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A Brief History of the White Nationalist Movement

A Talk by Leonard Zeskind

Leonard Zeskind is a founder of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights ( For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. He has written for The American Prospect, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named him a Fellow in 1998 (one of its so-called “Genius Grants”). The Petra Foundation gave him a fellowship in 1992. He is a lifetime member of the NAACP and has served on the board of directors of the Petra Foundation and the Kansas City Jewish Community Relations Bureau. (This description is taken from the IREHR website.)

The following is a transcription of a recent presentation by Leonard Zeskind on the history of the white nationalist movement in the U.S. It has been lightly edited for publication.

My name is Leonard Zeskind and I’m very glad, very glad to be here with you today. This is that tome I wrote (holding up his book). It took me a long time. 700 pages. I went to a lot of Klan rallies, I’ll tell you. Too many for a Jewish boy. And I brought some extras. I also brought a book by Kansas City reporter Judy Thomas and Jim Reisner, New York Times reporter, Wrath of Angels (editor: subtitled “The American Abortion War"). It’s a book about the doctor killers.

I’ve done a lot of writing. I’m not a university graduate. I’m an old iron worker. I was a welder. I worked at a Chevy plant in Leeds (Kansas City) for two years. I’ve been on the ground for the factories, I’ve been through more than my fair share of strikes, so I know this thing from both sides.

First, I would like to tell you a story. It’s from a book entitled, Race and Manifest Destiny. And if you haven’t read this book, read it. It’s a very good book. In 1846, the U.S. Congress started a debate about whether to go to war with Mexico. The reps that voted “no” said they were afraid of all the mixed-race mestizos that success in the war would bring into the USA. We’ve heard this one before. The “yes” vote said, ‘Not to worry’, they would put all the mestizos on reservations where they would die, like the Native Indians. Now, the moral of this story is that both sides of this debate were racists or white supremacists. History has a way of playing with both sides, however.

Today, 27 percent of all married Latinos are inter-married. Thirty-nine percent of Latinos born in the U.S. are inter-married, primarily to Anglo whites, according to the Pew Center. And today, as the murderous shooting in El Paso tells us, the war for that territory has not ended. I wanted to tell you that because I wanted to make sure you all understand, and I understand that you understand -- this is a white supremacist society and it has been from the beginning.

So, how does the white supremacist movement go? In short, the United States was founded on a white supremacist, genocidal foundation. And, unfortunately, many of the effects of that founding continue and are alive and well today. Plus, and this is a big and important thing, we continue to reproduce racism and bigotry generation after generation.

Black unemployment levels have always been twice that of whites. White wealth differentials are even wider. I’m not telling you anything new here. Housing and education remain segregated and disparate, and some studies say that is worse than when the fair housing laws were passed. Police racism and brutality continues unabated. And the incarceration rates are brutally disparate. Who here does not remember the differences in the way – well, you might not remember because you are too young – does not remember the differences in the way that the courts were treating cocaine use among Black people and white people? You’ve heard of that one. The list goes on and on and it must be remedied.

I want to mention Black land loss, in particular. You might remember it was Black farmers who often posted bail for the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s. I remember that. And they should have a special place in our heart. But if you ask the people here today in the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, they will tell you the white farmers got it bad, but Black farmers got it worse. I worked with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. I’ve been to the training center in Epson and drank that moonshine. And they will tell you, white farmers got it bad, but the Black farmers got it worse. In the 1980s, Black farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discrimination against them and they won a $1.2 billion settlement. That’s how bad it was. But it’s all still in contention, that lawsuit. These Black farmers are very close, as are white farmers actually, are very close to being completely dispossessed.

Now, contrary to real facts, white nationalists believe that it is white people who are being dispossessed. In 1972, a man calling himself Wilmot Robertson – I got his real name, it’s in my book – published a 550-page scholarly book entitled, The Dispossessed Majority. It was sold and discussed by every Klan and National Socialist – National Socialist means Nazi – and Citizen’s Council group. It went through more than four re-printings – I’ve got a fourth reprinting and I’ve seen copies with ten and twelve. And it became one of the central texts of the white supremacists’ movement in the 1970s and ’80s, when the movement was first forming the base it would hand down to future whiteists.

In the 1990s, these whiteists began looking at changing demographics. The Census department started talking about a time when white people will become a minority in the nation, a minority. The whiteists drew their own conclusions. They do not want to get along. And they do not believe they can hang on to their white privilege through majority politics anymore. You got it? Unfortunately, this white firm belief in white dispossession has spread – and this is the important point – has spread from the white nationalist movement to a larger population. In a poll from the August 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 55 percent of non-Hispanic whites, more than half, told pollsters that discrimination against their group, meaning white people, existed today. As compared, of course, to 92 percent of African Americans who more accurately believe that they were being discriminated against. 61 percent of those white people believed there was individual discrimination they experienced rather than government policy -- could be they know the government is in their favor. So, they thought black- and brown-skinned people were discriminating against them. Philosophers used to call this false consciousness. Right? The white supremacist movement of the 1970s and the white nationalist movement of the 1990s have been built on this false issue of white dispossession.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of BS and misinformation on this topic of this white nationalist movement. I read the articles that come out today and I get gas. This is a movement. It is an ideological movement with ideas at its center – not the emotions of hate. It is not a bunch of crazy people, as Trump, above all, will tell you. This is a multi-organization movement with multiple tendencies. The leadership is mostly, but not entirely, middle class and professionals. Doctors, lawyers, PhDs, people with one or more university degrees. The membership is cross-class. And, like most white Americans, working class. And it is everywhere: North, South, East, and West. They are fighting it out on their home streets everywhere. Membership is concentrated but no discernible pattern. You got it?

White nationalists – I’m going to define it for you. White nationalists want to carve up the United States so that they get a whites-only territory to create a whites-only nation state. They are not interested in turning African Americans into slaves, they just want to kill all the Jews, and black and brown and yellow and red people they can, and white people who don’t agree with them. They want their own nation-state, so they want to turn over everything. They are very different than the Klan and Citizens Councils of the ’50s and ’60s. So, when you hear it’s all stayed the same, no, it changes. And, actually, I quote that Greek philosopher all the time, Heraclitus, “You can’t step twice in the same stream.” Everything’s changing. It’ll be different by the time you get out of this room.

They are very different than the Klan and Citizens Councils of the ’50s and ’60s. The Klan at that time was predicated on the defense of Jim Crow segregation. Let me repeat that. As violent as they were, and they were bloody, they were defending the status quo and after the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, however big or small that you think they were, the white supremacists were to overturn the status quo. Big difference between defending the status quo and overturning it. One is defense, conservative and one is revolutionary. They are revolutionaries. You think you want to change, well, they want to change too.

Whatever you happen to think, they believe that the cause of white supremacy has lost the battles of the 1960s. Whatever you think.

When the whiteists ask themselves how they lost the battles, they hit a quandary. They were white and, they thought, inherently more intelligent and superior to Black people. So, they thought they should have won. That’s when they came up with the Jews. They told themselves that the Jews actually told Black folks what to do. And the Jews were conniving, sly, and devilish creatures. So, they believed that they lost because they were fighting the Jews, not Black folks. That is the definition of a white nationalist.

Today they use the Internet, pretty much the same way progressive organizations do. And you hear all this baloney about the Internet this and the Internet that -- just the same as we do. It is wrong to describe them as more based on the Internet. This phenomenon was not born when Trump became president, and it certainly will not die when Trump leaves the presidency. You’ve got to understand that this is a fight that’s got to go on. Please.

As long as I’ve been doing it – I want to quit but there’s no quitting for me – as I wrote in the preface to my book, white nationalists are preparing for 2042 when white people will officially become a minority in a nation of minorities. I believe that your children and grandchildren will be fighting the fight. And the objective conditions of that battle will depend on what we do today. If you let it slide, it will get much worse for your children and grandchildren. Please, remember that. If you let it slide, if you focus on every other issue, and don’t tackle this, it’s going to be worse for your kids.

Today, I want you to consider first the anti-immigrant fever that has so many Americans. It has to be stopped. So far, white nationalism hasn’t been stopped. White nationalism has campaigned from the margins steadily against immigrants in the post-civil rights battle areas.

In 1977, before a lot of you were born, David Duke and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan campaigned against immigrants in California and initiated the first border watch by armed racists. Put armed racists on the border. In the early 1980s -- and you might have seen these fliers in the farm movement in the ’80s, that’s where I got mine -- in the early 1980s, the Aryan Nations issued a three-colored flier exaggerating the influx of immigrants with big bold red arrows. Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance took up the anti-immigrant call and a group of his skinhead followers beat an Ethiopian immigrant to death on the streets of Portland in 1988. I’d say there was an anti-immigrant movement.

In 1992 and 1996, columnist Pat Buchanan ran in the Republican presidential primary on an anti-immigrant platform of America First, sort of like Trump. He won three million votes in the Republican primaries back then - the beginning of the mainstream phenomenon. His 2001 book, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization. You heard that word “invasions”? That El Paso shooter did not invent that word. He got it from the movement that produced him -- and I hear lots of talk about how he’s a crazy person and this and that. He was produced by the white nationalist movement and don’t you ever forget that. So, he (Buchanan) built these themes into his campaign. His book is still being read by white supremacists of every stripe.

During these same years, anti-immigrant politicians led by (Representative) Tom Tancredo from Colorado epitomized the overlap between respectable Republicans and white supremacists. There used to be a thing called respectable Republicans (the older ones remember that).

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and other anti-immigrant organizations formed in years prior took center stage in those years. And the Minuteman border vigilantes, white supremacists amongst them, led the nativist fever to a boiling point.

During the first years of the Obama administration, hard-core white nationalists were befuddled over the loss of a large portion of the white vote and unable to develop any new initiatives. I know the Southern Poverty Law Center tells you (different things) but then they took it back. There was no surge of white nationalism when Obama became president because they didn’t know what the hell happened. That gave room for the Tea Party movement and my organization worked pretty hard on the Tea Party movement. And I’m a life member of the NAACP and I will tell you, I’m glad that the NAACP took up the issue because we changed Black attitudes on it. They are the only folks that actually took it up against the Tea Party. Everybody else gave it a slide.

The Tea Parties were a nationalist movement to regain the status they believed white people had lost. Remember, “I want my country back.” And they decided that brown-skinned immigrants would soon cement white people’s status as a minority in a nation of minorities. By 2012, it became the largest anti-immigrant force in the country, outstripping the Federation for American Immigration Reform and all the anti-immigrant lobbies. We wrote a report on it; you can get it from our web site. It’s called “Beyond FAIR” and you want to read the numbers, it’s startling.

While the Tea Party shared the white nationalist sense of white dispossession, it focused on building a base in the Republican party, not on marching in the street. And obviously it succeeded.

According to a report by my institute, the Tea Party built a movement so that by 2015 they had 556,500 hard-core members. More than ten times the number of white supremacists. The seven core organizations of the movement had, we took a count, 7,327,000 sympathizers – these are people that read their literature. And polling data, that’s much worse. Polling data showed that 18 percent of the American public sympathized with the Tea Party. That’s enough to get a president elected, isn’t it? It was the Tea Party movement that adopted the white supremacist nationalism and sense of white dispossession.

Immigration had dropped to a forty-year low by 2016, but Donald Trump campaigned for president in 2016, and he catered directly to this audience. The anti-immigrant fever created Trump – not the other way around. I hope you understand that. Getting rid of Trump is not going to get rid of this.

Now, before Trump’s government shutdown last December – how many remember that?-- 41 percent of Americans told pollsters that they wanted a wall built on the southern border. During the shutdown that number dropped to 31 percent. They told pollsters they still wanted a wall, even if it meant shutting down the government. 31 percent, that’s a huge phenomenon. Now, I believe that understanding that 31 percent is key to understanding what is happening now and key to doing everything you want to do because there are people besides the government and rich people who are in your way.

Now, I want to talk a little about the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil war. It is one of the Freedom Amendments (the Reconstruction Amendments). The 13th amendment freed the slaves. The 14th amendment guaranteed equality before the law. And the 15th amendment gives voting rights to all men. That soon went away.

The 14th amendment said that anyone born in the United States is automatically a full-scale citizen with first class rights, unless they were born to foreign diplomats. Well, for the last six congressional sessions, a white supremacist congressman from Iowa, Stephen King, has introduced legislation to end birthright citizenship and it has not been fully considered. The number of Republicans supporting it has gone up and down. This year, King introduced the bill on January 3 and twenty-eight representatives were co-sponsors. These people are after the 14th amendment. If you break the 14th amendment there is no longer a United States of America. That’s my theory of the case.

Now, we know that bigoted policy proposals targeting immigrants can and do happen at all levels of government. And in Missouri, a senate committee conducted a hearing on a senate joint resolution that would require law enforcement to verify the immigrant status of individuals if they found, quote, “reasonable suspicion to exist that such persons were in the country illegally.” Pure and simple. That’s called racial profiling.

Now I’m going to do one last bit. When you develop a response to white nationalists, you don’t do the same thing for every group. But you’ve got to know who’s out there and what you’ve got to do to stop them. And the main thing you want to do is educate other people, including white and black. We all need to get in this.

Now, I want to discuss some of the major organizational formations in the white nationalist universe. The Klan exists, as the folks in the Springfield area will tell you, but it’s one of the smaller pieces of this puzzle. The neo-Nazis, those with National Socialist ideology, and carry swastika flags, they exist. But they are small also. Probably the largest whiteist group at the time President Obama was inaugurated, was called the Council of Conservative Citizens. This organization was headquartered in St. Louis and it is the lineal descendant of the old White Citizens Councils of the ’60s. And they had an impact in the St. Louis area. They were big. They were big in Mississippi, Florida -- I could go on. Today, these Councils have shrunk a bit as their old leadership has died off and they have started working with the so-called American Freedom Party out on the West coast, under the rubric of Nationalist Solutions.

The League of the South, which used to be a quiet organization of Southern secessionists, university professors, they got activist on us, have also joined this framework and they are growing. The League of the South is growing. So did David Duke stay in this thing – you’ve heard of him. And Don Black who runs the Stormfront website was one of their speakers also. Now Don Black’s website, Stormfront was one of the first ones formed in 1994. It has members. People who pay regular dues to him to keep it going. How many do you think there are? 343,876 members. Give me a break. The Nationalist Solutions is one of the main frameworks that I pay attention to.

Another older framework that I pay attention, but not that old, is American Renaissance, a think tank formed in 1994. It has tried to carve out the only spot in the white nationalist which world is not publicly anti-Semitic. It has a monthly newsletter and has a yearly conference and has drawn some of the smartest white nationalists to its speaker group from the USA, Great Britain, and France.

One of the newer formations, and we have them here in the area, is called the American Identity Movement. They were formed in 2016 before Trump became president. It professes a form of white identity politics in this movement. It focuses on recruiting young people. That is, young white people either in the universities or having university degrees. That’s who they want to recruit, and they are growing fast. I know they are in the state of Kansas and I believe they will soon be in the state of Missouri.

And then the final organization I want to talk about is called the Proud Boys. They are out-front chauvinist about Western civilization. And I just want to stop here and quote Merle Hansen, a farmer from central Nebraska who used to say, “Western civilization? Wouldn’t that be a good idea?”

They are misogynist. They don’t want women as equals. The group was founded in 2000 and has grown rapidly. Today they have 86 local groups in 40 states. That is 15 chapters in Canada and four in Australia. My organization, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, will release a full report on them soon. We did a study on their Facebook pages, there’s about 1,200 of them. There are 3,000 members or more. In the beginning, we did a study and we found what they are doing, and the largest group is service and sales workers. These are the people that will fight the fight in the streets.

This is about it for now.

Published in In Motion Magazine - September 12, 2019.