Associates. 

Katherine Stewart has written for The Nation, The New York Times, and The Guardian. She is the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (PublicAffairs, 2012).


Endnotes:

1 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/2015-ced.

2 Jack Flanagin, “All the ways the new AP US history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,” Quartz, July 31, 2015, http://qz.com/469169/all-the-ways-the-new-ap-us-history-standards-gloss-over-the-countrys-racist-past/.

3 Scott Greer, “Experts: AP U.S. History Still Doesn’t Teach American Exceptionalism,” The Daily Caller, August 5, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/05/experts-ap-u-s-history-still-doesnt-teach-american-exceptionalism/.

4 Lyndsey Layton, “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history,” The Washington Post, July 30, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/college-board-rewrites-american-history/2015/07/30/cadadd4c-36d1-11e5-b673-1df005a0fb28_story.html.

5 Anya Kamenetz, “The New, New Framework For AP U.S. History,” NPR, August 5, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/08/05/429361628/the-new-new-framework-for-ap-u-s-history.

6 Kevin Truong, “New guidelines for AP history: Are they still ‘unpatriotic’?,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 30, 2015, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2015/0730/New-guidelines-for-AP-history-Are-they-still-unpatriotic.

7 College Board, “Announcing AP U.S. History Course and Exam Revisions” (presentation, AP Annual Conference, July 20, 2012), http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/ap_ush_course_exam_revisions.ppt.

8 Catherine Gewertz, “AP History Framework Authors Defend Their Work,” Education Week, August 18, 2014, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2014/08/the_authors_of_the_new.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB.

9 Caitlin MacNeal, “Meet The Man Behind The Right’s AP History Freak Out,” Talking Points Memo, October 9, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/larry-krieger-ap-us-history-conservatives.

10 Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 164.

11 For a more in depth look at the State Policy Network and its links with member organizations see Frederick Clarkson, “EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics,” Political Research Associates, November 25, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/25/exposed-how-the-rights-state-based-think-tanks-are-transforming-u-s-politics/#sthash.kAdMt3Nz.dpbs.

12 Stanley Kurtz, “Madison Scholar Condemns AP U.S. History Redesign,” National Review, September 2, 2014, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/386849/madison-scholar-condemns-ap-us-history-redesign-stanley-kurtz.

13 Pema Levy, “What’s Driving Conservatives Mad About the New AP History Course,” Newsweek, August 14, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/whats-driving-conservatives-mad-about-new-history-course-264592.

14 Casey Quinlan, “College Board Caves To Conservative Pressure, Changes AP U.S. History Curriculum,” Think Progress, July 30, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/07/30/3686060/conservatives-get-major-win-fight-ap-history-classes/.

15 Larry Krieger, “29 Biased Statements In the AP U.S. History Redesign,” Heartland, August 19, 2014, http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2014/08/19/29-biased-statements-ap-us-history-redesign.

16 Peter Wood, “Update on AP U.S. History,” National Association of Scholars, July 10, 2014, https://www.nas.org/articles/update_on_ap_us_history?utm_source=Copy+of+July+2014+Newsletter&utm_c.

17 Valerie Strauss, “Ben Carson: New AP U.S. history course will make kids want to ‘sign up for ISIS’,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/29/ben-carson-new-ap-u-s-history-course-will-make-kids-want-to-sign-up-for-isis/.

18 Jesse Paul, “Jeffco students walk out of 5 high schools in school board protest,” The Denver Post, September 23, 2015, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26588432/jeffco-high-school-students-plan-walk-out-their.

19 Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education, “Board Committee for Curriculum Review,” September 18, 2014, http://www.boarddocs.com/co/jeffco/Board.nsf/files/9NYRPF6DED70/$file/JW% 20PROPOSAL%20Board%20Committee%20for%20Curriculum%20Review.pdf.

20 Justin Streight, “Colorado Teacher Protest Shuts Down Schools Over History Censorship,” Inquisitr, October 1, 2014, http://www.inquisitr.com/1511072/colorado-teacher-protest-shuts-down-schools-over-history-censorship/.

21 Dr. Susan Berry, “Colorado Teacher’s Union Uses Students As ‘Political Pawns’ in Teacher Salary Dispute,” Breitbart News, September 24, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2014/09/24/jefferson-county-colorado-teacher-s-union-uses-students-as-political-pawns-in-teacher-salary-dispute/.

22 Jack Healy, “After Uproar, School Board in Colorado Scraps Anti-Protest Curriculum,” The New York Times, October 3, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/04/us/after-uproar-colorado-school-board-retreats-on-curriculum-review-plan.html?_r=1.

23 Nicholas Garcia, “Jeffco clerk: School board recall organizers have enough signatures,” Chalkbeat Colorado, August 18, 2015, http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/08/18/jeffco-clerk-school-board-recall-organizers-collected-enough-signatures/#.VddSnJ1Vikp.

24 Catherine Gewertz, “Republican National Committee Condemns New AP History Framework,” Education Week, August 11, 2014, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2014/08/college_board_statement_on_ap.html.

25 Merrill Hope, “Exclusive: Texas is ‘Nation’s Last Best Chance’ To Block APUSH, Say Experts,” Breitbart News, September 11, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/Texas/2014/09/11/Exclusive-Texas-is-Nations-Last-Best-Chance-to-Block-APUSH-Say-Experts/.

26 Merrill Hope, “Texas State Education Board Passes Resolution to Stop Redesigned AP US History,” Breitbart News, September 20, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/texas/2014/09/20/texas-state-education-board-passes-resolution-to-stop-redesigned-ap-us-history-apush/.

27 Jasmine Song, “Oklahoma Educators Quash Attempt to Ban AP U.S. History,” neaToday, March 16, 2015, http://neatoday.org/2015/03/16/oklahoma-educators-quash-effort-ban-ap-u-s-history/.

28 Martha Dalton, “Georgia Senate Passes Resolution Challenging AP US History Exam,” 90.1 FM WABE, March 12, 2015, http://wabe.org/post/georgia-senate-passes-resolution-challenging-ap-us-history-exam.

29 David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” The New York Times, December 16, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/magazine/20george-t.html.

30 Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” Political Research Associates, July 23, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/07/23/christian-right-seeks-renewal-in-deepening-catholic-protestant-alliance/#sthash.w8MSl9lV.dpbs.

31 “Building a Winning GOP Coalition: The Lessons of 2012,” American Principles in Action, October 2013, http://www.americanprinciplesinaction.org/gop-autopsy-report-2013/.

32 Brandon Watson, “New Documents Contradict Regnerus’ Claims on Gay Parenting Study,” The Austin Chronicle, March 29, 2013, http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2013-03-29/new-documents-contradict-regnerus-claims-on-gay-parenting-study/.

33 Ayman Fadel, “Anti-Advanced Placement US History Movement at Georgia Capitol,” Aym Playing, March 19, 2015, https://aymplaying.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/i-dont-have-time-to-discuss-all-the-scary-ramification-of-this-document-and-the-movement-it-represents-but-i-wanted-to-pass-this-on-to-others-asap/.

34 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History,” The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 1994, http://online.wsj.com/media/EndofHistory.pdf.

35 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History, Part II,” The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/lynne-cheney-the-end-of-history-part-ii-1427929675.

36 T. Keung Hui, “NC Board of Education to hear AP US History controversy,” Charlotte Observer, November 27, 2014, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/education/article9237761.html#.VH0R3THF_kK#storylink=cpy.

37 Wilfred M. McClay, “History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy,” Imprimis Vol. 44, No. 7/8, July/August 2015, https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/history-american-democracy-and-the-ap-test-controversy/.

38 Tanya H. Lee, “University of Oklahoma Prof: Native History is American History,” Indian Country Today, March 6, 2015, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/03/06/university-oklahoma-prof-native-history-american-history-159482.

39 “Statement on AP U.S. History.” Advances in AP, September 19, 2014, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/college-board-statement.

40 Trevor Packer, “Letter from Trevor Packer,” Advances in AP, nd., https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/trevor-packer-letter.

41 Zachary Goldberg, e-mail message to author, September 16, 2015.

42 Jeremy Stern, “Left and Right May Not Be Happy with the New AP Standards. Here’s Why You Should Be,” History News Network, August 14, 2015, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/160264.

43 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015, https://advancesinap.collegeboard.org/english-history-and-social-science/us-history/2015-ced.

44 Tanya H. Lee, “New AP US History Exam Perpetuates Lies About Native Americans,” Indian Country Today, September 8, 2015,  http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/08/new-ap-us-history-exam-perpetuates-lies-about-native-americans-161628.

45 Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr., “The Overheated Reactions to the New AP U.S. History Framework,” National Review, August 5, 2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/422052/ap-us-history-framework-rewrite-defense.

Anti-Death Penalty Activism Reinforces Racist Status Quo

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s widely-protested ruling in Glossip v. Gross, which maintained that execution by lethal injection does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” capital punishment continues to be an issue of national debate. While the partisan divide in death penalty support has been running strong for decades, significant anti-death penalty organizing can now be found on both sides of the aisle.

death penalty

Last May, Nebraska’s Republican-dominated legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, leading to much optimistic discussion about conservatives’ perceived change of heart on this long-divisive issue. This new wave of activism from non-traditional allies—a marked shift from conservatives’ typical platform of strong support of capital punishment and a “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice—has come as a welcome surprise to many progressives working toward criminal justice reform.

However, while abolishing the death penalty would clearly be a positive step forward, it is a limited and inadequate objective—particularly if achieved without any meaningful discussion of the racism and structural inequalities that produced and continue to drive our modern justice system. Even if the involvement of this small band of conservative anti-death penalty activists manages to finally tip the scales in this decades-long struggle, the changes most likely to be enacted will be purely superficial, culminating in what Dean Spade describes as “formal reforms that mask the perpetuation of the white supremacist status quo.”

Eliminating one unjust policy won’t actually change the number of people dying under state control (or the racial disparities that persist among those sentenced to life without parole).

The conservative approach to anti-death penalty organizing not only perpetuates this status quo through the promotion of a harmful “post-racial” ideology, but also manages to enhance support for the rest of the carceral system by centering reform around fiscal restraint, rather than on rehabilitation and justice for incarcerated people.

The unsettling truth about the way policing and sentencing are carried out in this country has been established time and time again; it’s clear that no criminal justice movement can make any genuine change without addressing these problems. Some may argue that abolishing the death penalty will put an end to the racial disparities in whom the state decides to execute, but the alternative to being sentenced to death in an execution chamber is being sentenced to die in a prison cell. Eliminating one unjust policy won’t actually change the number of people dying under state control (or the racial disparities that persist among those sentenced to life without parole). In fact, fighting the death penalty without simultaneously fighting the White supremacy upheld by the justice system at every level will likely exacerbate the problem by making it even easier to ignore.

Ignoring White supremacy is a fundamental facet of conservative anti-death penalty organizing. The clearest evidence of this can be found in these activists’ refusal to talk about the role of race in death penalty sentencing or the carceral system as a whole. Grover Norquist, a conservative criminal justice reform advocate and the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, revealingly accused the Left of not taking these issues seriously because of their insistence on discussing how racism is an integral part of the prison industrial complex. “They’ve left the entire area of reform to the right… [the Left] can’t talk about prison reform for 15 seconds before [they] want to yell ‘racist’… People just shut down as soon as you pull that crap.”

Norquist isn’t alone in his resistance to an anti-racist framework, either. When Right on Crime, an organization dedicated to exploring new conservative approaches to criminal justice, details its “Conservative Case for Reform,” there is no mention whatsoever of race. Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty (CCDP) also tiptoes around this issue, focusing on the fact that life or death often boils down to a “lottery of geography,” and that many defendants wind up stuck with terrible lawyers. The effects of geography and inadequate legal representation on sentencing outcomes cannot be separated from race, yet CCDP rather conspicuously refuses to mention it, as though we are living in a “colorblind” society where race no longer matters.

This is what conservative activists are advocating when they focus their efforts solely on the death penalty and refuse to discuss race—an approach that ultimately won’t do much to address the problems that plague our justice system.

According to journalist Anna Holmes, adopting a “colorblind” perspective means believing that “race relations are soon to be replaced as a major concern,” an attitude that often amounts to “an attempt by white people to liberate themselves from the burden of having to deal with [the U.S.’s racist historical] legacy.” This is what conservative activists are advocating when they focus their efforts solely on the death penalty and refuse to discuss race—an approach that ultimately won’t do much to address the problems that plague our justice system.

Worse yet, their steadfast refusal to acknowledge how the justice system maintains White supremacy facilitates the perpetuation of these systemic injustices. Their methods, especially the way they talk about incarcerated people, reinforces the idea that if you’ve committed a crime, your life is disposable. Marc Hyden, a former NRA representative now working for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, says that “the question is not whether people who commit heinous crimes deserve to be executed – it’s whether we trust the government to efficiently and effectively carry that out.” Senator Caroline McGinn, a Republican fighting for death penalty abolition in Kansas, echoed this sentiment when, speaking about the death penalty, she “urged fellow legislators ‘to think outside the box’ for ways to save money.”

Their focus on fiscal responsibility highlights how the conservatives’ view of criminal justice reform has little to do with rehabilitation, and more to do with swiftly and efficiently keeping criminalized people out of sight and out of mind. Abolishing the death penalty will simply enable the state to continue doing this in the most cost-effective way possible.

The only exception, when conservative anti-death penalty activists have demonstrated significant interest in saving people on death row, seems to be when the condemned is the “right kind” of victim. When Black people are sentenced to die, these activists tend to focus on the injustice of capital punishment in abstract terms of fiscal irresponsibility and excessive governmental involvement, rather than the humanity of those the state wishes to kill. However, when White women are sentenced to die—especially when they’ve experienced a religious conversion—the story is often completely different. This is where the Economic and Religious Right have found a way to come together: both sides can make arguments against capital punishment that support their long-held principles, whether it’s fiscal restraint or the untouchable sanctity of White Christian womanhood.

For example, religious conservatives were vocally opposed to the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who claimed to have a conversion experience in prison after murdering two people with a pickaxe. With key leaders of the Christian Right like Pat Robertson fighting for her release, she reached near-celebrity status. At the time of her death, polls showed that “despite Texans’ support for capital punishment, those who favor[ed] Tucker’s execution [were] a minority.” More recently, Kelly Gissendaner, another White woman on death row who converted to Christianity in prison, has found a similar outpouring of support from religious conservatives.

The problem is that only a fraction of the people whose lives are taken by the U.S. criminal justice system are White, Christian women. When conservative activism focuses on the humanity of these women but ignores the lives of everyone else, it supports the justice system’s broader lack of concern for the life and well-being of people of color.

If conservatives continue their misdirected advocacy without examining the structural inequalities at work within and outside the justice system, the abolition of the death penalty will be a hollow victory.

If other red states follow in Nebraska’s footsteps, the U.S. will gradually move closer to a national end to capital punishment. The 40 or so people executed by lethal injection each year will instead be sentenced to death by incarceration, but the question of whether any significant change will have been accomplished remains. If conservatives continue their misdirected advocacy without examining the structural inequalities at work within and outside the justice system, the abolition of the death penalty will be a hollow victory. All the mechanisms of mass incarceration will continue to operate as normal, or even with increased public support and fiscal and political resources. Undeniably racist policing and sentencing practices will continue to ensure that race remains a crucial determinant of who goes to jail and who doesn’t. Out of control incarceration rates will continue to tear families and communities apart, contributing to inescapable cycles of poverty that, in conjunction with discriminatory policies in housing, hiring, and lending, make recidivism nearly impossible to avoid. Incarcerated queer and transgender people of color will still be disproportionately subject to sexual violence, often at the hands of prison guards who will never face legal consequences. Incarcerated people will still be denied adequate medical care and could even face coerced sterilization. And prison guards will continue to employ solitary confinement as a means of punishment and control, a process that amounts to nothing short of torture, yet is used with startling frequency. These are the awful, everyday realities of the U.S. justice system, built upon centuries of systemic discrimination, none of which will be disrupted by conservative anti-death penalty activism.

Working to end capital punishment and move toward a less punitive justice system can still be worthwhile, but only if these reforms are part of a much broader strategy to root out White supremacy—in our criminal justice system, and throughout society.

Beyond the Hate Frame: An Interview with Kay Whitlock & Michael Bronski

Click here to print the magazine version

Click here to print the magazine version

This interview appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

Whether it’s a spree killing, a vandalized mosque, or a bias attack on a queer teen, Americans are quick to chalk it up to hate. The label “hate crime” invites us to blame overwrought individuals acting on extreme personal prejudice, making it seem as if a small cadre of social deviants is our main obstacle to a peaceful society. In fact, such individuals are products of a society that endorses all kinds of violence against the very same groups who are targeted in hate crimes. The perpetrators of these crimes are taking their cues from a society that embraces mass incarceration, militarized policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other forms of structural violence wielded disproportionately against people of color, queer and trans or gender non-conforming people, and the poor.

Kay Whitlock is an independent scholar of structural violence who seeks to dismantle the prison industrial complex. She is the cofounder of Criminal Injustice, a blog series that explores myths about crime, criminals, and the justice system. Michael Bronski is a professor at Dartmouth College and author of the award-winning book A Queer History of the United States. Their new coauthored book is Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics, published this year by Beacon Press.1 This spring, they spoke with PRA about their work.

Photo: Cindy Trinh, activistnyc.tumblr.com / facebook.com/activistnyc / Instagram @activistnyc

Photo: Cindy Trinh, activistnyc.tumblr.com / facebook.com/activistnyc / Instagram @activistnyc

What led you to write a book about hate and the role that it plays in our politics? 

KAY WHITLOCK: I wrote a piece for Political Research Associates in 2012 about reconsidering the “hate frame” as a useful progressive political frame. Michael and I had worked together before on my book, Queer (In)Justice, which he helped acquire for Beacon Press. Michael shared my PRA article with Beacon. Beacon was interested in the two of us joining together, opening up the discussion far beyond just specific kinds of progressive politics.

What is the “hate frame”?

KW: We think of a frame as a conceptual, and often rhetorical, path that shapes how people think about an issue. It always suggests a particular direction we ought to go in to address the situation.

In U.S. progressive politics the hate frame has four main assumptions: First, that hate is rooted purely in irrational, personal prejudice and fear and loathing of difference. In fact, it’s also rooted in ideologies and supremacy, in a historical and cultural context. Second, that hate is hate, and the specificities don’t matter. Third, that the politics of hate is about that crazy irrational feeling, which is caused by personal prejudice gone amok. In this view, hate is not about structures, not about power hierarchies, not about institutional practice. Finally, that hate is perpetrated by extremists, misfits, and loners who are violating agreed-upon standards of fairness, and that hate violence is unacceptable and abhorrent to respectable society.

The hate frame disappears considerations of structural violence and substitutes in their place the idea that there are these crazed extremists

In fact, what is called “hate violence”—violence directed at vulnerable and marginalized groups—is not abhorrent to respectable society. On the contrary, respectable society has provided the models, policies, and practices that marginalize people of color, queers, disabled people, and in many respects, women. The hate frame disappears considerations of structural violence and substitutes in their place the idea that there are these crazed extremists, and that’s who we have to go after.

The overarching question of the book is how hate is mobilized for political purposes and in what ways that destroys the possibility for good discourse on structural issues.

Do you think it’s counterproductive for watchdog organizations to monitor hate groups?

But the “hate group” descriptor is imprecise and subsumes many different histories into a single, too-simplistic template.

KW: It’s certainly important to understand how readily blatantly racist, xenophobic, and anti-queer ideas that gain steam on what we think of as the margins seem to migrate into mainstream politics. But the “hate group” descriptor is imprecise and subsumes many different histories into a single, too-simplistic template. It also gives the false impression that the hate is “out there” and “extreme,” when the problems are embedded in mainstream U.S. civic life and culture. It’s never easy to distinguish between the messages of many “hate groups” and the actions of respectable civic and religious leaders as they set back or dismantle progress in civil rights and economic justice.

While nativist, white supremacist, and virulently anti-LGBT groups may be horribly blunt in their supremacist beliefs, the ideologies themselves are as old as the entirely “respectable” projects of settler colonialism, Native genocide, chattel slavery, the eugenics movement, and economic exploitation. Hate is important in our politics. But people don’t want to own it. Even the people we think of as hatemongers, like neonazis, are often loath to say they hate people in so many words.

MICHAEL BRONSKI: They do and they don’t. I was teaching Intro. to LGBT studies at Dartmouth. I wanted to do something about the Matthew Shepard case. All the students knew about it. They’d all seen “The Laramie Project,” and they identified very strongly with Shepard. I think most of my students came pretty close to saying they hated Shepard’s killers. People are sort of eager to own a certain form of hatred and express it in more careful terms. It feels good.

Considering Hate

I tried to get my students to think outside of the hate frame. It wasn’t just a case of simple homophobia where a relatable, young, cute, blonde gay man was murdered senselessly. I wanted them to see the larger issues, like gender behaviors, poverty, and even geography. Everybody sees themselves not as haters, but as being hated. But once they’re hated, they quickly access the desire to hate back.

KW: Most neonazis will frame their essential message as love. In fact, almost everybody will frame their political message as love. But then you watch all the little side conversations and the message boards…

People—whether we’re from the right or the left, or anywhere in the middle—will often identify our own virtue by who it is that we loathe and despise and who it is that we’re against. That happens as much in progressive circles as in right-wing circles.

So, on the left, we’re defining ourselves by hating the prison industrial complex or brutal police officers?

KW: The language of hate is an easy placeholder. Probably all of us use it. I use it too. But what I keep trying to do is to get very specific about the issues.

 It’s quite possible to treat someone with great brutality, or contempt, as if they don’t matter, because you’re simply indifferent to their fate. 

You can’t just say that the reason the Ferguson police have such extraordinarily oppressive ways of policing is just because they hate Blacks. It’s much more complicated. There is a root in supremacist ideology, but it’s quite possible to treat someone with great brutality, or contempt, as if they don’t matter, because you’re simply indifferent to their fate.

Is brutal policing in Ferguson rooted in societal ideologies about the non-personhood of Black people, the notion that Black lives don’t matter? As opposed to visceral hatred?

It’s so tempting in policy to go after the people who commit hate crimes, because we know who they are. The bigger problem is a Ferguson, a Cleveland, a Chicago, an Oakland. 

KW: I think all of that is there. The callous disregard of Black lives in U.S. policies and practices since the inception of the country is so total that [non-Black] people don’t even recognize where their indifference or contempt comes from. It’s not necessarily boiling over as obvious racism, but it’s still woven in. That’s why it’s so tempting in policy to go after the people who commit hate crimes, because we know who they are. The bigger problem is a Ferguson, a Cleveland, a Chicago, an Oakland.

MB: One of the hallmarks of people who do hateful things is how often they see themselves as being victims. Police in Ferguson probably see themselves as being put-upon. An extreme example would be the Klan, who see themselves as victims of black people getting too much. It’s a mistake to leave that out of the equation. They see themselves as being victimized by the system, more so than their victims, often.

KW: The white, male, heterosexual power structure will almost always, in the face of protest, present itself as the victim of the group that’s challenging it.

Disability is a major theme of the book. You describe how, for centuries, disability has been cast as something that’s hateable and therefore something that justifies coercion—like exiling disabled people from towns, or putting them in institutions. If disabled people are seen as monstrous or inherently criminal, it becomes easier to see their mistreatment as something society does for its own protection.  

KW: Disabled people are often imagined as monstrous, degenerate, or defective. Then these labels get used to characterize any group that’s not in the central power hierarchy. So debates about disability start to include questions about American Indians, and Black people, and voting rights and citizenship; they start to include debates about women.

There’s often a contradictory dynamic. It all works to manage a great deal of anxiety. People with disabilities are construed as criminals, as objects of fear and loathing, but also as objects to be felt sorry for and cared for in a patronizing kind of way.

MB: I got an email from a friend who’s teaching a class on disability at Tufts. He said he’s teaching a clip from Fredric March’s 1931 Hollywood version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. When the very handsome March drinks the potion, turning him into Mr. Hyde, the transformation is really remarkable. He actually becomes black and gets misshapen teeth. The insane, murderous Mr. Hyde becomes stooped over and disfigured, and he becomes African-American-looking. It’s very much part of this mythos that some people who are not in the mainstream—including African Americans—are disabled and therefore evil. There’s that easy leap. A Hollywood classic shows it to us quite viscerally in about 90 seconds.

In the book you talk about how disfavored groups get inter-defined, for example: disabled people are defined as inferior, and then femaleness and Blackness get construed as physical defects relative to the white male ideal.

KW: We decided to use the lens of disability, but we could have picked race or gender, or queerness, and gone in as deeply. Gender, gender conformity, class, race: they all collide in these stories. One of the reasons we try to tell the story emphasizing the overlap of different oppressions is to demonstrate the pitfall that happens for progressive people when we fight in disconnected, parallel, single-issue ways.

Is your argument that the “hate” component of hate crime is rooted in the same impulse that makes communities hire oppressive police forces?

MB: That may be true in some simplistic ways, but we would all do better by really looking at every interest and trying to understand each instance in itself to see how it fits in a larger structural pattern. It’s important not to lump people together just because the behaviors look somewhat similar.

KW: It’s very easy to arouse justified outrage for specific, dramatic, sensational acts of violence that are intended to dehumanize someone from a marginalized group. [Like when attackers set out] to get a transgender woman, or “teach a Latino immigrant a lesson.” Those things are horrific, and we need to respond. We fixate on spree killings and assassinations because they’re so visibly terrifying. As we say in the book, fear has a kind of payoff: it makes us feel alive.

But regardless of who’s in power, we also have these structural forms of violence that continue year after year in the most respectable civic and private arenas.

But regardless of who’s in power, we also have these structural forms of violence that continue year after year in the most respectable civic and private arenas. The violence is steadfast, consistent, and it’s absolutely massive. I’m talking about the violence of prisons, detention centers, psychiatric hospitals, and public schools with school officers who are armed to the teeth and who have absolute discretionary power to send kids into the criminal/legal system for minor infractions. We have lots of violence against people with disabilities who are penned up in institutions where someone has absolute power over them.

I did my first work challenging the hate frame in 2001 for the American Friends Service Committee. Everywhere I went to speak [about the limits of hate crime legislation], good people who cared passionately about social justice would get furious if you talked about the structural violence of prison. It seemed impossible for people to accept that the legal system wasn’t the appropriate place to lodge our concerns. Just the thought of them having to engage with the massive violence of a system that dealt with hardened criminals….

So, they wanted to address the violence against “innocent” people but didn’t feel comfortable condemning violence against “bad” people?

KW: Right. This is not to put people down. This is part of my life’s work, working at this intersection of places where people don’t even recognize it as violence.

What violent things do people fail to recognize as violent?

KW: There’s the school-to-prison pipeline. A lot of white people have no idea how pervasive that is, or what the heavy presence of school resource officers can be like. Basically, what goes on in prisons and jails is not recognized as violence. Solitary confinement is not seen as violence or torture, though it is.

MB: When it comes to violence people don’t recognize as violence, at Dartmouth there’s a very strong Greek system. The embedded violence of hazing is completely and totally accepted. It’s everything from physical assaults to sexual humiliation. Eating certain foods to make them throw up. Forcing diuretics on them to make them sit in the bathroom for hours on end. Hazing is constructing masculinity by humiliating people to the point of being physically ill. On many college campuses this is regarded as completely acceptable or even good behavior, until somebody dies.

Like when Abu Ghraib became public and all those pundits were saying it was no big deal because they do this stuff in fraternity hazing?

MB: Precisely.

KW: We talk in the book about how cultural strategies are really needed in order for us to take a look at some of these realities in disruptively intelligent ways. [Ed: Whitlock is talking about innovative protest tactics, like ACT-UP air-dropping condoms into a prison because the prison wouldn’t distribute condoms to prevent the spread of HIV, and the eye-catching actions of the Chicago Light Brigade,2 which mobilizes flash mobs bearing glowing LED panels that spell out progressive slogans.]

Until we work towards deeper shifts in consciousness, we’re always going to be tinkering with the machinery, and finding new ways to let old systemic problems persist. If we think culturally about telling the story in fresh and unexpected ways, then we may have some fresh and welcome insights.

You write about the importance of refocusing on goodness. What are some of the ways that we can refocus on goodness instead of defining ourselves in terms of who we hate?

MB: Everybody wants to see themselves as a good person. It’s a really invigorating question. Rather than redefining it, what I’ve learned in talking about the book and to students, is actually getting people to think of what it would mean to be good. What it would mean to step out of descriptions of ourselves as business of usual? What it would mean to do something that is counter to the usual?

Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics was published by Beacon Press in 2015. This discussion has been edited for clarity, length, and flow.


[1] http://www.beacon.org/considering-hate-p1046.aspx

[2] http://www.chicagolightbrigade.org

Charleston & Chattanooga: How “Hatred” Hides History

On July 16th, a 24 year old man attacked 2 military sites in Tennessee with a gun, killing 4 people before dying himself.  A month earlier, on June 17th, a 21 year old man shot 9 worshippers at an historic Black church in South Carolina, and fled the scene before being arrested the next day.  According to media reports, both perpetrators are young men who have had trouble finding a productive direction for their lives and may have had substance use problems. And in both cases their visible social circles did not expect or support their turn to violence.  In addition, these young men reportedly come from families that do not share their political or religious beliefs; Mohammod Abdulazeez’s family has assimilated to American society while maintaining Muslim practices, and Dylann Roof’s parents and grandparents live comfortably in racially diverse contexts.

The Charleston and Chattanooga shooters had very similar lives and stories. Yet one's actions are labeled as terrorism, and the other's as "hate."

The Charleston and Chattanooga shooters had very similar lives and stories. Yet one’s actions are labeled as terrorism, and the others’ as “hate.”

Despite the personal similarities, these two instances of lethal violence have been characterized in the media and national discourse in very different ways. The language of terrorism and search for ties to Muslim movements in the Middle East has come into play immediately in the Abdulazeez case, although (as of this writing) it is still unclear how this will unfold.  In contrast, the language of “hate” quickly dominated in regard to Roof, in the context of growing evidence of connections to White supremacist organizations.

In legal terms, both ‘terrorism’ and ‘hate crime’ are additions to existing charges, and bring enhanced penalties in the event of conviction.  In cultural terms, these are two very different frameworks for motivation, particularly in regard to political context for action.

Setting aside legal technicalities, hatred is an emotion while terrorism is intrinsically a political act.  Hatred may be a motivation for action, including actions classifiable as terrorism, but the language of emotion focuses our attention on the individual and his/her inner life.  In regard to Dylann Roof’s assault on the Emmanuel AME church, the language of ‘hatred’ certainly reflects the emotions many Americans associate with the racist symbols Roof used, but it deflects attention away from the profoundly political structure of White violence against African Americans throughout U.S. history.

The FBI defines terrorism as violent or dangerous acts that appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, or to influence policy and/or conduct of government.  It is still unclear what motivated the assault on two military sites, but a solo young man armed with a gun has little ability to influence government to act according to his beliefs.  The assassination of nine worshippers at an historically significant Black church on a day with particular resonance for that church has a much greater potential to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” regardless of whether or not Roof was acting at the direction of established White supremacist organizations.  His actions exist in an historical continuum of White violence against Black communities – with both the motivation and consequence of intimidation, marginalization, and coercion of various kinds.  The rash of arsons at Black churches in the weeks that followed provides a concrete reminder of the ways that individual actions embody collective processes, regardless of whether the individuals involved coordinate their actions.

The category of ‘terrorism’ has expanded and been used in profoundly problematic ways over the past 20 years, with camping trips redefined as jihadi training and pervasive surveillance of ordinary life in Muslim communities. However, we need to carefully scrutinize how use of the word ‘hatred’ can obscure political violence.  The systematic assaults on African American communities now and in the past may or may not reflect personal hatred, but they have unambiguously political motivations as well as consequences.  The language of hatred obscures political and historical context by directing attention to the personal situation and emotions of specific perpetrators, a process that individualizes actions that follow clear systemic patterns. Dylann Roof’s online manifesto and website provide more evidence of political beliefs, however repulsive, than of personal animosity.

In my recent research report “Terror Network or Lone Wolf”in The Public Eye magazine,  I argue that the “lone wolf” label obscures substantial evidence of movement affiliations among the vast majority of right-wing terrorists who act alone or with one other person:

Research has shown that, at the time they engage in political violence, the majority of so-called lone wolves are over 30 years old, and have had significant histories of participation in Hard Right movements.”

While Roof is younger and less experienced than this profile would predict, his writing, photographs, and even his words in the church before the shooting place him solidly inside an extended lineage of White racist violence which includes lynchings, the KKK, and countless assaults on Black churches and ministers.  Roof told the worshippers at Emmanuel AME church that one of the reasons he was going to shoot them was because Black men rape White women, an accusation with a horrifying history in relation to lynching.  The recent film Selma depicts the horrific 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed 4 young girls, providing a visceral reminder of the use of assaults on Black churches as a tactic to instill fear in Black activists and communities.

“Terrorism” may or may not prove to be a useful framework or label for the actions of Dylann Roof and other violent White supremacists, but “hatred” is clearly inadequate as an explanation for recurrent patterns of action that span decades, if not centuries.   We should also question whether “terrorism” is the most useful or accurate label for the actions of a young Muslim with a complicated family history and well-documented  substance abuse and mental health issues.