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How White Supremacist Ideology Spreads

Mar 17, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There's a lot we don't yet know about what motivated the accused shooter in the attacks on two New Zealand mosques. But the 28-year-old Australian man left behind many clues, including a 74-page manifesto. And the ideas in that document are familiar to anyone who studies white supremacist ideologies. Kathleen Belew is a historian at the University of Chicago, and she studies the history of the white power movement in the United States. And she's noted that there is much to be learned from the flow of these - of these ideas over borders. Welcome to the program.

KATHLEEN BELEW: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you look at what the alleged shooter posted, what are the kinds of materials and references that you recognize?

BELEW: Immediately, I see ideological content from the white power movement in the United States and beyond, including references to things like the 14 words, which is a slogan that comes from the United States in the late 1980s from former Order member David Lane and is sort of a claim about the fear of racial annihilation and the way that, for this movement, many different social order - social issues sort of come back to the very deeply felt need to protect sort of the reproductive capacity of white people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're calling it a manifesto. Is that on purpose because of the goals of a piece of writing like this?

BELEW: I think manifesto, I would just - as a historian, manifesto means a piece of political writing that's kind of a last stand piece of writing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people argue that this elevates it, by calling it a manifesto, that it makes it seem like it's more consequential than it might be.

BELEW: I'm not sure I share that concern. To me, the Facebook postings are equally material. And all of it is important to understand because not paying attention and not understanding is precisely what the white power movement would like us to do. This is a movement that has tried its very hardest since the early 1980s to sort of dissemble and to hide the connections that bind together these activists in a social movement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain to me why you think this is happening now.

BELEW: So this is a difficult question. But I think that the history can really show us a few things that help us understand what's happening in the present. The last time this movement turned revolutionary was not during a left-wing presidency in the United States. It was during the second term of the Reagan administration.

And part of what they were reacting to is the idea that here they had someone in office whose campaign promises seemed to set out some things they wanted. But what they saw as Reagan's moderation, they saw that as sort of a referendum on the fact that electoral politics could never achieve the kinds of things they wanted to do, and therefore it was time to wage war.

And you see something very similar in the manifesto of this man who is alleged to have taken out this action in New Zealand, in which he sort of says that he looks up to Trump as a touchstone of overtly white identity but not as a political leader. And that distinction, I think, is very important for the moment in which we find ourselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You just used the word revolutionary. What is it, in your view, that is the ultimate goal of an attack like this?

BELEW: All of these attacks are part of a white power ideology that seeks to use violence, not as an endpoint in and of itself, but as a mechanism to awaken a larger white public to what they see as a very obvious threat to their race. They believe that violence will cause friction, foment guerrilla warfare and bring about a race war that will ultimately awaken and draw in white people to achieve a white homeland and then a white world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How is law enforcement doing, in your view? I mean, if this is something that is transnational, if this is something that is growing, if there are connections globally, what can be done? What should be done?

BELEW: I think that this is a social issue that is a much larger conversation than only law enforcement and resources devoted to monitoring. Although, those things are very important. I think that this calls us to really think about how we understand and describe this kind of violence, how we think about these actions and how we think about our own history.

So for instance, the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people - including 19 children in a daycare center - most people still don't understand what it is or what it means. Most people still have this lingering idea that it's about one disaffected lone wolf or few bad apples, right? But that is part of a social movement. It is a movement that is in all regions of the United States. It includes men and women, includes people who are rural and urban.

And as we see here, it also includes a transnational group of people who are connected with one another in deeply held ideological belief. Now, we don't have to sort of think of it as inexplicable action that happens outside of our capacity to respond because we have a whole history about what it is and what it means to this movement. I really think that understanding it could frame a different kind of public response.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kathleen Belew is a historian at the University of Chicago. Her book about all this is called "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." Thank you very much.

BELEW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.