Alt-What? Understanding the Rebranding of White Supremacy

Illustration: Desmond Meagley

Even after “Free Speech Week” at UC Berkeley was called off, far-right media personality Milos Yiannopoulos appeared on campus for a matter of minutes on Sunday. Security for his brief appearance cost the university $800,000. As terms like “free speech,” “alt-right,” and “white nationalist” are thrown around, we wanted to take look at terminology. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks the tactics and growth of hate groups, particularly on college campuses. We spoke to Lecia Brooks, outreach director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama.

Q: What is the alt-right and why is it so visible right now?

LB: The alt-right is just a rebranding, a new name for white supremacists. So when someone says “alt-right,” it’s a term that was that was created by this man named Richard Spencer. He also sometimes refers to himself as a white nationalist. “White nationalist” is also a term that is a rebranding of white supremacy.

So basically they’re white supremacists. They advocate for what they call a white ethnostate, which means white people in control of the government in the land.

Q: And why is branding important?

LB: Well, you know, probably the terms “white supremacist” or “Klan” or those kinds of things are in some people’s minds dated. Richard Spencer said that they need to present themselves as kind of intellectual and smart and they should dress nicely and be well spoken.

So this new term is also kind of catchy. It doesn’t reveal them as as white supremacists instantly. And it’s just a new way to to brand yourself. Businesses do that when sales are slow. So this is a way to bring in new people and, in particular, college students.

Q: For many people, this branch of white supremacists seems to have come from nowhere. Did they rise very quickly, or are they just much more visible right now?

LB: They’re much more visible right now, and they are growing, because of how hate is now kind of widespread across the Internet. [There are] online forums like the Daily Stormfront, where people can join in conversations and be fed a steady diet of racism and anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment.

There was a definite increase in hate group activity and hate group membership when Obama won the presidency. And this was the first time when people thought, “Oh my gosh, we’re losing power, white people are losing power.” So they [were] working underground during the Obama years, in waiting for someone like Trump, who speaks to their desire to put America first, which is a nationalist viewpoint that concentrates on the homeland, but it’s definitely also pro-white.

Q: What kind of tactics are they using to recruit?

LB: Well, over the summer, they’ve done a lot of flyering on college campuses. Groups, like Identity Europa just rose out of the ashes like a year ago. They were originally an online group that now has a physical presence.

They have essentially been papering and covering colleges and universities up and down California for the last year. They’re talking about this notion of white genocide and white folks need to stand up for themselves…especially on college campuses. “Lean into the notion of white privilege…We’re reclaiming what is what is ours.” Their rhetoric is pretty out there. They try to present themselves as conservative leaders, when they’re really just pushing white supremacy.

Q: Why do you think they’re targeting college campuses?

LB: They’re trying to get young white men to join their cause. They think that it’s an age where people are individuating and trying to figure things out.

Oftentimes, on college campuses, young white men don’t feel a part of the whole push by colleges and universities around diversity and inclusion. And they are a vulnerable population.

Q: How are women involved?

It’s interesting because it’s a very misogynistic, sexist enterprise. It’s amazing, women are involved, but their involvement hasn’t evolved much since the ‘50s.

But I should say that it’s an important support role, and they are always there. So white women in particular don’t get off the hook, because they do uphold white supremacy.

Q: But I’m kind of curious what kind of rhetoric they use. Would you mind trying to recruit me using their rhetoric?

LB: “Well, you know all these immigrants are just taking over the country. Look in California. You know you can barely see white people anymore. There’s no all-white neighborhoods. They’ve taken over the schools the schools are awful.

“Everything is dangerous, gang violence is everywhere, and they’re the cause of it. We see places closing down, businesses leaving…I don’t even recognize California anymore….We’re quickly becoming a minority and we’re being pushed aside. All I hear from from politicians in California is, ‘What about the Latinos?’ And you know they never say anything about me. No one cares about the white man anymore.”

Q: Wow. Not that many people can do that on command.

LB: As we saw in Charlottesville, since the Trump presidency, the far right has been emboldened. They’re just out and proud and in plain sight. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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