Last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, showed the ugliest face of white nationalism in the United States. That racism is a problem—in both its structural and personal forms—shouldn’t surprise anyone. But even if you knew that virulent hate groups existed, they’re fringe enough that most Americans have never spoken to their members. Aside from a few figureheads like David Duke, you’re more likely to have seen one of their memes than one of their faces.
Dave Algoso (@dalgoso) is a social change consultant. He was raised in Virginia and graduated from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Today, that’s no longer true. We know exactly what they look like. The weekend was well-covered, with participants and journalists capturing most scenes from multiple angles. Last Friday’s tiki torch march through the University of Virginia, last Saturday’s rally in Emancipation Park, and the violence that accompanied both reached us in real-time over Facebook and Twitter. The nightly news and front pages of newspapers have replayed those images in the days since.
Crowd-sourced sleuthing soon turned up the identities and social media profiles of several participants. The willingness to show their faces
put “Unite the Right” attendees in stark contrast to the iconic hooded Klansman. As sociologist and educator Eve Ewing commented on
Twitter: “They’re all confident they’ll have jobs on Monday.”
They turned out to be wrong. Cole White had lost his job at a California hot dog joint by Sunday morning. Peter Tefft faced a scathing open letter from his father in North Dakota,
denouncing his son’s hateful beliefs and attendance at the Charlottesville rally. Peter Cvjetanovic, a college student from Nevada,
defended his participation after he was identified; more than 40,000 people have signed Change.org petitions calling on the university to expel him. Chris Cantwell, featured in a Vice documentary on the weekend’s events, was kicked off the dating site OkCupid.
The trolls of the so-called alt-right are making a twisted “free speech” defense, playing the victims of an intolerant left. They claim they’re being punished for their political beliefs. But the weapons that rally participants brought to Charlottesville undercut that claim. Last Friday’s assaults on students and last Saturday’s attacks on counter-protestors—including the group beating of local resident Deandre Harris in a parking garage—reveal the group’s insincerity. And the murder of Heather Heyer by a member of white supremacist group Vanguard America shows the argument to be a cover for a cynical, hate-filled world view.
If this had been a peaceful rally within the realm of normal political discourse, then publishing the names of attendees or firing them from
their jobs would be an unreasonable reaction. That’s not the case here. No one responded this way in the past, even for white nationalist
rallies. This wasn’t even the first time they’d marched in Charlottesville this summer: A smaller group had held a torch-lit preview at the same park in May. But it was the first time white nationalists showed up armed, in large numbers, and became violent.
Fascist views were already well outside acceptable politics. By enacting those views with violence, the rally violated a deep norm that undergirds our social contract. As political scientist David Karpf argued on Twitter, these violations must be met with penalties or the norms fade away. The Trump
administration has seen norms against nepotism, kleptocracy, and profiteering soften because a Republican-controlled Congress has refused to impose any penalties. In this case, ordinary people can step in and assert that these norms matter. We should applaud them for it. (Though the task could be approached with more care: Misidentification is a problem, and even accurate identification shouldn’t be followed by threats of
Unfortunately, this penalty only applies to the rank-and-file. The organizers and leaders were never anonymous. Their names were on the
rally posters. Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler have proudly sought notoriety by promoting white nationalism. Last weekend drew rebukes from the mainstream right, but rally leaders saw a victory in President Trump’s reluctant, kid-gloves condemnation. They left Charlottesville emboldened and empowered.
The job losses and other punishments facing the members of this mob are necessary but will have unintended consequences. When those individuals woke up on Monday morning, they returned to the same online forums and Twitter feeds where they’d first encountered hateful ideologies. Social sanctions may even deepen their involvement. When part of your identity is challenged, you double down on it. Movements unify when under attack.
Society needs a follow-up to the rebuke. We need to help white supremacists unlearn the ideologies that took them to the streets of Charlottesville. One group doing active outreach is Life After Hate, a nonprofit run by former far-right extremists who now work to bring others out of the movement. They were approved to receive federal funding by the Obama administration, only to have their funding paused and then cancelled by the Trump administration. In response, the group launched a crowd-funding campaign that’s taken off since last weekend, raising more than $200,000 for their programs.
One group can’t do it alone. Churches and religious groups are also critical to this effort. Drawing on research from violent groups around
in the world, peace and conflict expert Rebecca Wolfe has pointed to the important role of families in pulling extremists back from the brink. Institutions like faith and family provide people with narratives about themselves and their
identity that can counter those offered by white supremacist groups. Many of these groups are ill-equipped to do this work on their own,
especially given the role of online communities in radicalization. Lessons from anti-gang work show the need for a whole-of-community approach.
Reaching white nationalists isn’t just about restoring their own humanity. Their place at the extreme end of the spectrum legitimizes other forms of white supremacy. Conservative politicians can swat away accusations of racism—even while advancing policies of mass incarceration, police violence, racial profiling, economic inequality, inhumane deportation, and voter suppression—by pointing to the crazies in the street and saying: “Me? A racist? I’m not one of those neo-Nazis!”
By reining in the extremes, we can shift the middle ground toward justice. The goal should be to leave people like Spencer and
Kessler out on their own, without support from the political establishment or their previously anonymous troll army. That creates
more space for the hard work of dismantling white supremacy in its more prevalent forms, bringing allies and waverers over toward active
anti-racism. Let’s not just ostracize the neo-Nazis. Let’s counter-recruit their base out from under them.
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