The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration—a somewhat mistitled, often uneven, but extremely provocative book—marks the arrival of a bold new voice in the American race relations debate. It belongs to Carol M. Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School and a black woman with a remarkable biography: elementary school dropout, divorced welfare mother of two, an individual who spent substantial time grinding away at difficult menial jobs before climbing the academic ladder.
Raised in what she describes as “an abusive and impoverished farm household of twelve children,” Swain managed to get herself into Virginia Western Community College and eventually rose through the doctoral program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, finally, Yale Law School. She is also a born-again Christian who was once absorbed in New Age spirituality. While such autobiographical snippets make up very little of this book, they indicate that its author is not someone who conforms to expectations and prevailing patterns of thought.
Swain devotes her early chapters to an ideological exposition of what she calls “the new white nationalists” in America before circling back to a broader discussion of affirmative action, the failures of contemporary black leadership, and general prospects for multiracial America. She thus uses the specter of white nationalism to motivate the sort of probing dialogue of race relations that President Clinton called for in the mid-1990s, before that discussion devolved into a tame and ideologically cramped exercise.
While Swain leaves no doubt that she views the prospect of a vigorous and influential white nationalist movement as a danger to the United States, she manages to write about various white racialists without the typical scare quotes and air of moral supeýiority. She notes, for example, that discussion of white nationalism in America has been framed by the so-called watchdog groups—the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League, Klanwatch, and other left-leaning organizations. For them, white nationalists are simply “hate groups” populated by violent, bigoted individuals who have little to contribute to rational political discourse.
Swain challenges this assumption, even as her research illuminates her subjects’ unpalatable qualities. Surely most nationalist movements are motivated in great part by reaction—as a response to a perceived cultural or political decline. New nationalisms arise as a countervailing force, against an occupier or in response to defeat or loss. White nationalism in America would thus be a reaction to relative white decline—demographic certainly, but political and cultural as well.
Swain (along with an Italian-American colleague, Russell Nieli) has conducted lengthy interviews, supplemented by extensive reading in a wide range of white nationalist sources. On one end of the spectrum, Jared Taylor and most of the contributors to his journal, American Renaissanceý make the most intellectually respectable case. For instance, one of Taylor’s contributors, physicist Michael Hart, makes it clear that he doesn’t want to rule over other races or be ruled by them; rather, he seeks a kind of independence from American multiculturalism. Taylor himself, a Yale graduate raised by missionary parents in Japan, whose writings have a certain (largely closeted) following in mainstream conservative circles, argues that if other American ethnic groups organize along racial lines to press their interests, it is both legitimate and inevitable that whites will do so as well.
Beyond the American Renaissance circle can be found groups like Christian Identity, which have developed a theology that holds Anglo-Saxons to be “Chosen People” and one of the Lost Tribes of Biblical Israel. There is clearly not much to seriously engage with here, but such groups persist, feeding off the defensive conviction that a war against whites has already begun in the United States.
Are such people likely to become politically important in the future? This is a difficult and important question that Swain never engages satisfactorily. After all, former Klansman David Duke reached an electoral high tide in Louisiana more than a decade ago, and has since become nearly invisible. Some white extremist groups have been bankrupted by lawsuits. And any political initiative that seeks to defend the civil rights of whites against affirmative action must avoid any hint of racial appeal. White racial arguments are in thorough disrepute.
Swain’s response is that the soil in which these groups grow remains extremely fertile. She points to the Internet as a viable and inexpensive mass communication tool, giving white nationalists a means of placing their arguments before more potential recruits than they have ever had before. She notes that the decline of secure jobs for the white working class—a result of globalization—could still provoke a political backlash, though it has yet to do so. And she stresses the persistence and even growth of racially based affirmative action. That, along with high rates of nonwhite immigration, feeds a sense of white dispossession and racial grievance.
Strangely, Swain does not address factors that have stymied white nationalism’s growth. For most Americans, “whiteness” is still a fairly artificial identity; people tend to be far more conscious of religious or ethnic background. All branches of Christianity practiced in the U.S. are extremely antithetical to the race-based assertiveness the white nationalists expound.
In one notable departure from conventions of writing about race, Swain credits white nationalists for forthrightly addressing the most important racial questions, the ones most mainstream discourse assiduously evades, ignores, or misrepresents. Among these are the rapid demographic changes fueled by immigration, affirmative action preferences to new immigrants, and disproportionate black criminality.
But even when white nationalists make relevant points, they are ultimately stymied by their refusal to recognize that they share important values and interests with the tens of millions of nonwhite Americans. Since virtually all Americans recognize some common ground with their fellow countrymen, a great deal would have to change for white nationalism to become a major force in our society.
While Swain believes white extremists are in a position to exploit any deterioration in American race relations, it is, she argues, misguided liberal policies that really inspire their growth. Several of her chapters are devoted to close analysis of key racial policies. They include scathing evaluations of affirmative action and the skewed priorities of American black leaders, as well as a prediction of explosive consequences of current immigration policies.
Swain reminds us that the affirmative action policies that mandate quotas, timetables, and diversity monitors were initially developed as a means to give immediate succor to the black poor in the aftermath of the civil rights revolution. They have now developed into anything but that. Instead, they are seen either as a means to impose diversity, now construed as an end it itself, or as a method to provide black and Hispanic students with role models.
Swain has no patience with any of these rationales. It strikes her as pathetically small minded to imagine that blacks need black role models to succeed: her own, she adds with some poignancy, were white male academics who prodded her to push herself intellectually. As it is, the current system undermines both the self-esteem and the education of its purported beneficiaries. Swain asks how the personal chemistry of college sports teams would fare if teams were required to have proportionate quotas of white and Asian athletes. And she relates a bitter truth from her own experience with black students on campus—many of whom pass through college believing that affirmative action guarantees their admission to top-quality professional schools regardless of their academic performance. Such a belief may be only partially true, but it has had devastating consequences for black academic performance.
When liberal immigration policies are thrown into the mix, the American racial system is threatened with overload. Swain estimates that by the middle of the present century well over half of Americans will be entitled to racial preferences. It seems most unlikely that such a development could take place without fierce resistance by white Americans.
Swain’s own recommendations are the epitome of common sense. Racial preferences for hiring and promotions should be eliminated. Affirmative action should be remodeled with an emphasis on class rather than racial background in order to benefit the poorest Americans. Racial preferences for new immigrants should be scrapped entirely. Immigration rates should be reduced, and the laws against hiring illegal aliens (who compete with and drive down the wages of the American working poor) should be enforced. The black leadership should be challenged: its current focus on divisive issues like reparations or its obsession with eliminating statues, street names, and other symbols of the Confederacy do nothing for the black poor and only drain the reservoir of racial good will. Social policy should be refocused on aiding the working poor through such measures as income subsidies and vocational training for high school dropouts.
Six or seven years ago, shortly after the Los Angeles riots and in the wake of the O. J. Simpson trial, racial tensions in the United States seemed ready to boil over. To the surprise of many they then began to improve—or at least to stabilize, to be superseded by graver problems. Yet it is as foolish to bet against Swain’s prediction of escalating racial turmoil in the American future as it is difficult to argue against her sensible proposals to head it off.
Scott McConnell is Executive Editor of the American Conservative, a biweekly that will begin publication this fall.