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On the Fringe

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Carol Swain.
The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration.
Cambridge University Press. 416 pages. $30.00

One july afternoon in 1999, a University of Illinois student named Benjamin Smith picked up a 9-mm handgun he had purchased through a classified advertisement, climbed into his car, and murdered Ricky Byrdsong as the popular Northwestern University basketball coach walked near his home in Skokie, Illinois. The following day, Smith killed two other African-Americans and an Asian in a homicide spree that cut a bloody diagonal line across Illinois. The next day, July 4, he shot an Indiana University graduate student before turning the gun on himself. Smith, a member of a white supremacist “religion” called the World Church of the Creator, had grown up in an affluent Chicago suburb and dated a Korean girl during high school. Recruited into the “church” on the University of Illinois’s Urbana-Champaign campus, he became a virulent racist and anti-Semite. After the Illinois State Bar denied a law license to World Church leader Matthew Hale, Smith launched his killing spree with the hope of sparking the racial holy war “creators” fervently hope for. (On January 8 of this year, U.S. Marshals arrested Hale himself for allegedly plotting to kill a judge who had ruled against his organization in a trademark case.)

While the book stops short of prophesying a race war, Carol Swain’s The New White Nationalism in America argues that white nationalist groups like Smith’s have “the potential to expand [their] ranks among ordinary white Americans, who increasingly find themselves frustrated by a host of unresolved public policy issues in the area of ethnicity and race.” Swain, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, contends that such frustration stems from a variety of legitimate grievances — from the volume of black-on-white crime to racial preferences and multicultural ideologies that exalt group rights. White nationalism, like many of the multiculturalist philosophies promoted by the left, posits that whites have distinct group interests that run counter to those of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and, often, Jews. For the white nationalist, the United States is a “white nation” that is now being hijacked. The “new” white nationalist groups Swain describes theoretically eschew violence, although many of their adherents have acted violently at times. Swain takes these groups seriously and admits that they sometimes have a point.

Swain has long dealt with controversy. A onetime welfare recipient who grew up in rural Virginia, she left school in the ninth grade and gave birth to her first child at 16. Dissatisfied with life in the small African-American community where she grew up, she entered community college and eventually earned a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She won tenure at Princeton (moving to Vanderbilt later on) and began her academic career with a study of congressional representation, Black Faces, Black Interests (Harvard University Press, 1993), which made a convincing case against one-race congressional districts. During the multi-year sabbatical she used to write The New White Nationalism, Swain became a born-again Christian and earned a master’s degree in law from Yale. It’s almost impossible to place her in any ideological camp: The back of her most recent book includes endorsements from both conservative Princeton scholar Robert P. George and Harvard social democrat William Julius Wilson.

While the conclusions of her first book have become conventional wisdom — even the naacp no longer insists on strict racial gerrymanders — her latest work promises to prove far more controversial. The New White Nationalism consists of four major sections: a discussion of the growing influence of white nationalism, an examination of public attitudes toward affirmative action, an exploration of young people’s opinions about race, and a discussion of policy prescriptions intended to combat the white nationalist threat. In each chapter Swain offers a wealth of scholarship and ideas. Put together, however, The New White Nationalism proves incomplete. While she sheds new light on many sources of racial tension in America and offers many valuable suggestions, Swain does not make a convincing case that white nationalism will reemerge as a major political force.

 

Swain’s research on white nationalism consists of a series of interviews with white nationalist leaders — conducted by Princeton University’s Russell Nieli and collected in a March 2003 book, Contemporary Voices of White Nationalism in America (Cambridge University Press) — and a bevy of original survey data about affirmative action in employment and higher education.

Swain’s interviews simply don’t provide compelling evidence that white nationalist leaders have the potential to recruit a larger following. In all, she interviews 10 individuals and doesn’t appear to have done field research at white nationalist gatherings. (As an African-American, admittedly, this might have proven difficult but her assistant Nieli, who is white, didn’t seem to have any problem getting racists to talk.) Two of the individuals she considers, furthermore, are Jews and thus have almost no chance of gaining traction in a movement
that is predominantly anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, the interviews provide some fascinating insight into the mindset of the white nationalist fringe.

The white nationalist movement leaders seem a pathetic lot. Of the 10 Swain selected as a representative cross sample of the new white nationalist movement, only four appear to have any following outside the internet. Even those with actual followings run organizations that consist of little more than amateurish websites and email lists. Only one group Swain examines — Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance magazine — appears to have a headquarters anywhere other than the home of its leader. (Hale, the self-styled Pontifex Maximus of the World Church of the Creator, for example, lives in his parents’ East Peoria, Illinois basement.)

Far from making mainstream inroads, there is significant evidence that white nationalist groups have moved to the margins of society. The World Church of the Creator, the only group from which Swain interviews more than one leader, proves a particularly good example. Until it revised its webpage in the middle of the summer of 2002, the World Church listed prisons as the addresses for a great many of its regional leaders. Standard textbooks for training gang officers list the World Church alongside the Crips, Latin Kings, and Black Gangster Disciples. The World Church members I’ve met during my field research on policing seem far more concerned with consuming methamphetamine and stealing cars than with starting a racial holy war. In mid-August 2002 the lead item on the church’s website called for freeing a “reverend” who had recently been re-imprisoned for parole violations. Although the claim seems dubious, Swain takes Hale at his word when he says that the World Church seeks bright college students and doesn’t “welcome people who are prone to criminal activity.”

Support for white nationalism has vanished from mainstream politics. Conservative political magazines like Chronicles and National Review that once printed articles with a degree of sympathy for white nationalism now argue for colorblindness. Patrick Buchanan, who demonstrated some affection for white nationalists as recently as the early 1990s, chose a black woman as his running mate during his most recent bid for the presidency. Even the Southern Party, a fringe group that supports peaceful secession of the 13 “confederate” states, bars white nationalists from membership. White nationalism, in other words, has become marginal.

Likewise, the polling data and focus groups Swain employs to investigate affirmative action policy show plenty of evidence of frustration but little that white Americans have begun to think in terms of group interests. In her study of affirmative action in university admissions, for example, Swain finds that blacks and whites alike favor class-based preferences over race-based ones. Both groups, moreover, tend to believe that universities admit affluent white students with excellent grades over working-class African-Americans with above-average grades. African-Americans, it is true, were more likely than their white counterparts to believe that universities wouldn’t give smart working-class black kids the benefit of the doubt, but even this hardly seems like proof of a gaping racial chasm.

In employment situations, Swain also finds little indication of frustration deep enough to evoke white nationalism. Indeed, in certain employment situations, Swain discovers that whites are “slightly more willing to compromise the performance principle when a black is benefited over a white than when a white is benefited over a black.” This is an exceptional polling result because it shows support for racial preferences, but it’s no evidence of growing white racial solidarity. While Swain harps on certain minor fault lines, the bulk of her data show that whites and blacks alike have grown uncomfortable with affirmative action, though most blacks seek to retain some of it as a preventative against real and perceived discrimination. Even when it comes to this notoriously touchy issue, blacks and whites agree as much as they disagree.

Swain’s strongest arguments deal with issues that have largely vanished from mainstream discourse but still receive attention on the white nationalist fringe. While she predictably condemns police brutality, she’s also refreshingly honest about the alarming crime rates in African-American neighborhoods and the high levels of black-on-white crime. She’s equally incisive in discussing the ways overbearing multiculturalism could lead to sympathy for white nationalist groups and how segregated ethnic living centers on college campuses tend to inflame racial tensions.

Swain comes down hard on the slavery reparations movement and even shows sympathy for conservative firebrand David Horowitz’s campaign to expose it as a shakedown effort. Her discussion of immigration and its effects on labor markets for unskilled workers seems incomplete and rushed, but it is difficult to argue with the limited data she presents. Issues like these, Swain is right to point out, represent an opening for white nationalists seeking mainstream supporters. But she overstates her case when she implies that they are the only ones who discuss them: It’s notable that Horowitz — an ardent supporter of colorblind policies who makes special efforts to surround himself with African-Americans — has emerged as the primary antagonist of the slavery reparations crowd. White nationalism simply isn’t selling outside the margins of society.

 

In an effort to soothe racial tensions, Swain offers a wealth of policy proposals. Most prominently, she makes a very convincing case for replacing affirmative action with enhanced enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. While some of her proposals — such as cash rewards for reporting discrimination — do seem a bit extreme, anonymous tests to ensure that employers, colleges, and real estate agents don’t discriminate deserve serious consideration. Swain will please conservatives with proposals to restore free speech on campuses, pay attention to crime rates in the African-American community, and uphold the two-parent heterosexual family as the social ideal. Swain also picks up a few appealing social welfare proposals from the left: She wants to replace the earned income tax credit with monthly wage subsidies (a low-cost proposal which would vastly improve life for the working poor), enhance vocational education for the non-college-bound, and invest in public transportation and car subsidies to make it easier for the poor to get to work.

A few of her proposals — doing less to collect child support from low-income males and limiting legal immigration — aren’t quite as well developed but still make a good-faith effort to confront important issues. By the time she gets to her proposals, however, she’s strayed far from her nominal task of preventing white nationalists from gaining ground. Most of her policy proposals make sense on their own merits but would probably do little to satisfy hardened racists.

While white nationalism looks to remain on the social periphery, by taking the phenomenon seriously, Swain sheds light on issues that badly need more discussion. While she fails to make a convincing case that white nationalism is a real concern, she does uncover raw racial wounds in the fabric of American civil society and offers a sensible path toward improved race relations.