Transcript: Toward a Global History of White Supremacy
Good afternoon everybody. Today's Short Take, the latest in a series from the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at UCL, has been provided to us by Camilla Schofield, who is Senior Lecturer in the history of race and empire at the University of East Anglia. Camilla's known as a biographer and historian who produced a rich study of the life of Enoch Powell, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain, published by Cambridge University Press in 2013. This year, in conjunction with her fellow editors Daniel Geary and Jennifer Sutton, she's produced Global White Nationalism: From Apartheid to Trump; an important anthology of writing covering different historical examples and geographical regions that is a substantive contribution to the really urgent discussions about whiteness, conceptualised and analysed here within a more global frame than is customary. The book was published early this year by Manchester University Press, and we're really, really grateful to Camilla for offering us this Short Take on the project and the kind of political and scholarly intervention that it represents.
In this Short Take, I’d like to discuss a collection of scholarship I've spent the last few years developing with American historians Daniel Geary and Jennifer Sutton. entitled Global White Nationalism: From Apartheid to Trump. For this collection, we gathered together historians of Britain, the US and other former British colonies to consider the entangled histories of white supremacy in the English-speaking world since 1945. This project was at its heart necessarily collaborative - spanning as it does a vast geography - and I do want to stress at the beginning of this Short Take my gratitude to my co-editors and all our contributors for the powerful research and insight they brought to this project.
While our book offers only a partial history of modern white supremacy - other national traditions must surely be woven into any truly global history - the focus on the English-speaking world made sense to us. Much of the Anglosphere, as some conservative activists and scholars now call it, shares a history rooted in settler colonialism, plantation slavery and the ideology of Anglo-Saxonism. We offer in this book, then, a particular story of modern white supremacism - one that continues to cross borders and one that continues to be animated by a global vision and a call to defend whiteness on a global scale.
Before turning to our key findings, I want to note too that this book really began in the wake of 2016. While many observers noted the similarities of the rhetoric of Trumpism and the Leave campaign, and particularly the simultaneous presence of dehumanising rhetoric to describe migrants and refugees, we saw a failure to reckon with the shared historical roots of these political movements and their continued entanglements. Neither Trump’s emergence nor his impact can be understood fully by looking at the United States in isolation. Trump must be placed in a long line of Anglophone leaders who have claimed to speak for besieged whites, including Ian Smith, the leader of the white minoritarian regime of Rhodesia, and Enoch Powell. More immediately, the success of Brexit emboldened Trump’s nativist supporters to see themselves as part of a global movement that could achieve power in the United States. Trump’s victory in turn inspired the Christchurch killer, who praised the U.S. president as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” I hope that I am able to convince you in this Short Take that both the rise of ethno-nationalism in electoral politics and the presence of white supremacist violence throughout the English speaking world need to be understood as related developments in a longer history of exchange, and as connected parts of a dispersed, transnational political movement with deep historical roots.
Before going into the details of the history we uncovered, it’s worth highlighting what I think are the two major findings that came out of our collaborative work. The first is that the networks connecting white nationalist movements across the English-speaking world today are not a new phenomenon. They are not dependent on the rise of the internet. Transnational ties and flows of ideas, people and capital have long undergirded the pursuit of white supremacy. Because white nationalists are primarily concerned with the racial integrity of states, they have wrongly been assumed to be parochial in their politics, focused solely on domestic issues. But we found groups in the US, the UK, in Australia, supporting white supremacist campaigns outside their own nations throughout the post-war period and especially since the 1960s. We found the British nationalist Enoch Powell on a speaking tour in Mississippi and Louisiana in the early 1970s speaking to groups of Southern segregationists. We found the American Friends of Rhodesian Independence raising funds and lobbying for white minority rule in present-day Zimbabwe, in support of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. We found that Southern segregationists sought legitimacy through international ties. By looking at these global connections, and what they invested in these connections, we got a better sense of their racial view of the world.
And this takes me to what I see as our second major finding. We found that, though Trump and others draw from long political traditions of white supremacy, there is a specific form of white politics - a politicisation of whiteness - that emerged in reaction to calls for racial equality and black liberation. We found a modern form of political whiteness that is steeped in a language of panic about lost status and decline. This is a politics obsessed with an imagined existential threat of demographic change, equal citizenship and liberal internationalism. From around the 1960s onwards, white nationalists increasingly adopted a rhetoric of ethnic populism, presenting themselves as fighting for forgotten whites betrayed by globalist liberal elites. We can see this even in the name ‘white nationalism’ - a term that originated among white supremacists as a euphemism for white supremacy in order to create a false equivalency with black nationalism and frame white supremacy as an expression of the right to self-determination. This is why we use the term ‘white nationalism’ in our book - rather than the broader term of white supremacy - because we want to emphasise what we see as a specific political formation in the post-war years. White nationalists contend that national identity and belonging must be built around racial whiteness - rather than culture, language, or place - and that it is the whiteness of the nation’s past, present, and future that ensures its continued historical development and survival. In the wake of black liberation, national survival itself would be presented as under constant threat from “colonisation in reverse”. In other words, though the fundamental ideas of white nationalists are hardly new, they have taken on new formulations since the mid-20th century as a politics of reaction to the promise of racial equality and decolonisation.
I want to turn now to consider some of the historical roots of this story, in order to capture this global politics of reaction. Understanding the present requires locating and examining the histories of modern white nationalism in global terms: as a response to decolonisation, struggles for equal rights, mass migration and post-war international institutions. It is important to note that the shift of white nationalist politics from the centre to ostensibly the periphery is a relatively new phenomenon. At the British Empire’s zenith, its proponents claimed that the rule of law, free trade, and parliamentary sovereignty were natural virtues of the “English race.” At the turn of the 20th century, U.S. elites shared with British imperialists a discourse of English racial heritage termed Anglo-Saxonism that was used to justify the subjugation of Native Americans and African Americans, and the possession of the United States’ own overseas empire. According to Anglo-Saxonism, white, Protestant, English-speaking men naturally made modern nations. This racialised modernity is based on the presumption that only whites can govern, and that the empowerment of non-whites is therefore an existential threat to white self-government. Anglo-Saxonism’s cherished ideal of a white man’s country reserving self-government and economic opportunity to whites may no longer be as dominant as it was a century ago, but neither has it disappeared. Popular historian Niall Ferguson still maintains that British settler colonial culture brought “modernity” to the world. Today some Brexiteers look to trade within an “Anglosphere” to reanimate this historical political tradition and harness racialised notions of kith and kin in the English-speaking world. Indeed, nostalgia for a past period of glory in which white rule was unchallenged is a signature feature of today’s right-wing populists who seek to make their nations great again.
At the turn of the 20th century, English-speaking whites throughout the world drew a global colour line that marked out their own nations as white men’s countries. Their policies restricted immigration to “desirable” Europeans and limited non-whites’ right to vote to ensure whites’ ability to govern themselves. Though their aims were ethnonationalist, they developed ideas and policies in coordination with international networks. As historians Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds write: “The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identification but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, but nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty.”
In 1900, the ideal of the white man’s country was broadly shared among whites of all classes, even as it provoked tension between aggressive white settlers and cautious metropolitan elites. Nonetheless, the global colour line was increasingly challenged over the 20th century. The industrialised slaughter of World War I undermined notions of European civilisation’s superiority. After the war, the colonised demanded self-determination and a new generation of intellectuals discredited the precepts of scientific racism. World War II, which pitted the Allies against a fascist enemy, also did much to discredit notions of racial hierarchy and subordination. The most important developments accelerated after World War II, with the rise of national liberation movements and movements for racial equality in existing nations. It was, as British prime minister Harold Macmillan put it to Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, “the revolt of the yellows and blacks from the automatic leadership of the whites.”
Many liberal elites, over the course of the 20th century, evolved from a white nationalist perspective toward so-called “colour-blind” conceptions of their nations. Rejection of explicit white supremacy became one of the components of a new liberal internationalism, embodied in the United Nations. While the violence of Apartheid and Jim Crow continued unabated, in 1950 UNESCO released the first of its influential statements on race, drafted by an international team of prominent scholars and rejecting any notions of racial superiority. Many metropolitan elites also came to embrace decolonisation, and thereby contain it, envisioning it as a historical step forward into modernity. The need to maintain good relations with new nations and win their support in the Cold War put considerable pressure on the United States and Britain to dismantle domestic racial discrimination. As Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, one of the principal authors of the first UNESCO Statement on Race, put it in 1954, “The white man is scared down to his bowels, so it’s be-kind-to-Negroes decade at last.”
Those who adhered to explicit white supremacy experienced this new racial liberalism as a betrayal. Post-war white supremacy thus shifted towards a populist perspective, arrayed against white elites - the racial enemy within - as well as people of colour. As Western political and social elites professed a commitment to "colour-blind ideals", assumptions of white supremacy were challenged and reformulated. Again, white nationalists increasingly cast themselves as representatives of forgotten whites, betrayed by globalist elites. Black activists and intellectuals in both the civil rights and anticolonial nationalist movements saw themselves as fighting in a shared international struggle to dismantle white supremacy. There is a rich historical literature that has revealed the centrality of black internationalism at this time, at the grassroots and at the level of international institutions. In 1965, for instance, the Ghanaian jurist George Lamptey drove forward the campaign to introduce a UN convention against all forms of racial discrimination. Steeped in the language of human rights, this convention condemned colonialism and apartheid, affirmed equality before the law and required its signatories to criminalise hate speech and institute national procedures to combat racial discrimination. Though from its inception its drafters were most concerned with opposing apartheid, this convention helped propel the extension of civil rights laws globally. By the late 1960s, though various civil rights movements were unable to achieve the goal of full racial equality, they'd forced recognition of the formal legal equality of all citizens regardless of race.
White supremacy then was, in this sense, on the defensive. Yet ideas about whiteness and natural ability for self-government continued to shape understandings of global demography, anticolonial violence, and uneven economic development. Racial anxieties ran through analyses of population growth in the Global South, for instance. Anticolonial violence was routinely depoliticised and depicted as an expression of savagery, a rejection of civilisation. Whites continued to assert themselves as natural agents of modernity via, for instance, international development; their authority now increasingly drawn from an emphasis on technical expertise rather than any explicit white man’s burden. Tenets of the white man’s country were transmuted by technocracy to appear universal or ‘colour-blind’. In different countries, white nationalists adapted in similar ways to outlast the challenges against them: they persisted not simply by becoming far-right fringe minorities but also by developing coded electoral appeals within major political parties, such as the Democratic Party’s southern strategy in the United States. Everywhere, though, the array of forces against them led white nationalists to take up a defensive posture. In this new mode, white nationalists mobilised emotions of besiegement, resentment, loss, and nostalgia. The populist language of aggrievement white nationalists developed in retreat enabled them to capture broad appeal when new forms of political activism - on both left and right - challenged the legitimacy of the post-war order and the political establishment. The declining legitimacy of overtly racist political expression produced new international alliances and new populist claims among white supremacists. As they saw themselves losing power locally, they looked abroad for allies. Even as they shifted their focus from opposing civil rights and preserving white rule in settler colonies to Islamophobia and opposing non-white migration, they articulated a consistent mindset stressing the need to preserve the ethno-racial character of their nations.
In response to the efforts to challenge white racial privilege in the 1960s and ’70s, a reactionary discourse emerged that rejected any guilt complex over the long history of white supremacy and instead offered a counternarrative of white victimisation. Histories of lost causes were marshalled to this goal. As Paul Gilroy has examined, in Britain the loss of empire produced a “postcolonial melancholia” attached to the lost glories of the past - one detached from any sense of the real history of the empire. In Britain, as in Australia and the U.S. South, white nationalists turned away from acknowledging the atrocities of white supremacy. Instead, theirs is a history of heroism in defeat: the Lost Cause of the U.S. Confederacy, Australia’s Battle of Gallipoli in World War I, and Britain’s myth of self-reliance at the retreat of Dunkirk in World War II all serve as sites for what Gilroy calls “dreamworlds” where white male heroism can be retrieved. This sense of resentment framed around perceived loss gave additional resonance to a wider set of social and political tensions in the period of decolonisation and equal rights. The sexual revolution, student protests, and progressive legal reforms on marriage and abortion came to be viewed by many white nationalists as further examples of the destruction of national culture. Women’s liberation and the moral revolution of the late 20th century played into fears of a declining white population. White nationalisms throughout the Anglosphere are replete with anxious visions of lost white patriarchal authority. Opposition to gender equality has been and remains crucial to the making of modern white nationalism - as the defence of white women and white domesticity has long functioned as a focal point for white supremacy, colonial violence, and the dehumanisation of people of colour. Drawing from this long tradition, white nationalists present the white woman as the perennial potential victim, under constant threat from migrant rapists, Black male sexuality, and Sharia law.
From the civil rights era to the present, white nationalists found a home in right-wing political parties, where leaders appealed to race despite formally renouncing racism. White nationalism fits within the broader constellation of ideas advocated by the transnational right, whose critique of liberal internationalism also included asserting the place of social hierarchy, patriarchal families, and fundamentalist Christian values while attacking the legitimacy of the post-war social welfare state. Though white nationalism is nurtured most intensely by a small group of activists and intellectuals, the electoral right throughout the English-speaking world has consistently appealed to racial fears among whites about loss of status. The electoral right receives much of its dynamism from the far-right. Yet the existence of such far-right groups makes the electoral right more respectable by contrast, able to appeal to white nationalist sentiment while disavowing violent and explicit racism, and thereby enabling it to assemble a broader political coalition. This dialectic of extremism and respectability operates not simply within national boarders but in a transnational framework.
One of the key issues involved in understanding global white nationalism is whether it should be perceived as a marginal political movement or as part of the mainstream of contemporary political culture. Our book shows that white nationalism should be understood as both constitutive of our societies and as a specific political movement of the right whose fortunes are now resurgent. Given the deep ways in which notions of “white man’s countries” structured Britain, the United States, and British settler colonies just a century ago, it is hardly surprising that a foundation of white supremacy remains under the edifice of societies that have formally renounced racism. This is particularly true given the partial defeat of movements for racial equality as reflected in the continuation of vast systemic inequalities and institutional anti-black violence. We also believe that white nationalism needs to be understood as a specific political movement of the right, though one hardly limited to a handful of extremists. The successes of anti-racist movements in the 20th century were partial, but they were enough to spark a powerful reaction from those who wished that their nations were still white men’s countries. Combatting contemporary white nationalism requires truly grappling with the long history of white supremacy, but also recognising that white nationalism today is a specific historical formation which emerged in reaction to the global black freedom struggle.
To conclude, for many observers, Brexit and Trump made it seem as if an atavistic ideology was suddenly resurrected. But white nationalism has always been a presence in trans-Atlantic political culture. While rooted in the older ideal of the white man’s country associated with British settler colonialism, it has adapted to the challenges posed by decolonisation, civil rights, and liberal internationalism. Those seeking to explain white nationalism’s renewed political strength in our own time should ask why it has begun to have greater appeal. To the minority who explicitly identify with white nationalist ideas, their sense of victimisation and desire to return to an imagined past era of national glory has everything to do with the decline of white dominance. To many other white people, white nationalists’ rhetoric of betrayal, nostalgia, and denouncement of non-white immigrants and internationalist elites has increased appeal in a period of depressed wages and precarious employment. The lack until recently of a significant left-wing challenge to neoliberalism has made ethno-nationalism a disturbingly popular political form in which anti-establishment sentiment can be articulated. The adaptations that white nationalists made since 1945 have enabled it to broaden its appeal in our time. White nationalism is a worldly ideology. Its future may be uncertain, but its resilience should never again be underestimated.