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A new billboard from the KKK is raising eyebrows on the Internet.
The Ku Klux Klan is currently sponsoring a Harrison, Ark., billboard that sends the following message: “It’s not racist to love your people. www.WhitePrideRadio.com.” The message is featured next to an adorable photo of a kitten and a puppy. On the White Pride Radio website, the group further clarifies their mission: “A lot of people recognize that there is an ongoing program of genocide against white people. There are websites, newsletters, videos, and radio shows, but too many talk about family without including the family. It has always been our mission to not just promote the white family, but to make them a part of this cause of white Christian revival.”
Oddly enough, this isn’t the first time that a Harrison billboard has gone viral. Following similar signs in Alabama and Eugene, Ore., a message went up that read: “Anti-racism is code for anti-white.” If that doesn’t clear it up for you, let’s put it bluntly: White pride is always racism, always. Here’s why.
1) Whiteness is an artificial sociological construct which has been used throughout history to exclude certain groups of people from the rights guaranteed others and to justify bigoted attitudes.
As Nell Irvin Painter explains in The History of White People, the notion of “white culture” is a myth. “Our culture was founded in 1789 right about the same moment that Blumenbach was inventing Caucasians—this moment of racialization,” she told Salon in an interview from 2010. “Some people say race is in our national DNA so that we just can’t get away from it. I don’t know if we ever will.”
While the institution of slavery made it difficult to keep accurate genealogical records for African-American families, the American slave trade sold into servitude West Africans from among the tribes of Sierra Leone, Senegambia, and the Gold Coast, as well as other areas along the coast. White Americans, however, are not a single ethnic group or a distinct number of ethnicities; they are an amalgamation of everyone who benefits from white privilege, and its boundaries are always shifting.
Before the Civil War, this distinction often made the difference between whether you were a full citizen or a slave with three-fifths congressional representation; afterward, as Edward J. Blum discussed in Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898, the paradigm of “whiteness” was used to forge a new sense of national unity for the American people as a way of healing sectional, regional, and class strife.
2) Throughout American history, many groups considered white today (e.g., Germans, Irish) were viewed as non-white.
In a similar vein, it’s important to note that the term “white” has not always meant the same thing. Although WASPs have always benefited from that term in this country, virtually every other European nationality has been considered lesser at some point, from Eastern Europeans (like Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians) and Southern Europeans (like Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards) to long-standing victims of Western persecution (like the Irish and the Jews).
During World War I, a particularly virulent strain of anti-German prejudice swept the nation. When Millard Fillmore sought a second term as president in 1856, he did so as the candidate of the Know Nothing Party which was based primarily in anti-Catholic (and specifically anti-Irish) prejudice, netting 22 percent of the popular vote in the process. Yet as time has gone on, even the Irish and the Jews have gradually been accepted as “white” by the majority of the American population. That is because the parameters of whiteness, being socially constructed, are malleable in accordance with the zeitgeist of a given time. They exist not to create culture, but to exclude certain ethnic groups and establish social boundaries.
3) It is sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan, which by virtue of its history is a racist organization with a white supremacist agenda.
It’s easy to forget that the KKK was once a politically powerful organization. During Reconstruction (the 12-year period immediately following the Civil War), the KKK was used by Southern whites to subjugate the recently emancipated black slaves and thus reestablish white supremacy for a century. For a long time they were viewed with a romantic tinge by many Americans, including D. W. Griffith in his landmark epic motion picture The Birth of a Nation when it was released in 1915.
At their peak, the KKK even held up the Democratic National Convention in 1924 to 103 ballots (making it the longest major party national convention in American history) in order to stop the party from nominating Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, who despite his strong record was despised because of his Irish Catholic background (the KKK succeeded in blocking Smith’s nomination that year but failed to do so again in 1928).
Finally, the KKK saw a surge in support during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with many Southern conservatives rallying behind the burning cross and white hood as a last stand against racial egalitarianism in their region.
4) In terms of where “white pride” is still alive and well, it is in the American prison community. The Aryan Brotherhood and other outright white supremacist gangs remain an ongoing menace in America.
While overt white supremacism has been relegated to the fringes of electoral politics, it remains a potent force in one realm of American life: namely, our prison community. Although the United States only contains 5 percent of the world population, it houses 25 percent of its prisoners, with nearly 1.6 million Americans living behind bars as of December 31, 2013, the largest prison community in the world.
Inside this nation within a nation, white supremacist gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood have killed law enforcement officials and used other tactics to gain control over large segments of the incarcerated population. What’s more, because of the massive racial disparity in who winds up going to prison, African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to be targeted by law enforcement and convicted of a given crime as whites; consequently, they make up a disproportionate percentage of the penal community. These white supremacist gangs are constantly warring with various black and Hispanic gangs, creating an environment in which the racial divisions that often simmer under the surface of ordinary American life become violent and sociologically defining realities. Within this context, the term “white pride” suddenly becomes very relevant and ominous.
5) The billboard is a symptom of white minority politics.
Unfortunately, the overt racial politicization that dominates prison society is already appearing in mainstream American politics. Coining this phenomenon “the birth of white minority politics,” former Republican political adviser John Avlon talked to hundreds of Tea Partiers and kept his thumb on the pulse of the radical right-wing surge that occurred immediately after Barack Obama’s election in 2008. “I think there is an anxiety underneath this that President Obama represents the rise of a multicultural elite and the rise of a non-white majority in America,” he observed, adding that “if you talk to many of these protestors in the field, one of the dates that keeps coming up is 2050, which is the date the U.S. census estimates that there will be a non-white majority in the United States.”
A survey by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, & Sexuality in 2010 also found that Tea Partiers were more likely to hold a wide variety of racially prejudiced opinions, while the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2013 officially reported an all-time high in the growth of white supremacist and/or militant right-wing activity following Obama’s election. A more recent academic study from the MacIver Institute also found that “the longer you are in the Tea Party, the more racist you become.” And in case the wealth of scholarly data isn’t enough to persuade you of an overlap between establishment right-wing politics and the white supremacy movement, the recent news about Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) ought to do the trick.
While it’s tempting to dismiss the KKK’s Arkansas billboard as an ugly anomaly, the long history of racism in America—combined with its more recent flare-ups—should send up red flags for citizens everywhere. Despite the initial assumption many held that Obama’s election signaled the rise of a post-racial America, we continue to labor under many of the false assumptions that defined our nation’s past, the idea that “white pride” is a legitimate cause being one of them.
Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.