White power, white supremacy, and violence – our expert explains how communication is key in perpetuating racial hatred in the United States

Posted Oct 07, 2019

On August 3, 2019, a white power-inspired gunman killed 24 people and injured 22 others at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas. We tend to understand mass shootings as isolated events committed by “lone wolf” gunmen who might have mental health problems, but what we know about the El Paso gunman – as well as the terrorists who carried out mass killings at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, and at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 – tell a different story.

The evidence investigators have complied shows that these white-power terrorists had never met one another, but that they lived in an on-line world created by 4chan, 8chan, and white-power organizations’ websites, where they consumed racist ideas and propaganda that shaped their decision to kill African-Americans, Muslims, Jewish people, and Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. We also know that white-power terrorists have particular goals in mind. Message boards like 8chan reveal a competition among participants about who can top the number of people killed in the last mass shooting.

There is also a strong belief expressed on-line that killing racial minorities will foment a race war and allow white-power advocates to create an all-white world. I describe these terrorists as advocates of white power because it is important to understand that “white power” and “white nationalism,” a term often used in the media to describe the perpetrators of recent mass killings and the movement that animates them, are not the same thing. White nationalism calls to mind an effort to shore up the interests of white people within the American nation as it currently exists. The white-power movement, on the other hand, imagines a transnational, Aryan nation of white people living in an all-white world after wiping out non-whites.

This might sound far-fetched, but does not mean that those who carry out mass killings in pursuit of this goal are mentally ill. Rather, their actions are the result of a white-power ideology fostered and spread on-line.

What is new about how white-power advocates communicate with each other is that some of it now happens on-line. Interaction between racists who never met one another, however, has a long history in the United States. Approximately 4,100 African Americans were lynched between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the 1960s. The white perpetrators of these lynchings lived hundreds of miles apart and often did not know one another, but they were united in a collective effort to enforce Jim Crow white supremacy in the American South (I use “white supremacist” here because white southerners who carried out lynchings did not, broadly speaking, subscribe to white power as the current movement defines it: the creation of a transnational, Aryan nation of white people living in an all-white world after wiping out non-whites).

Lynchings were sometimes public events that drew hundreds or thousands of people with the purpose of “teaching” southern African Americans what would happen to them if they violated the rules of Jim Crow. Southern newspapers ran stories that justified lynchings; perpetrators took pieces of flesh, body parts, and hair from lynching victims as souvenirs and passed them around; and white southerners took lynching photographs, turned them into postcards, and mailed them to friends, family, business associates, and fellow travelers in the white supremacist movement. This racist community building had the goal of creating and maintaining white supremacy and, of course, it all happened without the help of the Internet.

Communication, whether on-line or through the more traditional means has played an integral role in fostering and perpetuating racial violence and hatred. If you are a reporter covering this topic – let one of our experts help.

Dr. Anthony DeStefanis is an associate professor of history at Otterbein University. He specializes in modern U.S. history with an emphasis on labor and the working class and immigration, race, and ethnicity. Dr. DeStefanis is available to speak with media regarding the history of racial violence in America.

Anthony DeStefanis, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History

Dr. DeStefanis is a generalist in recent U.S. history and politics, including impeachment, immigration, labor movements, and race/ethnicity.

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