I just finished reading Damon T. Berry’s Blood & Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism, (Syracuse University Press, 2017). Central to his argument is the idea that white nationalism isn’t framed internally (at least not always) as about hating non-whites but as about “protecting” whiteness. It’s why we see things like “It’s Okay to be White” posters on campuses and warnings about “white genocide.” While no one ever make the argument that it’s not okay to be white or really thinks that the world’s white population will be systematically exterminated, these are appeals to white resentment about losing power–and they are threats to nonwhite people on campuses. Berry eloquently argues that it is “loving attachment to the imagined racial community” that produces racial hatred (14).
Above, the cover of Blood and Faith shows a roof with a cross on it.
As Berry points out, though, none of this is new. In writing about the early 20th century, he observes,
“To many Americans of that era, it seemed like the world was not working for them, the nation was imperiled by elites, a code for Jews, and that there was no future in hoping that any established institutions could set right what was wrong.”
Sound familiar? This seems to be much of the explanation offered for the 2016 election. Economic reality was not keeping pace with the expectation of entitled whites. Anti-semitism was rising. Republican incompetence and overt efforts to undermine government as a force for the common good were paying off.
By the middle of the 20th century, white nationalists were not just “recovering and recoding old-time racism” as a political strategy for the Republican Party but attempting to
“fix what they regarded as conservatives’ failure to keep central the ideals of race that had previously guided immigrant policies, upheld segregation, and maintained white control of central private and public institutions” (77).
The italics there are mine. Berry is referencing our 1920s immigrant policies, in force through the mid-60s, that placed quotas on immigration based on nation of origin. The goal wasn’t to bring to America the immigrants who most needed to flee or the ones who had the skills to enhance America’s economic or cultural interests but the ones who were white. Mid-century whites were angry that political conservatives weren’t taking up the racist policies of the past. Many of the people Berry profiles wrote for outlets like National Review or were part of the John Birch Society but ultimately didn’t feel that these icons of conservatism were properly anti-Semitic or racist.
The logic of white supremacy is the logic Trump that uses now. There is nothing about a Norwegian (who Trump wants more of) that makes them useful to the US. Indeed, it is immigrants from the places Trump most despises who do so much of the hard work here: farm work, meat packing, sanitation work in hospitals, hotel cleaning, elder care and child care. By Norwegian, Trump just means white. He wants white immigrants.
Trump is not alone in his thinking. Coolidge signed the Johnson-Reed Act that gave us Asian exclusion and quotas for European immigrants. And it stood as law for 40 years over 6 presidents. Berry writes:
“The ideas that defined American white nationalism in the years after World War II were not born in the subterranean currents of the extreme right in the middle and late twentieth century but in the mainstream colonialist logic that began to take shape five hundred years earlier” (74).
In other words, this is a much longer history. But, at the same time, we cannot ignore that this is a strategy of today’s white nationalists.