Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who massacred nine black parishioners during a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June last year, was convicted by a federal jury in Charleston, S.C. last Thursday. The jury, who took just 2 hours to deliberate and return with the verdict, found Roof guilty on all 33 charges in his indictment, as reported by the Washington Post.
When the jury reconvenes on January 3 next year, they will determine whether the 22-year-old should be sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison for his horrendous hate crimes. According to Joseph Meek, Dylann Roof’s childhood friend, Roof didn’t always harbor racist views, but started spewing racist white nationalist and white supremacist ideas in the months leading up to the horrific Charleston attack.
White nationalism in the United States is an ideology that espouses the belief that America’s strength as a nation lies in its founding as a “white European” country, and that white identity is presently under attack and must be preserved. White supremacy—from which white nationalism stems—is the belief that whites are superior to all other races. Many would argue that white supremacists use the label “white nationalist” to distance themselves from the negative connotations associated with being white supremacists. The terms are practically interchangeable in everyday conversation.
Meek, who himself faces up to eight years in prison on charges of withholding knowledge of the details of a crime, among other charges, stated that he and Roof often had sleep overs as kids.
Roof, a high school dropout who reportedly attended seven schools in nine years, was self-radicalized when he started reading white supremacist websites. That Dylann Roof apparently acquired his racist views not from his parents or friends, but from online outlets is a fact that is all too often ignored in discourse about this case. The fact is that in the 21st century, largely due to the advent of the internet, ideas—both good and bad—can be disseminated at a frighteningly rapid rate. The question that should be at the forefront of our minds at this point is, what should be the prevailing response to the proliferation of particularly bad ideas, like white supremacy?
Some hold the view that the best way to deal with white supremacists is to ignore them. For if we shed light on the contemptibility of white supremacist ideas, the logic goes, we are merely giving them undue attention—attention that presumably produces a worse outcome for society than allowing their racist views to go unchallenged. Proponents of this view are also quick to dismiss white supremacists as “basement dwellers” who are simply “fringe elements” of the society. But there are a few critical problems with this assessment.
White supremacists are rising in public prominence
The idea that white supremacists have no public prominence is wholly disproved by the ascendency of contemporary white nationalist leaders like Jared Taylor, founder of the white supremacist publication, American Renaissance, and the likes of Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank. Spencer, who is also founder of the Alternative Right, a white supremacist website, was recently the center of a media firestorm after a video of a speech he gave in Washington surfaced and subsequently went viral. In the video, Spencer is seen delivering extended praise for President-elect Donald Trump, while members of his audience started enthusiastically chanting “Hail Trump,” as they gave the Nazi salute.
“This clever rebranding of white supremacist ideals as ‘alt-right’ allows adherents to obscure the horrid nature of their beliefs.”
Spencer, like provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart News (Steve Bannon, former Breitbart chairman and the Trump Administration’s chief strategist, has reportedly called Breitbart, “a platform for the alt-right“), represents a new generation of white nationalists and white nationalist sympathizers commonly referred to as the alternative right (more popularly, “alt-right”). The alt-right, seemingly invigorated by the nomination and subsequent election of Donald Trump to the presidency, have been apparently gaining ground in both popularity and numbers.
Though Yiannopoulos may reject the white nationalist label, he is frequently cited espousing adulation for certain alt-right ideas and cavalierly refers to the racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric of the alt-right as merely deliberately offensive ways to poke fun at social norms. Notably, Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter in July after his followers launched an onslaught of racist attacks on “Ghostbusters” actor Leslie Jones.
This clever rebranding of white supremacist ideals as “alt-right” allows adherents to obscure the horrid nature of their beliefs, promulgate their ideas with minimal public scrutiny, and rise in prominence through “think tanks,” online publications, forums like 4chan, and the promotion of spokespersons like Richard Spencer.
To ignore the influence that these new Neo-Nazi “leaders” of the alt-right can have on young, impressionable minds—particularly minds that have not been exposed to superior ideologies—is irresponsible and naïve. There are untold numbers of individuals who have the potential to do exactly what Dylann Roof did—namely, take vitriolic rhetoric about the inferiority of other races to its violent, logical conclusion.
Unchallenged fringe ideas do become mainstream, often with devastating consequences
Embedded within the idea that white supremacists are fringe elements who should simply be ignored is an implicit assumption that, 1.) The constituency of white nationalists, including their presence online, is so inconsequentially minute that to oppose them would be an effort in futility, and 2.) that fringe elements and ideas in a society cannot become mainstream. But this notion is utterly refuted by the plethora of contemporary and historical evidence to the contrary.
Marxism for instance—which is the ideological foundation for both Socialism and Communism—was once a “fringe idea,” until the rise of the Soviet Union, the world’s first Marxist State, in the early 20th Century. The swift ascendancy of the Soviet Union was followed by the rapid rise of Communist and Socialist regimes across Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia. Once a fringe idea, Marxism eventually spread as far east as Africa, and as far west as Cuba.
Though most Communist regimes have subsequently fallen from power—largely due to the devastating effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and increasing popularity of inherently superior systems of government that protect and promote economic and individual freedoms—the inaugural purveyors of Marxist ideologies have left us with an incredibly stubborn legacy. This is evidenced by the numerous countries, including China, North Korea, and Laos, that still have Communist governments.
This lasting legacy of Communism is particularly incredible considering the fact that Communism is perhaps responsible for more deaths (approximately 100 million) and gross human rights violations than any other singular modern political ideology.
Socialism and Communism continue to be romanticized in the U.S. by the media, intelligentsia, and even presidential candidates—and to great effect: socialism is increasingly popular among Millennials.
“Ideas—yes, even really bad ones—last well after after they have been discredited (or become socially taboo), as new adherents ignore historical facts and evidence that run contrary to their worldview.”
Relatedly, Nazism was a fringe ideology before it was popularized by Adolf Hitler. Until Hitler took leadership of the Nazi Party (National Socialist German Workers Party), Nazis remained quite politically insignificant in Germany. This is corroborated by the fact that the Nazi party garnered only 3% of the popular vote in the election of May 4th, 1924. However, riding the wave of public grievance following the Great Depression, the Nazis garnered 43.9% of the popular vote under Hitler’s leadership by the election of 1933.
Hitler’s swift and dramatic rise should serve as an important caution: whenever charismatic demagoguery, an aggrieved populace, and bigoted ideologies meet, there is significant cause for concern.
Extraordinarily, even after Nazism took a devastating blow following the Second World War, Neo-Nazism seeks to revive certain tenets of this depraved ideology. The primary lesson to be learned here is that bad ideas die hard, as successive generations ignore historical and contemporary evidence, and find new appeals in these old ideas. To argue that incredibly bad ideas simply die on their own, especially if they go unopposed, and that these ideas have no potential to rise from relative obscurity to national (or even international) preeminence, is to argue in contravention of the historical record.
The insistence by some that white supremacist ideologies need not be challenged is particularly strange considering that one need look no further than recent U.S. history to see the abominable effects of allowing white supremacist ideas to fester and permeate society. It may be difficult for some to imagine history repeating itself in such dramatic ways, but as pointed out earlier, ideas—yes, even really bad ones—last well after after they have been discredited (or become socially taboo), as new adherents seek to revive these ideologies, ignoring historical facts and evidence that run contrary to their worldview.
We must challenge white supremacist views at every opportunity
If we are serious about maintaining a free society, it is imperative that we actively challenge white nationalist and white supremacist ideas wherever they may rear their ugly heads, especially online where audience reach is likely to be significant.
As such, there are a few specific things we must be willing to do.
First, social pressure must be applied to adherents to white nationalist and white supremacist ideologies. This means that we all have a duty to openly denounce, rather than simply ignore, white supremacist ideas wherever we may encounter them, and to implore our elected officials to do the same, which includes swiftly and forcefully disavowing the support and contributions of white supremacist groups and personalities. Conservatives must resist the urge to forge political alliances with the alt-right simply because they oppose liberals, and advocate for lower taxes and limited government.
Additionally, regardless of political affiliation, we should all encourage the media to not give credence to white nationalist ideologies or leaders. As Stephen Perkins has observed, the alt-right is misguidedly treated like a trendy fad in many media circles, almost as if there is something “cool” about bigotry. Appallingly, defense of this kind of media coverage of white supremacists is often done under the pretense of protecting the constitutional right to “freedom of speech” of these groups. But this line of argumentation is deeply flawed.
“The fact that white supremacists have a legal right to voice their beliefs is neither sufficient nor appropriate justification for allowing those beliefs to gain increased social acceptance.”
There’s a tendency among many freedom of speech advocates to insinuate that all speech is equally meritorious; that because we (thankfully) live in a Constitutional Republic, we must tolerate all speech. But this interpretation of the freedom of speech principle is a gross abuse of what was actually intended by the Framers when they put the freedom of speech clause in The First Amendment of the Constitution. Freedom of speech under the Constitution means that the government has no right to limit speech, particularly speech that is critical of that government. To make the argument that, because we have freedom of speech under the Constitution and because we rightly value freedom of expression as a society, we therefore should not only ignore hate speech in the social square, but we should promote it and allow it to proliferate and flourish as legitimately deserving speech, is to make an argument that applies an intellectually truncated framework to the concept of free speech.
The notion that we should have some sort of duty as a society to appreciate all speech merely because it is speech protected by the Constitution is a non sequitur and a common misapplication of this fundamental principle. The fact that white supremacists have a legal right to voice their beliefs is neither sufficient nor appropriate justification for allowing those beliefs to gain increased social acceptance.
Second, the argument must continually be made, using historical, scientific, and sociological evidence, that there is absolutely no empirical basis for white supremacy or white nationalism. It is an ideology built on lies and dubious theories, and these mendacities must be exposed at every opportunity.
As author and scholar Dr. Thomas Sowell has persuasively pointed out in his book Wealth, Poverty and Politics, different races of peoples have risen ahead, and lagged behind in different places, at different times over the course of millennia for a variety of socio-cultural-geopolitical reasons. When examining the entirety of the historical record, it is clear that neither backwardness nor progress has been the exclusive hallmark of any particular race. No single race can be credited for all of society’s achievements, as no single race can be blamed for all of its failures. There is simply no virtue in elevating white identity as a feature to be “protected,” and there is absolutely no evidence to support the theory that the white race—or any race for that matter—is superior to other races. This case must be insistently made in both scholarly and laymen’s terms, from a variety of perspectives across academic and political spectrums.
“The belief that one is superior to another because of the color of one’s skin is a belief steeped in moral depravity.”
Finally, the alternative and intellectually superior case must be untiringly made that all men were created with equal worth; that discrepancies and differences among races that seemingly reflect inherent genetic inferiority can be explained by the interactions among a variety of social, political, cultural, and geographic factors; and that the belief that one is superior to another because of the color of one’s skin is a belief steeped in moral depravity. The notion that white supremacists must be vociferously challenged, not apathetically ignored, is one upon which we all should agree.