I Don’t Fear White Supremacists, I Fear Liberal Indifference


Early in my student-teaching, I had a theory. When students behaved poorly, I ignored them, hoping they'd realize the folly of their ways and modify their behavior. If you've taught for more than a week, you know how this worked out. Lesson learned: if someone lets a homophobic, racist, anti-trans, etc. slur rip in class, your immediate response communicates your values and expectations. Your first response to someone saying “that’s so gay” will dictate whether there’s ever a second time.

It’s no different in everyday life.

American liberals are currently engaging in the same faulty reasoning regarding white-supremacist and neo-confederate activity. Throughout the post-civil rights era, white supremacists lingered on the fringes of the political right. However, through YouTube self-radicalization, internet communities like StormFront, and the wink-wink nature of the president’s response to their support of him, they’re moving from the fringes toward the mainstream of the American right:

The “if it triggers the libs, then it’s good with me” ethos that Trumpsim has brought to the American right has brought white-nationalists figures out of the shadows. They’re leveraging our political tribalism to gain a foothold in conservative media and online spaces.

Meanwhile, the preferred liberal approach “the best way to fight white supremacists is to ignore them” has proved ineffective. This is certainly the easiest path for (seemingly) unaffected white liberals but is also incredibly dangerous for my students and our democracy. When you ignore white supremacists, they “hear” your silence as indifference--if not a tacit endorsement. We saw this with David Duke’s near-orgasmic comments after the president failed fully to condemn the events in Charlottesville.  

The danger is real and I’m convinced the liberal weapons of choice: satire and longform essays, are insufficient to combat the 15-24 year old, YouTube self-radicalized, alt-right/Nazi horde about to break into the political mainstream. We need a new playbook and it has to include white liberals taking a risk and confronting white supremacists.

I recently saw this unfold in my own community. In February, a local group of activists identified a group of Neo-Nazis living and operating a tattoo parlor in East Tacoma. Dozens of people shared the piece on social media, but the collective response was muted. The Nazis in question felt no pushback once their presence became public knowledge, so in the spring they began flying a Confederate, German flag, and a Viking Raven flag in the neighborhood. Members of the community began putting pressure on them: letters, phone calls, several “this is not okay in our community” in-person conversations, and the Neo-Nazis wrapped themselves in "patriotism" instead, replacing those flags with US flags and bunting.

This may seem trivial, but the lesson is clear: ignoring them was a signal that their conduct was acceptable. So they escalated. But, the community collectively saying “we will not tolerate this behavior” provoked a change.

Ignoring white supremacists is a tacit endorsement of their ideas and presence. Collective condemnation and confrontation send them scurrying. Bigotry and courage usually don’t coexist. Dear reader (especially teachers), it may go against your non-confrontational nature but it’s a must. Look, I have tough skin. Up until Twitter made such activity an account revoking offense, I got called a "nigger" online basically weekly for my various posts. Y'all, it shouldn’t be left to people of color to police white supremacists. Neo-Nazis may not seem like a threat to you, but they are a threat to your students, their families, and our communities.

Their plan is simple. They seek to normalize their presence and then their activities and beliefs. Ignoring them grants an air of legitimacy.

We mustn't allow that. We can’t.