The Rise of "White Power": An Interview with Historian Kathleen Belew

This condensed interview was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

Kathleen Belew is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and an international authority on the white-power movement. Drawing on an expansive collection of archives, Belew wrote the field-defining book,

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (2018). She developed research methods for tracking a network of anti-government extremists from a collection of disparate sources and a narrative practice that exemplifies an ethical approach to writing histories of violence. Since the publication of Bring the War Home, Belew has made public appearances on Fresh Air, Weekend Edition, and CBS, and has written for the New York Times. The book has received rave reviews in The Nation and the Los Angeles Review of Books and was named a 2018 Best Book of the Year by the Guardian.

Belew is an award-winning teacher who centers her courses on the broad themes of race, gender, violence, identity, and the meaning of war. Since the publication of her book, she has generously moved well beyond the classroom to share urgent historical lessons with public audiences. In her public writing and media appearances, Belew is shaping how the public understands the white-power movement. She simultaneously teaches the history she uncovered and helps journalists and the public interpret white-power terrorist acts today. In this interview, conducted last fall, Belew discusses the term white power and her research methods; she offers advice for future researchers; and shares some of the urgent lessons of history that we must heed for today. She is a pivotal and unwavering intellectual and public voice for our time.

Monica Muñoz Martinez: Would you tell me about the term white power in your book and why you intentionally chose to use the term white power? What does it encompass?

Kathleen Belew: I wrote a history of an ideologically diverse groundswell of people including Klansmen, neo-Nazis, white separatists, racial skinheads, and others who came together in the wake of the Vietnam War in a coherent social movement that in the book I argue we should think of and call the white-power movement. I think that that intervention has become even more critical in a moment where people are thinking about the meaning of the appearance of white nationalist rhetoric in our mainstream politics.

First of all, because it makes a distinction between the mainstream invocations of some of these tenets in American thought and the very extremist anti-government groups that I’m writing about. And, secondly, because I think that while the term white nationalism is correct from a political science perspective in defining some of the people I was writing about at the time, one of the implicit assumptions that I think especially mainstream readers might make is that that phrase signifies an overexertion of patriotism or an excess of nationalism. In other words, people think it means too much of supporting the country. This misunderstanding implies that the nation in white nationalism is supposed to be the United States. For the people I write about, the nation is the Aryan nation. It is an inherently anti-American project in that it’s trying to overthrow the federal government and create a united white polity that will then eventually eradicate people of color in the country and in the world. That’s not an overexertion of patriotism. That is a revolutionary challenge to the United States itself.

Martinez: You do incredible archival work, and I’m always captivated by what you do to show that this history, the activities of the white-power groups, were being documented and followed by journalists. Could you talk a little bit about what some of those journalists did to shine a light on the violence and the recruitment and the terror that was taking place? And also tell us a little bit about how we’ve come to forget this history?

Belew: Absolutely. One of the interesting things that came out of the archives is that I entered this field where there hasn’t been a lot of historical writing. Most of the scholarly work has been in very time-limited studies, so that much of the best work about white power has been ethnographies, where of course you get a very deep view, but it’s of one group over the course of a few years instead of a broad picture of how activists match rhetoric and action over decades, which is what I’m trying to do in Bring the War Home.

One of the things that I anticipated going into the project was that most of this activity would be underground, and, in fact, what I found is that all of the major events that I talk about in the book were reported at the time. They were on the front pages of major newspapers; there was footage of Klan paramilitary training camps on morning-news magazine shows; one major event, the Greensboro Massacre, even became the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch. So, this stuff was out there in the zeitgeist. And there were a few journalists—people who wrote for The Oregonian, the Houston Chronicle, and the Christian Science Monitor—who did an incredible amount of work, really doing the beginning part of this project at the time it was happening, which, as a historian, I find amazing and inspiring, because we rely so heavily on the archive for perspective. To be able to do it in real time is an amazing feat.

So, what I found is that a lot of people had a piece of the story, but that the big connective apparatus is what the archive and its perspective can give us. Even a journalist working in depth on this topic, on a beat over a decade in one region, still would have the story of Houston and the surrounding area, for example—rather than Houston, which is connected to Idaho, which is connected to Arkansas, you know what I mean? For that, you really need the archive of what the people are doing, what the people are saying, kind of an archival map of subjects, so you can tell who has social relationships with whom. And then all of the surveillance documents that show how the government was keeping tabs on people add another level of who was where at what time. All that together is how you get to see how this works as a social movement, which, for me, was really one of the surprises of the story.

Martinez: Tell me a little bit more about the sources that allowed you to build this connective tissue. Belew: So, I used three repositories of white-power ephemera, located at Brown University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Oregon. Those included everything from informally to formally published white-power periodicals to correspondence between people, to some of the materials from computer message boards, to posters and drawings and bumper stickers and the many random pieces of paper that are generated by a social movement.

The interesting thing is that the archivist at Kansas sent around a questionnaire that said something like, “Can you fill this out about what you believe, and just send me whatever materials you have lying around?” And he got boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff. At Brown, two people went into the groups, pretended to be members of the groups, and collected things that were handed out at meetings. At Oregon, it’s the repository of a journalist who was going around and asking individuals who were important in the movement what they had saved and collecting as much of it as they would part with, or let her photocopy.

Significantly, all three of those places have basically the same stuff. Which gave me a sense of coverage, of what kinds of things are being written and at what volume, and which things were important across regions.

So, that’s the white-power archive. Then I did a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests for FBI, Department of Justice, US Marshals Service, and ATF files, which are, of course, their own imperfect sources for a lot of different reasons. I worked in some trial transcripts looking at testimony, which is one of the only places we see women actually speaking for themselves (women’s periodicals being the other). I also did a little bit of transnational work to pin down how much of the mercenary soldier story was fictive and how much was actual people going places, which is always a blurry kind of a line.

Martinez: So what could have been done differently? There were journalists discovering this activity, and the government was tracking it. What prevented it from being faced? Confronted? Halted?

Belew: That’s a great question, because I think it’s a really tricky answer, and I think, for me, the ethics of this project have always been rooted in that question. And to the extent that this phenomenon has become resurgent in the present in a way that I sort of anticipated, it’s become very urgent to me. I think the utility in the book, in a lot of ways, is how can history teach us how we can learn from the past.

So, I think the answer is that at different moments different problems contributed to public misunderstanding of this movement. I should say from the beginning, I don’t think it’s the case of a whole bunch of complicit and bad people paving the way for racist violence committed by extremists. I think that this is a movement that uses activism that is very sophisticated and opportunistic in finding ways to circumvent existing structures of punishment and in using existing mainstream public opinion to create loopholes for itself.

This movement has also benefited from entrenched and systemic white supremacy in all kinds of different institutions.

For instance, in Greensboro, North Carolina, neo-Nazis and Klan gunmen came together to shoot leftists protestors and killed five people. It’s caught on video from several different angles and you can see who is shooting, but they were acquitted in the state trial and the federal trial. A later civil trial returned only one of the deaths as wrongful, and it was for the one demonstrator who was not a card-carrying communist.

So, what’s happening there is a combination of using public opinion, which, at that time, painted the leftists as kind of dangerous outsiders and the Klansmen as patriotic good old boys who were just taking it too far, and things like preemptory challenges, which allow the dismissal of jurors without cause and enable the seating of an all-white jury. Preemptory challenges, which were so biased that they were overturned in North Carolina very shortly after the Greensboro trial (not because of Greensboro), are just one example of limitations on the capacity of courts to deal with racist violence. Lastly, in the federal trial the jury instructions stated that in order to prove that these gunmen were conspiring to deny the leftists their civil rights by killing them and keeping them from exercising their right to protest and free association it had to be for reasons of race.

So, because the gunman said that this was anti-communist violence, not racial violence, and because the rhetorical connections between those two things, which were intimately tied together in white-power ideology, were not made explicit, there was a lack of jury instruction to understand what this was and how one might then confront it. The jurors had no opportunity to really reckon with this event, because the system framed it so narrowly.

And you see similarities in how people in the military faced the problem of what to do about white-power violence by active duty personnel in the 1980s and the ’90s. It takes them a very long time after stolen military weapons start going to white-power groups in the early ’80s to ban white-power activity among active duty personnel. And it’s an issue that is still largely unmonitored and unrecorded, so it’s something that we have a very, very amorphous understanding of even into the present.

That’s partly because the meaning of this movement was not made clear. This movement declared race war in 1983; it declared war on the federal government. I think reasonable people can agree that if you are at war with the federal government, you cannot also be fulfilling an oath that says you’re going to protect the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic, because you are yourself an enemy. But because that is not made clear, and because it is so splintered, and trying to occlude its own nature as a social movement, it’s able to circumvent a clear response from the military. And so those kinds of things happen over and over again. We have a history of all of these opportunities where we might have rendered a more decisive end to this movement.

Martinez: So, could you distill some of the lessons that you picked up that people who are trying to wrap their heads around white power and the way that white nationalism is being thrown into public conversation can pay attention to? Belew: One thing that is widely misreported and really important to understand is how long this movement has been using the internet. A lot of people still think of white power and affiliated activism starting on the internet after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. And certainly that’s when the main website, Stormfront, gets going. But these activists were using early computer message boards in 1984, on a network called Liberty Net. And that was not sort of a casual “I’m going to post on my olden-time keyboard message board” kind of situation. This was the movement stealing millions of dollars in Northern California, traveling through the country to distribute the money to groups in all regions, getting those groups to buy Apple minicomputers, and then sending an activist around to train them how to use these message boards in 1984. And the message boards included not only assassination lists and ideological content; they also included things like personal ads and religious information.

So, effectively this movement has been using social network activism online since way before Facebook. They are pioneers of these strategies that have proven incredibly effective at radicalizing people and bringing about social change in all kinds of different registers around the world. So when we’re thinking about the effect of the internet on this movement, we have to be mindful that they are incredibly good at this. They are generations in.

Another thing is just the broad idea that when we’re thinking about the impact of warfare on American society, every surge in vigilante violence in American society has correlated with the aftermath of warfare. And that’s not anything so simple as veterans coming home and doing violence. It’s not so cut-and-dry as a story like Rambo, because when we look at the statistics, the effect seems to be something more like it’s dispersed across genders and across age groups. So all of American society becomes more violent after warfare. We now are in this time of unending war and prolonged return and continual deployments and redeployments, stop-loss and other strategies that prolong that period of aftermath that is entirely new in American society, but we should assume that there will be repercussions on the home front for the violence of warfare abroad.

One last thing I would say is just that in the resurgence that we find ourselves in now—and I will say too that, as a historian, I don’t have the archive to speak with depth and authority about the current moment—is that the archive suggests that we have a very low body count so far. If we think about Charlottesville and the Tree of Life shootings in Pittsburgh, we are still at a very low body count. This movement has thought about acts of mass violence like the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, including 19 very young children, as not the end point of activism, but as events that are meant to awaken people to further guerilla violence and race war. So when we think about rising and waning violence, we have to think about these cyclical patterns that, in the past, have ticked up to further violence. I think the archive shows very clearly that we should expect further violence in the present.

About the Author

Monica Muñoz Martinez is Stanley J. Bernstein Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, and author of the award-winning book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (2018). She is cofounder of the nonprofit organization Refusing to Forget, which calls for a public reckoning with racial violence in Texas. Martinez helped develop an award-winning exhibit on racial terror in the early 20th century for the Bullock Texas State History Museum and worked to secure four state historical markers along the US-Mexico border.