The Secret Cohesion of White Supremacists

Our failure to understand white power as a broader social movement has prevented us from combating it.

A British skinhead, Ammon Bundy, the leader of an anti-government militia, a member of the Aryan Nations and Ku Klux Klan members from Chicago and northern Illinois.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jerome Pollos/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Underwood & Underwood/U.S. Library of Congress, and Victoria Johnson Photography/Wikipedia.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979, neo-Nazis and Klansmen attacked an anti-racist rally convened by Communists, who were in town to support striking textile workers. The Nazis and Klan members killed five people in 88 seconds of gunfire. The ensuing trials of the white supremacists by all-white juries “didn’t return justice,” Kathleen Belew told me. “People said things like, ‘I always thought it was less of a crime to kill a Communist,’ ” Belew said.

The Greensboro massacre is one story Belew tells in her fascinating new book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, a history of the white-power and militia movements of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Belew connects seemingly disparate events like the killings at Greensboro, the persecution of Vietnamese fishers in Texas in the early 1980s, and the siege at Ruby Ridge. She shows how hatred of the federal government, fears of communism, and racism all combined in white-power ideology and explains why our responses to the movement have long been woefully inadequate.

Belew spoke to Slate about the lasting impact of Vietnam on white supremacists, the secret cohesiveness of the white-power movement, and the many ways women in the movement acted as social glue, connecting factions and groups. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: I had not thought that preoccupation with Vietnam—Vietnam angst?—might have a direct connection with racism. How widespread is that connection?

Kathleen Belew: Well, let me say this first. I’m not trying to argue that the experience of war necessarily drove people to the white-power movement, especially because the people I’m talking about represent such a small percentage of returning veterans. And it’s not a statistically significant number in that direction. But the thing that kept emerging for me out of the archive was how much white-power activists who did serve talk about that experience as being formative, both personally and for their white-power worldview.

The narrative that the white-power movement tells about the war is very similar to what you see in a lot of memoirs, in most movies, and in the betrayal narrative of the war that rises across American society in the 1980s. So I think the difference is that this is a place where you can see it crystallized. Where in many instances there’s sort of a subtext about defending whiteness, it’s overt [in these cases]. And it’s a place where you can sort of see how racism and anti-communism and anti-statism come together in that feeling of betrayal that really works for recruiting.

I can hear from your explanation that it’s sort of difficult to frame this project in a way that doesn’t accuse Vietnam veterans of being racist.

Exactly! Also, frankly, I don’t have the source space to even get into the causes of people’s racism. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t have psychological records. I don’t have enough confessional materials from these people to pinpoint exact causal force in that way. What I’m looking at is how do people describe their own activism, and how do we take seriously what they say their motivations are.

The book is making an argument, but it’s also a collection of stories. How did you choose your characters?

One of my central characters is Louis Beam, who returns from the Vietnam War in 1968, founds his own paramilitary training camp, and the book ends up following him as a central actor partly because his biography is so accessible and his writings are so prolific that I can actually follow what he’s doing from site to site. But partly because he’s so involved in the movement for his entire life. It’s really from 1968 up to the time I conclude my study in 1995, and he continues his activism well into the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Beam founded his own paramilitary camp to train Klansmen and a group of white fishermen in the early 1980s, in order to carry out a campaign of harassment against Vietnamese refugees. And then when a court injunction stopped that activity, he moved to Idaho part time to be involved with Aryan Nations. And in Idaho he formulated a strategy called leaderless resistance, which we might recognize today as cell-style terrorism, or terrorism without direct orders from a central leadership but instead actions connected in common cause. So he pioneers this theory, then travels around the country setting up white-power groups on early computer message boards.

That fascinated me.

It was sort of a proto-internet called Liberty Net. And it takes the FBI a few years to crack the code, and in that time, these guys are using this infrastructure to coordinate with one another, to connect with one another and cement their social ties, and in order to circulate hit lists and other plans for action.

So Beam is involved through all of that, then appears again in the early 1990s as a public figure, responding to the siege at Ruby Ridge and the Oklahoma City bombing.

One of the revelations of the book for me was the connection you made between the 1980s and the 1990s. Without having thought about it too much, I construed the ’80s white-power movement and the ’90s militias as separate. And you’re arguing that they’re connected.

There are a lot of misconceptions about this, and I think our failure to understand white power as a social movement more broadly is what has prevented a coherent public response or decisive victory against this kind of a movement. So one of the problems in the scholarship is what I would term overcategorization. People really want to make sense of violence and hate by sorting it into neat groups. So a lot of the scholarship has divided the skinheads from the Klansmen from the Aryan Nations from the militias.

And there are differences between those ideologies. There are different symbols. There are finer points of doctrine. There are different cultures. But the thing that emerges from the archive is that this is a movement with flexible ideologies and a ton of interpersonal circulation. So it’s very likely that somebody who’s in the movement in the 1980s would circulate between Klan meetings, neo-Nazi meetings, early militia activity. And once you have an archive that shows the actions of these figures rather than just what they say they are doing at a given point, it’s clear to trace the connections one to another.

So what you see is that in funds, in the movement of weapons, and in the people involved, there is a direct link between white power in the 1980s and the militia movement in the 1990s.

The other part of that has to do with a sort of popular idea that militias are somehow less racist than the white-power movement. And this is a misconception that persists into the present day, I think. The clearest way to understand it is that the militia is an outgrowth of the white-power movement. So, it’s not a one-to-one historical transition, it’s that the people who are in white power in the 1980s have moved into militias in the 1990s. As have the weapons and the money.

How are you, as the historian, making these connections?

Actually, the movement has a huge archival footprint. I’m looking at previously classified government documents, from the FBI, ATF, and U.S. Marshals. I’m looking at newspaper reporting from all of the places that white-power violence is reported at the time that it happened in the United States, Mexico, and Central America. Then I’m looking at this huge groundswell of production of white-power printed materials. Newspapers, zines, newsletters. There are women’s publications, men’s publications, things produced by prisoners … and it really is a huge amount of material.

So when you were doing the actual work of reading this stuff, were you keeping lists of people? Or did you have a giant pinboard with a bunch of strings tied together?

I have often thought that a pinboard would have been appropriate! I didn’t. I had a note-taking system. I did track interpersonal connections. That actually led me to one of the breakthroughs of this study, which is the extent to which alliances between these groups were held together by marriages and other social relationships that depended on women. And one of the things I tried to trace was the way marriages connected people across ideologies and across geographies, so you can see how this movement worked as a national and transnational force.

Was your sense that the people you were looking at wanted to be known, archived, and written about, or not?

This is tricky and varies person to person. On the one hand, a lot of white-power activists were attempting publicity stunts during the period of my study. So people like David Duke ran for office and were very open about their beliefs. On the other hand, there were a lot of people in the movement who would never have classified themselves as leaders. So almost uniformly the women who were playing major roles in the movement say that they’re not leaders of the movement, even when they are doing work that is absolutely essential to the movement’s success. So it really varies a lot, how people want to be depicted.

And one change point is the strategy of leaderless resistance in 1983, which sort of changes the way that we think about leadership and recruitment. So to have a cell working without leaders, without direct orders from leadership, you no longer need to have a big mass Klan rally. You need a small group of two to six people who are wholly committed to the cause, so it’s a different kind of recruitment. Declining numbers don’t necessarily mean declining violence, given that the strategy actually relies on fewer people but people who are much more committed to the cause.

So then you get, in the contemporary scene, someone like Dylann Roof.

He’s a very good example of how this kind of radicalization works and how you don’t have to be in real-life contact with a whole bunch of other activists in order to do substantial politically motivated damage as part of this movement.

Your study stops in 1995. To what degree can we use this history in trying to understand what’s going on today?

The history of the white-power movement can reframe how we think of activists like this. Thinking of people as people with an ideology, even if it’s something we don’t agree with, changes the way that we think about opposition. It discredits the idea of lone wolf operatives or single incidents with mad gunmen and calls on us to try to understand people’s own stated motivation, and to find the connections when they exist between different actions and between different groups.

People often have a narrative of the 20th century that things were somewhat bad at the beginning. With my undergraduates, people are very comfortable with the idea that we began the 20th century with lots of sexism, racism, poverty, and other big social problems. Child labor, no limits on work, things like that. Then when they get into the late 20th century, people start to expect that some of this will be resolved. We see this in the left with the exaltation of the 1960s. We see it in the right with conversations about color blindness. People think that a lot of this got solved. The white-power movement shows the many ways that violent racism held on as a sustained element in American political life.