The Alt-Right is Not Who You Think They Are

George Hawley, The American Conservative, August 25, 2017

Nathan Damigo Alt-right

Nathan Damigo (Credit Image: © Jeff Malet/Newscom via ZUMA Press)

In tweets following the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, former President Barack Obama quoted words from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

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Yet while a moving sentiment, Mr. Obama’s comments, if taken literally, represent an incorrect interpretation of today’s racial challenges and the nature of the so-called alt-right. The statements imply an outdated theory of racism. Among many anti-racists, there has long been a naïve hope that racism is handed down from one generation to the next. If that cycle is broken, this view goes, then racial harmony can finally prevail.

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In my experience with the alt-right, I encountered a surprisingly common narrative: Alt-right supporters did not, for the most part, come from overtly racist families.

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Far from defending the ideas and institutions they inherited, the alt-right—which is overwhelmingly a movement of white millennials—forcefully condemns their parents’ generation. They do so because they do not believe their parents are racist enough.

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According to a large 2016 study conducted by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, whites in high school favored Trump over Clinton by a staggering margin—larger even than Trump’s margin among adult white voters. Among this sample, 48 percent preferred Trump, 11 percent preferred Clinton, and the rest would not vote or choose another candidate.

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The rising generation of whites shows signs of being more right-wing than the millennials. It raises the possibility that a significant number of them will come to embrace open racism.

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Another misconception about racism is that education is a panacea.

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The typical alt-right supporter does not lack education. The movement’s skillful use of the internet alone suggests otherwise. In interviews with people in the alt-right —including the movement’s leading voices and anonymous Twitter trolls—I found at least some degree of college education was a common denominator.

To complicate matters further, many people in the alt-right were radicalized while in college. Not only that, but the efforts to inoculate the next generation of America’s social and economic leaders against racism were, in some cases, a catalyst for racist radicalization. Although academic seminars that explain the reality of white privilege may reduce feelings of prejudice among most young whites exposed to them, they have the opposite effect on other young whites.

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Our popular culture tends to define the racist as a toothless illiterate Klansman in rural Appalachia, or a bitter, angry urban skinhead reacting to limited social prospects. Thus, when a white nationalist movement arises that exhibits neither of these characteristics, people are taken by surprise.

These stereotypes may serve a useful purpose, as they reinforce the idea that racism is a socially undesirable attribute. But they also leave Americans baffled when they encounter racists that do not fit these descriptions, and the response is often flat-footed.

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