Last week, 50 people were killed in a mass shooting targeting two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Nation & World

Probing the roots and rise of white supremacy

long read

With shootings as backdrop, author says the decline of unifying institutions, the backlash against a black president, and the depth of anti-immigrant rhetoric all refuel an old idea

Fifty shot dead at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; 11 killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; six murdered at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City; one run over in Charlottesville, Va.; nine gunned down at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Each of these terror attacks by avowed white supremacists appear to have been motivated, at least in part, by some of the same themes articulated in a diatribe by the accused New Zealand shooter: a hatred of Muslims or Jews and a fear that white Christians worldwide will soon be outnumbered and subjugated because of population growth and immigration policies.

While social media has recently boosted the resurgence of Nazism and notions of “white genocide” and “racial purity,” their provenance dates back a century. In “White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots,” a new essay in The Atlantic, political writer Adam Serwer exhumes a mostly forgotten book by a patrician New Yorker named Madison Grant who argued that the Nordic race that “built” America was in danger of extinction unless the U.S. reined in immigration of Jews and others. Adolph Hitler called the 1916 book his “bible.”

Now a spring fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School studying the role African-American voters have played historically in protecting and furthering equal rights, Serwer spoke with the Gazette about the enduring resonance of white supremacist beliefs and how some use them to craft their own answer to the foundational question of whose America this should be.


Adam Serwer

GAZETTE: What was your reaction to the mosque attacks, particularly to the alleged shooter’s explicit declaration that he was motivated by white supremacist ideology?

SERWER: The “manifesto” is very much Madison Grant. The shooter’s expressed motive in it is fears of white genocide, which he actually acknowledges. And a lot of white supremacists don’t actually acknowledge this, [but] he actually acknowledges that the question isn’t one of raw numbers — there’s more white people on the planet now than there ever have been — but the number of white people relative to other demographic groups, in part because his concern is with the maintenance of white political and cultural hegemony in those spaces that he has deemed European, which he’s deemed to include the United States, New Zealand, Australia, but also Europe proper.

The “white genocide” rationale has been a part of this generation of white supremacists’ dogma for many years now. The original white genocide manifesto, which is full of ideas about nativism and racism that have been in the American bloodstream for a long time, was written by David Lane, who assassinated a Jewish radio host [Alan Berg, in 1984] and went to prison for it. His wife later published his writings in the ’90s, including the white-genocide manifesto. So this is a motive that is common for extremists. It was similar to the motive that the shooter in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting invoked. This idea that white people are somehow endangered and that they can only be saved by some sort of violent means is fairly common among extremists. It’s what makes them extreme.

Adam Serwer of The Atlantic discusses the factors he believes contribute to white supremacy. Photo by Martha Stewart

GAZETTE: In the essay, you argue that Americans have forgotten the homegrown roots of the ideology that led to Nazism. You write: “Yet historical amnesia, the excision of the memory of how the seed of racism in America blossomed into the Third Reich in Europe, has allowed Grantism to be resurrected with a new name.” What do you mean?

SERWER: Grant’s belief was that the influx of foreigners endangered the American democratic project because these people were unfit for self-government. And I think you see echoes of that, particularly on Fox News and from the president when they talk about immigration “infestation” or they talk about Democrats bringing in Mexicans to steal your country from you or they talk about America no longer existing because of demographic changes. These are statements that reflect a belief that America is tied to a particular religious and ethnic group and the country belongs to them, and that a growing population of people who are not from that group is a threat to that group.

I try to be careful in the piece about saying Grant’s book led to Nazism. It did not. Europe had a tradition of anti-Semitism that was very old, before Grant ever put pen to paper or was even born. But what he did do was provide the Nazis with a pseudo-scientific justification for the society that they were trying to build and allow the Nazis to argue that what they were doing was not out of the mainstream.

GAZETTE: Why do you think Grant’s ideas are so beguiling and enduring to so many?

SERWER: The thing about ideas is that they can live forever, even if the people who come up with them die, and I think that Grantism is simply one side of the American argument. Americans have been arguing with each other about what the country is and what it’s going to be ever since it was founded. One of those arguments is that America is fundamentally a white, Christian country and if that is somehow eroded in some significant way, then it’s not America anymore. The other side is: Anyone can be an American: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” I think that conflict is going to go on for the foreseeable future.

It’s not surprising that the side that believes that America is a white Christian country … would latch onto the idea that these other people who are coming here who are different are a threat. When historians look at things like the president is saying, where he talks about immigration as an infestation and he singles out individual ethnic and religious categories of immigrants either for discrimination by the state or as particularly dangerous and scary, that is a reflection of that kind of nativism that has been a part of American culture for a long time and we’d rather forget.

“Obviously, the kind of extremists represented by the shooter in New Zealand are a fringe. But just because they are a small group doesn’t mean that they cannot affect the way that people think about the world or push policy in their direction.”

Adam Serwer

GAZETTE: Given the frequency of white supremacist-inspired attacks, along with the popularity of the border wall and other policies aimed at limiting immigration, have we been underestimating the resonance of these ideas, particularly among white men?

SERWER: I think that the election of Barack Obama gave people the illusion that the country had progressed further than it actually had, and there was a tremendous backlash, particularly among white conservative voters, to the election of the first black president. If you look at what political scientists say about this, it’s very clear that opinions about everything from healthcare to, in one case … Portuguese water dogs, became racially polarized after Obama. This is something we’ve been underestimating in part because both parties tell a very simple story about racism being overcome in the ’60s and maybe there’s some left, but it’s just the legacy of racism and we’ll deal with it, when, in fact, we have not fully confronted the way our institutions elevate one group of people over another, and in particular, work for the benefit of a very, very small minority that is extremely successful at pitting everybody else against each other to their benefit.

GAZETTE: How much of its appeal is the power of labels, identifying one’s self in relation to the “other” in order to justify mistreatment?

SERWER: I do think that’s important. You look at the decline of certain institutions like unions, for example, that mediate across racial and religious differences. There are fewer of those now. I think making people feel like they belong or like they’re important or like a particular aspect of their identity means something is a powerful way of getting them to do things. And that’s true regardless of who you’re talking about.

GAZETTE: Is much of the racial/ethnic/religious animus and violence in the public square today organic or is it being deliberately stoked, either by American elites or foreign actors, for political and economic gain? Why is it on the rise here and in Europe?

SERWER: I think people underestimate the extent to which a lot of Western societies contain an implicit ideological lens that says that these societies belong to white people and if a lot of people entering the society are not white, they become threatening. That ideological lens is the primary ingredient in what we’re seeing. Obviously, the kind of extremists represented by the shooter in New Zealand are a fringe. But just because they are a small group doesn’t mean that they cannot affect the way that people think about the world or push policy in their direction. If you look at the kind of rhetoric that we’re seeing in arguments in American politics today, the statements that are made about immigrants, about Muslims, about race, frankly we probably wouldn’t have heard from Republicans in like 2005. I think people are becoming more confident about overtly expressing prejudice, in part, because we have a president who did that without any political consequences and continues to do it when it suits him.

GAZETTE: You’re critical of the media’s role. How much has the press, and the lack of diversity in the profession, contributed, even if inadvertently, to validating some of the fears about changing demographics in the U.S. that contribute to this religious, racial, ethnic animus?

SERWER: The press is not an institution that’s apart from that ideological lens. Newspapers and … media outlets [in general] inevitably reflect the sensibilities of their readers [or at least their subscribers], who tend to be middle-class and upper-middle-class. … I think that inevitably means it’s difficult for them to criticize those readers or viewers, even in an implicit sense, by suggesting, for example, that racism is a huge political factor in American life because it implicates the very people they need to patronize their business to survive. It’s a difficult situation, but yes, a lack of diversity in the newsroom does have a lot to do with the way race is covered. And I also think there are constraints on how media organizations are allowed to talk about things like this that are created by the perception of who their intended audience is.

GAZETTE: Is any attributable to an inherent blind spot?

SERWER: I do think there is a blind spot, but I’d also say that people rarely do what the New Zealand shooter does and explain their motivations in racist terms. People find ways to rationalize what they’re doing and what they’re saying so they can think of themselves as good people. When I spoke to many Trump voters over the course of the 2016 campaign, what I found was that they did not think of themselves as racist at all. They insisted they were not racist, that Donald Trump was not racist, he sometimes put his foot in his mouth or he wasn’t particularly polished. But when I asked them about his particular views, like banning Muslims or Mexican immigrants or the judge whom he derided as a [biased] Mexican judge, when I asked people about these kinds of specific things, they would all defend them. It is a very human tendency that when we do things that are messed up, we figure out a way to convince ourselves that what we’ve just done isn’t messed up but is the right thing. That is a cycle that keeps occurring when it comes to the president’s indefensible behavior: People figure out a way to rationalize it so that it’s not that bad and it doesn’t look like what it is.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.