The Necessity of Political Education: White Supremacy vs. White Nationalism


By Chioma Oruh

More than being another parent that has to explain to my children the events of Charlottesville and the ongoing political saga that has followed this tragedy, I am also a political scientist. And as such, I am trained to not simply observe a phenomenon, but to understand the ideas, or theory behind it.  Reading news stories and blog posts, I also watched commentary around the neo-Nazi and KKK dominant protestors that rose in the name of white nationalism after the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee. What fascinates me the most in all discourse about Charlottesville is the distinction being made between white supremacy and white nationalism in attempts to understand the so-called “alt-right.”

While the impact of these recent events is not new, they do inflame old wounds - adding to the pile up of trauma affecting the fragile social esteem of African Americans. Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome, as coined by Joy Degruy, is a theory that explains some of the behavioral issues such as low self-esteem as well as violence against self, property and others, and internalized racism that has their root cause in the unhealed trauma of slavery.  The idea that blacks are inferior to whites is justified through white supremacist ideology. Dr. DeGruy’s theory also articulates that continued trauma from institutionalized racism informed by white supremacy results in multigenerational poverty and lack of opportunity that reinforces PTSS.

The recent events in Charlottesville are sad and the inflammatory comments made by President Trump and several other right-wing leaders are disheartening, yet explanations of the President’s behaviors as erratic or inconsistent discredit the scientific process of how ideology influence politics. It is a worldview informed by history and dates back to the first arrivals of enslaved Africans at Jamestown (a two-hour drive from Charlottesville) and is being updated every second of every day.  Technology has allowed for more documentation and news coverage concerning issues like police brutality.  Since the killing of Trayvon Martin and many other similar cases have led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter, mainstream media outlets have been grappling with the concept of white supremacy and its relationship with white nationalism.

MSNBC recently aired a news segment entitled, “White Nationalist vs. White Supremacist: What is the Difference?” There was a consensus amongst the pundits there is little difference between the two concepts.  As a former lecturer at my alma mater Howard University, I would have students grapple with these terms in the course entitled Black Political Theory, a required course in the sub-field of Black Politics within the academic discipline of Political Science. Ron Walters, considered a pioneer scholar in Black Politics, made significant contributions in scholarship before his passing in 2010. An important reference on the subject is Dr. Walter’s book, White Nationalism, Black Interests (2003), in which he states,

Since the dawn of the republic, the agents of White Supremacy have been nationalists who have manipulated the way in which racism was expressed in society – the shape of it and the extent to which it has limited opportunities for Blacks and other people of color.  As such, the task of the management of White Supremacy by White Nationalists has been inculcated in the challenge of using power, both violently and nonviolently, to promote the interests of Whites and their domination of Blacks and others.  Indeed, it would be illogical to assume that a powerful phenomenon such as White racism has only a social or cultural impact and does not have political manifestation.

Yet the phenomenon of elite White Nationalism has been excused as episodic and uncommon.  It has been largely ignored as a distinct fact of occurrence.  Journalists, social analysts, politicians, and other opinion leaders have focused on the discrete manifestations of the racism of working-class White Nationalist fringe groups rather than the ideology that produced them.  For example, these opinion leaders have dealt with the rise of skinheads, the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation, the emergence of militias, police brutality captured on videotape and the burning of Black churches. They treat these as separate incidents, unconnected to a social climate that has nurtured a formidable political force.  And where they have admitted that this has been a period of considerable ‘discontent,’ they have not gone onto characterize the nature of that political discontent as having taken on a form that is so virulent it has the capacity to capsize the very institution of democracy itself.

The acceptable civic form of the White Nationalist political ideology within American politics has been Conservatism…(p. 22)

I hope my former students are somewhere remembering the semesters we spent grappling with these ideas. Many of them are now educators and administrators in school systems across the country and I also hope they have found the academic space to introduce these ideas to their own students.  Nonetheless, I share some of these concepts in small, digestible doses with my own children, hoping it sticks in their young seven and four-year old minds. Like all black mothers, I share these ideas with them, hoping to increase their awareness and mortality. In my case, not only are they black and male, they are also disabled: a dangerous combination in the face of oppressive forces that purport the state apparatus (i.e. police) as the avenue to express white nationalism.

The Guardian recently published a poignant article entitled, “Police Killings: the Price of Being Disabled and Black in America” and in the grander scope of the idea of the institutionalized marginalization that are the instrument of what Dr. Walters refers to as “elite White Nationalism,” there are many lessons to teach not to just our children or even only black people. It is critical at this time to really engage in a universal program of political education for the survival of all of us.