It’s OK to Be White, but It’s Not Enough

Toward the end of Spike Lee’s staggering new film, BlacKkKlansman, there’s a revelatory sequence in which two speeches are placed in juxtaposition.

One is an oration by David Duke (Topher Grace), then grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as he initiates a number of new members into the organization. The other is a haunting recollection of the real-life lynching of a young black boy, Jesse Washington, as told by weathered activist Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) to a riveted audience at the Colorado College Black Student Union.

The camera intercuts between the two speeches — Duke declaring the need for racial purity, Turner describing the devastation the policing of that spurious purity has caused — and serves, as much of the film does, to offer a lucid appraisal of the violent boundaries of whiteness, and the sucking, vacuous nullity at the center of that concept. “White power,” as championed by Duke, is the urge toward violence for the sake of the preservation of unearned dominance. “Black power,” as spoken by the young activists in the film, is the reclamation of strength stolen by an oppressive state, a celebration of physicality denigrated as undesirable, degenerate. That much hasn’t changed in the decades since the incidents that inspired the film took place in 1979. But in a time of social upheaval, the grim little soldiers of white power have re-emerged emboldened.

It has been just over one year since the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which one counterprotestor was killed and several more were injured; an anniversary event organized by the same white supremacist who led last year’s rally, Jason Kessler, fizzled into infamy last weekend. But all over the web, in the fetid corners where race theorists gather, the ideologues for whom whiteness is the only source of pride have been gathering for years. Since Donald Trump’s emergence on the national political scene, with his persistent and undeniable denigration of Latinos, immigrants, and black people, these running hounds of whiteness have been howling. In the havoc of a tempestuous presidency, the dogs of race war are ready to sink their teeth into the flanks of anyone they hate — and their hatred is broad and immense.

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As a researcher on extremism, I’ve learned the ins and outs of how whiteness is both constructed and defended online, through bad-faith campaigns on social media, and on sites and message boards devoted to the amplification of hate. I’ve studied the white supremacist candidates running for GOP seats all over the country, a group whose numbers extend well into the double digits. But it’s worth examining the concept of whiteness beyond our explosive moment, as it has existed throughout American history.

The idea of a “Caucasian” race dates back to the late 1700s, when the German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach examined the skulls of Eastern Europeans to build a taxonomy of the races, dividing humankind into five groups; white Caucasian, yellow Mongolian, black Ethiopian, red American, brown Malayan. Although Blumenbach himself didn’t posit a hierarchy of the races, his work was used as the basis for racist pseudoscience that emphatically did, such as that of the Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper and the American doctor Josiah Nott, who sought to create a scientific basis for the inferiority of those with nonwhite skin.

This scientific veneer served to prop up a status quo that was already violently racist; the Middle Passage slave trade that trafficked in African bodies had been prospering for centuries. The slavery that allowed the early American economy to flourish as a producer of textiles was based on a thin scrim of justification that drew on both race science and the Bible — Africans were descendants of Ham, a cursed son of Noah — and was driven by greed. Human bondage was the economic engine of early America; race science, and the violent rhetoric of racism, was the grease that allowed the bitter machine to function. Slavers purposely separated Africans from the same town and culture, who spoke the same language. In this way they created blackness: By thieving individuality and heritage from those whose bodies they exploited, they created a category of people who could only be identified by the color of their skin. There were many who did not survive the onslaught of white greed and the terror that upheld it; but those who did, did so together, in solidarity.

When the Civil War ended, racist terrorism — the lynching and brutality white Southerners called “the Redemption” — and the quieter but no less consequential racist policies of the North conspired to maintain a status quo of black poverty and white supremacy.

For all the rigidity with which its bounds are policed, whiteness has been a surprisingly elastic category. Immigrant groups — Irish and Italians in particular — who were initially cast as ethnically inferior found themselves assimilated into whiteness over the course of the twentieth century. Whiteness expands and contracts as necessary to police its bounds, and keep its enemies subjugated. Even Jews, in the last decades of the twentieth century, found themselves conditionally admitted. The elasticity of whiteness is rooted in its essential lack of substance, its existence as a negation of the other.

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At its hollow core, whiteness is nothing in particular: It’s an airless vacuum, bereft of any affirmative quality. To be white in America is merely to benefit from the absence of racial discrimination. To be white in America is to walk a path that contains no hurdles based on the color of one’s skin, one’s name, one’s outward presentation to the world. To be white is to benefit from a history of slavery, theft, and colonization that transpired before you were born; it’s to reap the harvest, without any effort on your own part, of centuries of religious and intellectual justification for violence. It’s playing life, like a video game, on the easiest setting. There’s no shame in being born white, but there’s no pride in it either, because it is by definition a category bereft of specificity.

Whiteness exists to punish blackness; whiteness exists to hurt those who are not white; whiteness exists to exert its own supremacy, in a great feral and bitter taunt against those it loathes. Whiteness has no language of its own; whiteness has no homeland, no cuisine, none of the markers that distinguish a culture worth celebrating. “White pride” — the notion that whiteness itself is something to boast about — is rooted in this vacuity, and that’s why it manifests as violence. White pride is a license to patrol the boundaries of whiteness, to inflict violence on those who seek to live, as white people do, unencumbered by racial prejudice. And the “White Power” of David Duke and his contemporary analogues is precisely this power: the power to inflict harm and to create fear. That’s what Spike Lee hammers home so well in BlackKlansman: If black power is about the reclamation of a stolen history, a stolen sense of self-esteem and worth, white power is about perpetrating that theft over and over again.

If you are white in America, you have nothing to apologize for — but you have much to learn. If you wish to celebrate yourself, to feel part of something bigger, to express pride in a heritage, you can do better than the cruel sucking nullity of whiteness. Surely you were born somewhere; surely your ancestors came from somewhere; surely your hometown has a history you can plumb; surely there is music in its annals. Perhaps you can be an American; or you can be a Pole or an Irishman, a Scot, a German, a Finn, or bits of each rolled into a delicious composite that is you. Love your family, love your ancestors. Love where you live and your neighbors.

White pride and white power seduce by means of an easy solidarity, a call to arms against a formless threat, an appeal to inchoate anger. But they are essentially empty; they have nothing to give you but rage, and in this world rage is bountiful enough.

Work toward justice, and center yourself in the movement to create a better world, so you can be proud of the work of your hands, and not merely their color.


Chasing the KKK Out of North Carolina

This past Saturday, the Loyal White Knights, a branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Pelham, North Carolina, vowed to hold a Donald Trump victory parade. Thanks to roughly a hundred counter-protesters that never happened — well, not exactly.

When word spread about the KKK rally about a month ago, activists immediately began organizing peace marches. Hundreds gathered in Raleigh for the NC Justice and Unity Rally, while a smaller group of counter-protesters attempted to intervene the KKK in their home base of Pelham — a rural town, just south of the Virginia state line in Caswell County.

The 2016 election made clear that North Carolina isn’t as red as it used to be, largely because of its changing demographics. Latinos have significantly diversified the state, and so have interracial marriages. While the majority of voters in North Carolina voted for Trump, they also voted for a Democratic governor. (The current GOP governor waited until today to concede.)

John Roberts, an “exalted cyclops” of the KKK, told the Times-News the night before the planned event that the group would be holding a car parade in “the general vicinity of Pelham” sometime around 9 a.m. Roberts also called it a “national event,” and that people who couldn’t make it out to their “normal rallies and meetings” would be flying or driving in to attend.

The counter-protesters, a majority of them wearing all black with their faces partially covered, waited for the KKK at the Pelham Methodist Parsonage Church but the KKK never showed. Organizers were informed that the group had moved their rally to Danville, across the state line, 10 miles away.

Lone truck, bearing Confederate flags and Trump bumper stickers, drives around downtown Danville, Virginia.
Lone truck, bearing Confederate flags and Trump bumper stickers, drives around downtown Danville, Virginia.

When I arrived in Danville a couple of minutes before the demonstrators, only one truck bearing several Confederate flags and Trump/Pence bumper stickers could be seen driving around downtown. A female anti-KKK demonstrator approached that truck and began yelling, “No hate, no fear, the KKK is not welcomed here!”

Moments later, they drove away.

An organizer then announced that he had been informed the KKK was actually back in Pelham, at the visitor’s center. When we arrived, only truck drivers and tourists making pit stops could be seen, but no sign of the KKK. Demonstrators remained there for at least 40 minutes, and they were clearly frustrated. “There’s no fucking plan,” one male demonstrator said to no one in particular.

The anti-KKK group consisted of mostly white people, a few African-Americans, some children, and at least two lawyers from North Carolina who were there just in case anyone got arrested.

One man, while looking at his phone, said that he got word from one of his people “out there” that the KKK was actually holding a rally that very second in Danville. “The address is 527 Main Street,” he told the crowd.

Counter-protesters march through the streets of Danville, Virginia.
Counter-protesters march through the streets of Danville, Virginia.

“They’ve been giving us the runaround, and things are starting to fall apart a little bit,” the organizer (who refused to disclose his name) told the crowd. “So we’re going to go to Danville now, get situated, and see if they show. If they don’t show, we will be holding our own rally, and then we’re going to head back home.”

According to a press release from the Danville Police Department, the Caswell County’s Sheriff’s Office informed the Danville police that dozens of anti-KKK protesters were heading toward the city because “they believed a KKK rally was supposed to occur there, and their intent was to engage in a counter protest.”

Earl, a spectator, was initially hesitant to disclose his thoughts of the anti-KKK march through his city of Danville. Then he said he loved it.
Earl, a spectator, was initially hesitant to disclose his thoughts of the anti-KKK march through his city of Danville. Then he said he loved it.

Once again, the KKK was nowhere to be seen. So the anti-KKK group went on with their march. The group walked along Main Street through the Old West End neighborhood. Several Black residents could be seen coming out of their homes and encouraged the marchers by raising their fists and chanting along with them. The Census reports that 48% of the population in Danville is Black.

In a press release, the Danville Police Department and the Virginia State Police called the protest “spontaneous and peaceful.”

I asked a spectator, who simply went by Earl, what he thought about the anti-KKK march. Initially he was initially speechless. Then he said that he was “scared to say.” He then asked me what I thought about the march. I replied that I loved it. “I love it, too,” he said with a huge grin.

A couple of hours later, the KKK did finally show up. A reporter for the Burlington Times-News said that a 30-car motorcade did drive through the streets of Roxboro, a town 36 miles from Pelham, with at least one person chanting “white power.”

While KKK parades and rallies are nothing new in the state of North Carolina, they’re not as accepted as they once were. Last year, the same group held a rally against undocumented immigrants, though no speech about the topic was ever given. Again, they just chanted “white power.”

Counter-protesters march through the streets of Danville, Virginia.
Counter-protesters march through the streets of Danville, Virginia.

It’s not clear why the KKK didn’t hold their event at the location and time that they had planned to. Reporter Natalie A. Janicello tweeted that the KKK had experienced a “snafu.”

Richard Dillon, 47, of Indiana, was stabbed at a KKK pre-rally meeting in Yanceyville, a town neighboring Pelham.

Two men were charged with the crime. One of the men that police arrested is Christopher Eugene Barker, founder of the Loyal White Knights. Police report that a verbal dispute led to the stabbing.


The Ku Klux Klan’s New Ally: The ACLU

Despite being a group of racist, knuckle-dragging hillbillies, members of the Ku Klux Klan are entitled to the same rights as anyone else — so says the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Klan members in a lawsuit over an Adopt-a-Highway program in Georgia.

Just to get the laughter out of the way before we go any further, the Klansman behind the lawsuit, Harley Hanson, considers himself the “exalted cyclops of the Georgia Realm of the International Keystone Knights of the KKK.”

The alliance is odd for a number of reasons. For starters — and as we
mentioned — the KKK is a group of racist, knuckle-dragging hillbillies
that’s hate-filled political agenda goes beyond the realm of despicable.
The ACLU, on the other hand, is one of the leading voices against
racism in America.

In any event, the civil rights group views the case as a First Amendment
issue, and is trying to downplay the fact that it’s aiding a bunch of
racists who want to adopt a highway.

About two weeks ago, the Georgia Department of Transportation rejected
the Klan’s application to adopt a highway in Union County because,
well…the Klan is made up of racist, knuckle-dragging hillbillies with
titles for its members like “exalted cyclops.”

“Exalted Cyclops” Hanson, however,doesn’t live in Union County, which is
part of the reason the DOT gave for denying the Klan’s application.

From the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

Instead, [Hanson] lives in Morganton in Fannin County, which he described
as “a mile or two from the Union County border.” But he said the KKK’s
headquarters is in Blairsville. He said it also has a physical
headquarters there but would not provide specifics.

“That’s one of the secrets we do have,” he said, adding that the fact
that he lives in Fannin has no bearing on the Adopt-a Highway
application. “It doesn’t matter where we live, it’s irrelevant to the

Irrelevant or not, Union County officials aren’t exactly thrilled
with the idea of government-issued road signs applauding the Ku Klux
Klan for cleaning up a highway in their county.

“We don’t know why they picked Union County,” Union County
Commissioner Lamar Paris, a native of the county and the top elected
official for a dozen years, tells the ACJ. “They could have easily chosen the last mile
of Fannin County as opposed to the first mile in Union County.”

Aside from confirming to the ACJ that it’s involved in the lawsuit,
the ACLU isn’t saying much about its decision to help a gang with the
mission of promoting hate and violence — the group is yet to return our
call requesting comment.

We’ll let you know if we hear back. Check back for updates.