Late last year, I interviewed a self-proclaimed (white) ‘ethnic separatist’ for this blog. The idea was to try and understand how a person came to buy into such a belief system: that the races should be divided into separate states. I thought that, perhaps, if we tried to understand people like this, if those members of the population who decried racism in all its forms could somehow manage to listen and – to a degree – respect those who wanted it enshrined in law, then perhaps we’d be able to open a dialogue. And perhaps, that dialogue could change those people’s minds. Perhaps diplomacy really could convert the alt-righters, the neo-Nazis, the separatists and the supremacists.
Recent events seem to suggest that the coverage these groups have received in the media, all the discussion and exposure, has not served to open a dialogue so much as to legitimise their views and spur them on to cause more real-world harm.
The person I spoke to last year seemed eager to start discussions with political opponents, to talk about race and identity and the reasons why such different schools of thought have emerged. He expressed a feeling that ‘the questions we’re asking deserve answers’, but almost a year on, I’m not so convinced.
Politics can always be debated, but when it starts to – directly or indirectly – dehumanise and advocate violence against specific groups of people based on nothing but race, those people’s safety must come before their detractors’ freedom of speech. To argue otherwise is to argue that their lives are worth less than the consideration of divisive ideas.
The KKK’s history of violence
Let’s begin this discussion by looking at the rhetoric and actions of one of the most famous white supremacist groups; a group which, perhaps not-so-incidentally, survives to this day.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged after the American Civil War and has historically attacked primarily black Americans, but also Jews and Catholics. They are infamous for their lynchings, bombings, rapes and murders particularly, perhaps, in conflict with the 1960s’ civil rights movement, although also a long time previously and after, as they fought to retain white supremacy by intimidating anyone who might seek to dismantle it. As recently as 1981, the KKK lynched 19-year-old Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama. This was reportedly the ‘last’ lynching by the Klan in the US, but what about the propaganda that inspired it, and countless other murders before it?
Here is one leaflet from 1924, about 60 years after the group first formed:
Just as the white supremacists today try to frame their hate with respectability, so does this near-century-old KKK propaganda. It speaks more of God, of the Constitution and of kinship than it does of race, and in the one paragraph that the crucial issue appears, it speaks of the racial ‘distinction’ that presumably is the reason why the group desires the ‘faithful maintenance of White Supremacy’ it mentions directly afterwards. If one were talking about objects, not people, it could almost be mistaken for a debatable issue.
Thus, it was framed as reasonable, but caused incredible violence.
Another example of ‘reasonable’ rhetoric that legitimised violence is this:
This image is from some years later; a boy in 1956 at a protest. However, again, the same tactic is used. The slogan on the car tries to hide the hate it promotes – it seems to suggest a warm sentiment, even, towards those it wants to oppress. The supposed comradeship with the ‘negroes’ works to make the opposition to integration seem more benevolent. And yet, a year previously, 14-year-old African American Emmett Till was famously and brutally murdered for speaking to a white woman by the same group who authored this message. It doesn’t matter that it is highly unlikely that the author and the murderers were the same people. It doesn’t matter if this particular writer would never consider murder. It was ideas like this, promotion of segregation, that spurred the violence on, and phrasing like this that legitimised that racial hatred.
White supremacist action today
Today, white supremacist violence is thought, by many, to be a relic from the past. It is not.
The obvious example is the recent ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville which, startlingly, happened only a month ago. Although perhaps it should be reassuring that the death toll was so low (1), the sentiment and propaganda behind the march was very similar to that which caused so much death just decades ago. As in the KKK leaflet from the 1920s, posters assert that there is a significant and important difference between whites and other races: ‘us’ and ‘you’. The direct address to people of colour (POC) is threatening, naturally exclusionary and protests at the very existence of POC in what this group presumably sees as ‘their’ space.
There is also evidence that the white supremacists intended to use violence, and thus that the actions of the attacker were not unsupported by the rest of the group. Indeed, The Daily Stormer website, a far-right platform, posted content mocking victim Heather Heyer. This, obviously, goes far beyond reasoned political disagreement, and demonstrates that white supremacists are not and perhaps cannot be, peaceful.
Beyond Charlottesville, there were similar rallies in May and July of this year, the latter organised by the KKK.
This flyer, meanwhile, has been being distributed across Suffolk County in the US: and, once again, it equates race with having the right to occupy a certain space and is exclusionary to all but white people.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has identified three major white supremacist acts of domestic terrorism in the US since 2012: in 2015, when a gunman in North Carolina opened fire at a predominantly African American church; in 2014, when a former KKK member killed three Jews after opening fire at a Jewish institution in Kansas; and in 2012, when another white supremacist opened fire at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six.
White supremacy is not just harmless theory. It is being put into action and it is killing people.
Such deadly consequences, evidenced both in history and today, are precisely why silencing white supremacists is necessary and right. It can be no coincidence the the same rhetoric appears time and time again alongside murderous, racist action. Preventing supremacists from spreading hate is not an infringement of free speech, therefore, but rather an effort to protect those who they wish to harm.
It is incredibly positive, therefore, that in August both Stormfront and The Daily Stormer were taken offline when their service providers decided that their content contravened their terms of service. The latter posted content that lauded white supremacist violence, while members of the former were reportedly responsible for 100 murders in the last five years alone.
Furthermore, those who might feel uncomfortable about ‘silencing’ any group insofar as it could set a dangerous precedent for future violations of the right to freedom of speech, should consider other human rights, too. Alongside Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which gives one ‘the right to freedom of opinion and expression […] through any media and regardless of frontiers’, Article 3 gives one the ‘right to life, liberty and security of person’ and Article 15 states that ‘[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality’ (as the separatists ultimately want). One group’s right to freedom of expression does not trump people of colour’s rights to live safely or reside in the country in which they choose. These ideas are already preventing the former, and aim to impede the latter.
White supremacists may have the right to hold the opinions that they do, but they do not have the right to threaten – directly or indirectly – other people’s safety.
Therefore, they need to silenced.
This is not a job for governments – after all, until they directly begin to violate the rights mentioned above, a government should not intervene – but for everyday people. It means shutting down people who express these views – whether family, friend or Internet stranger. It means actively working to make sure racial slurs are not normalised. It means avoiding at all costs legitimising the views that seek to divide people on racial grounds.
While we use slurs ironically, fail to confront racism when we see it and dignify hateful rhetoric with thoughtful discussion, we will not silence them. We need to show them that white supremacism is wrong through our own conduct, and then demonstrate that we are willing to fight it and will never be converted.