For decades, the white power movement in the US has gained steady momentum Kathleen Belew is an expert in the history of the white power movement and its current impact on American society and politics. Her book “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary Americaexplores how the aftermath of the Vietnam War led to the birth of the white power movement.
In March 2023, Belew spoke at the Imagine Solutions Conference in Naples, Florida, about how the “lone wolf” actor’s story distracts from the broader threat of the white power movement in America. The Conversation asked Belew about her work. Her edited answers are below.
What is the white power movement?
The white power movement is a set of activists who are remarkably diverse in every way except race. Since the late 1970s, it has gathered people of a wide variety of belief systems, including Klansmen, neo-Nazis, white separatists, proponents of white supremacist religious theologies, and from the late 1980s racist skinheads and members of the militia movement. These activists represent a wide selection of class positions. The movement has long included men, women and children; criminals and religious leaders; early school leavers and holders of higher degrees; civilians and veterans and military on active duty. They have lived in all regions of the country, including suburbs, cities, and rural areas.
How has the legacy of American warfare fueled white power groups?
After every major American war, the historical record shows a surge in membership and activity among extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. In every example these groups also adopt elements of military activity, such as uniforms, weapons and the latest military tactics. But this does not mean that these peaks consist entirely of veterans. All measures of force increase after warfare, including acts of women, children and the elderly. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan have been able to do that use this post-war opportunity for their own purposes: recruitment and radicalization.
When and why did the white power movement emerge in the US?
The white power movement came together late 1970s around a shared story of the Vietnam War. In this story, the war is an example of government failure, the government’s betrayal of the American people, and the state’s betrayal of American men.
Disillusioned veterans and civilians mobilized around several others social grievances, such as dissatisfaction with changes caused by feminism, the Human rights organization and other moves at home, as well as frustrations with economic changes such as the agricultural crisis and the general transition to financialization in the 1970s, which made it more difficult for the working class to find and keep a job.
This dissatisfaction allowed the white power movement to recruit in two different ways: narrative power—the narrative used to hold these activists together; and contextual strength – the social grievances common to many of them.
What role do women play in the white supremacist movement?
People often see the white power and militia movements as men’s movements. It is true that the most media reports feature a lot of men; that’s because those who take part in public demonstrations and those who are arrested for underground activities are mostly men. But this is a move that has trusted extraordinarily harsh manners on women.
Women have ordered to normalize and legitimizing violence, orchestrating recruitment and nurturing the relationships that allow this movement to function as a social network. Take for example the World Congress of the Aryan Nations, a 1983 rally in which the white power movement declared war on the United States. This meeting featured speeches by men and ideological activities, a cross burning and a swastika burning. But there was also matchmaking and a big spaghetti dinner, socially linking activists to facilitate the organization of violence. Women were indispensable for organizing this kind of activity and for maintaining strong relations between groups.
Where Do American Veterans Fit In?
Veterans are specifically targeted for recruitment into white power groups because they and active duty members have a range of experiences and expertise that these groups are in high demand for. Veterans have tactical trainingammunition expertise and weapons training that the white power movement wants because it is trying to wage war against the US government – in fact, this movement has targeted recruitment specifically aimed at veterans and active duty troops.
Although very few veterans returning from war join white power groups, the groups still have one huge percentage of people who are veterans or active duty – or falsely claiming to be. This is because these military roles are in high demand among these groups – and their chain of command within the movement reflects military organization.
How can the US address its lack of care for veterans?
The white power movement is an example of a wider societal failure to support veterans and consider the costs of warfare. This move can opportunistically mobilize dissatisfied people in the aftermath of the war because our society lacks robust social structures to reintegrate people after warfare and to have a real public debate about the price of war.
For the fall of Kabul in Afghanistan, my students at Northwestern and the University of Chicago had been at war all their lives. These are kids who don’t remember 9/11. And yet that war has not even figured prominently in the list of the top five or ten crises facing our nation. In the recent past, war has not been at the center of our political conversation. We don’t count on the huge impact the people who serve in our armed forces stand for the nation.
In all these ways, the global war on terror has continued the cycle creating a recruitment opportunity for extremist groups. We’re in the middle of one right now huge tidal wave of white power and militant right-wing activities, both underground and in public actions.
What are you doing right now that people might not be aware of?
My next project takes the white power movement to investigate gun violence in America, specifically the Shoot Columbine – which happened when I was in high school, not far from where I was in high school – as a fulcrum between the 20th century and the 21st. Before Columbine, there were mass shootings in schools and elsewhere. But Columbine really marks the moment when mass shootings became normalized. I think the event signals major cracks in the social fabric and reflects other massive changes in how society thinks about place, politics and violence – not just in Colorado, but the nation as a whole.