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Public Eye - Summer 2009 Vol. 24, No. 2

A Longtime Anti-Racism Activist’s Take on History

Reviewed by Loretta J. Ross

Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream - By Leonard Zeskind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, 656 pages, $37.50 cloth.)

Loretta Ross is National Coordinator of SisterSong, the women of color reproductive health collective based in Atlanta. She is coauthor of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice.

It is so irritating to watch Pat Buchanan on MSNBC. There he was on Morning Joe, blaming the financial crisis on banks lending to people of color. His makeover as a respectable “conservative” pundit – conveniently forgetting his racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic slippages – is a testament to the power of the mainstream media to shape a Wonderland world Alice would have recognized.

Thank goodness for Leonard Zeskind’s long-awaited book. It has restored my faith in the power of truth to trump travesty.

Thirty years in the making, Blood and Politics reads like a political thriller that details intimate knowledge about the origins, history, leaders and activities of the White supremacist groups in the United States. But Zeskind’s book is no laundry list. His analysis helps us make sense of the netherworld of ideas and relationships that populate and bind together denizens of the Far Right, the Religious Right, and the ultra-conservative movements he places under the banner of “White nationalism.”

His argument is straightforward. White nationalists are part of a single movement who embrace one of two strategies: they either work in the mainstream or serve as a vanguard outside the mainstream. This is a classic bullet-or-ballot struggle within the movement, as people oriented one way or the other compete for validity, followers and money. Regardless of their strategic differences, he argues these are two wings of the same movement that share a common goal: to place the “dispossessed majority” of White people permanently in control of the future of our country.

The bullet sector believes it is a vanguard movement, a small set of individuals and organizations who will lead the duped majority of White people into recognizing that their alleged racial identity forms a nation under threat by all who do not share their supposed race, particularly Jews and people of color. Tactics chosen by this vanguard movement often include violence, threats of violence, and intimidation. They are to be found mostly below the mainstream media’s radar until one of their warriors, like Timothy McVeigh, blows up a federal building in Oklahoma to commemorate the Waco tragedy.

The ballot wing of the movement believes in mainstreaming by entering the fringes of electoral politics, either as Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Populists or another third party. They seek to persuade a majority of people to support their views, if not their candidacies. Typified by former Klansman David Duke in the past, and currently by Pat Buchanan, this sector believes that the views of the White nationalist/White supremacist movement can again become the dominant values of our society. Disavowing the violence and gutter epithets of their vigilante cousins, time and repetition are their tactics as they seize upon every opportunity to claim that White people (or Western Civilization) are under attack.

They’ve even won over a few people who are not White to their cause as they target immigrants and gays.

Zeskind debunks several myths often propagated by other researchers. He warns against stereotyping White nationalists as men “with chewing tobacco” in their cheeks. Instead, they could be blue collar and working class, polished business leaders, millionaires, or academics with PhDs. Also, he says the rise and fall of White supremacy cannot be linked simply to economic and business cycles as the victimized look for scapegoats to explain their condition. Their tactics, at least, are shaped by other factors, says Zeskind, such as whether they believe their mainstreaming strategy is working, and whether they expect serious consequences from law enforcement authorities. When they perceive themselves as closer to the levers of power, they tend to favor their mainstreaming strategies. When they believe they have been relegated to the fringes, they default to vanguardism, and sometimes violence.

Blaming the economy for the actions of White supremacists is like a drunk blaming alcohol when he batters his wife. In each case, it’s an excuse, not a cause.

The serious economic crisis facing this country may lubricate the anger of White supremacists, particularly now that we have an African-American President. However, they would have felt marginalized by any president who did not share their values and speak to them in coded signals. Remember Ronald Reagan making his first speech as the GOP’s 1980 Presidential contender in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the murders of three civil rights activists?

Pat Buchanan is now the sanitized version of White supremacy we have to watch everyday. Like his counterpart on CNN, Lou Dobbs, he stokes the anger of the reputedly dispossessed majority with fear mongering more subtly than Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin, but he is no less dangerous. The mainstreamers send unambiguous messages to their violent subculture that potentially turns threats into actions.

Zeskind’s research demands that we warily watch for an escalation of violence by those feeling disenfranchised and out of power. The book stops short of predicting an all-out White revolution. He does suggest that in about 40 years when the majority of people in this country are no longer classified as White, alienated White people could become more vulnerable to being recruited by the White nationalist movement.

My only disappointment with the book is that it ended rather abruptly. Only a few pages were devoted to predicting where and how the White supremacist movement might resurge in the 21st century. I’ve learned from Zeskind, both from the book and from our years working together, that they never retreat – just regroup.