In tweets following the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, former President Barack Obama quoted words from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
The sentiment has resonated with millions of Americans and garnered some of the most “likes” in the history of Twitter. It also offered a stark contrast to the reaction of President Trump.
Yet while a moving sentiment, Mr. Obama’s comments, if taken literally, represent an incorrect interpretation of today’s racial challenges and the nature of the so-called alt-right. The statements imply an outdated theory of racism. Among many anti-racists, there has long been a naïve hope that racism is handed down from one generation to the next. If that cycle is broken, this view goes, then racial harmony can finally prevail.
Although scholarly literature provides some evidence for this argument, the alt-right shows that it does not tell nearly the entire story.
In my experience with the alt-right, I encountered a surprisingly common narrative: Alt-right supporters did not, for the most part, come from overtly racist families. Alt-right media platforms have actually been pushing this meme aggressively in recent months. Far from defending the ideas and institutions they inherited, the alt-right—which is overwhelmingly a movement of white millennials—forcefully condemns their parents’ generation. They do so because they do not believe their parents are racist enough.
In an inverse of the left-wing protest movements of the 1960s, the youthful alt-right bitterly lambast the “boomers” for their lack of explicit ethnocentrism, their rejection of patriarchy, and their failure to maintain America’s old demographic characteristics and racial hierarchy. In the alt-right’s vision, even older conservatives are useless “cucks” who focus on tax policies and forcefully deny that they are driven by racial animus.
Despite some growth over the last few years, the alt-right itself remains a small, mostly anonymous, and marginal movement. So when considering the attitudes of young people, it may be helpful to consider a much broader category: Trump supporters. How did the youngest white Americans respond to the most racially polarizing election in recent memory? It looks like they favored the man who campaigned on the promise of a border wall.
According to a large 2016 study conducted by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, whites in high school favored Trump over Clinton by a staggering margin—larger even than Trump’s margin among adult white voters. Among this sample, 48 percent preferred Trump, 11 percent preferred Clinton, and the rest would not vote or choose another candidate.
One study is not definitive, and the political identities of Generation Z are still forming, but the rising generation of whites shows signs of being more right-wing than the millennials. It raises the possibility that a significant number of them will come to embrace open racism.
The notion that youthful rebellion necessarily leads young people to the left is an additional blind spot in mainstream thinking. To begin with, it is ahistorical. In the early 20th century we saw multiple transgressive movements on the right. Furthermore, as radical leftists of the baby boom generation assumed important positions in politics, academia, and the media, it should not have been shocking to see millennials with a contrarian streak respond by taking embracing right-wing radicalism. Not all such young people, of course, but enough to make waves.
Another misconception about racism is that education is a panacea. Overall, higher education does apparently lead to lower levels of racial hostility. Yet again, the alt-right complicates this picture. The typical alt-right supporter does not lack education. The movement’s skillful use of the internet alone suggests otherwise. In interviews with people in the alt-right —including the movement’s leading voices and anonymous Twitter trolls—I found at least some degree of college education was a common denominator.
To complicate matters further, many people in the alt-right were radicalized while in college. Not only that, but the efforts to inoculate the next generation of America’s social and economic leaders against racism were, in some cases, a catalyst for racist radicalization. Although academic seminars that explain the reality of white privilege may reduce feelings of prejudice among most young whites exposed to them, they have the opposite effect on other young whites. At this point we do not know what percentage of white college students react in such a way, but the number is high enough to warrant additional study.
A final problem with contemporary discussions about racism is that they often remain rooted in outdated stereotypes. Our popular culture tends to define the racist as a toothless illiterate Klansman in rural Appalachia, or a bitter, angry urban skinhead reacting to limited social prospects. Thus, when a white nationalist movement arises that exhibits neither of these characteristics, people are taken by surprise.
These stereotypes may serve a useful purpose, as they reinforce the idea that racism is a socially undesirable attribute. But they also leave Americans baffled when they encounter racists that do not fit these descriptions, and the response is often flat-footed.
In recent years, the alt-right was almost exclusively an online phenomenon. Charlottesville showed that the alt-right wants to move into the real world. Despite crowing from the alt-right that their rally was a success, the end result probably did their movement more harm than good. This does not mean the movement is down for the count. The alt-right has proven itself alarmingly adaptable, and it will learn from its failures and soldier on.
By all means, as we mourn the dead, there is nothing wrong with hopeful words. Nor should we overestimate the size and influence of the alt-right. But the challenges embodied by the violence in Charlottesville are not going to be resolved on their own. Moving forward, a clear-eyed vision of the racial landscape in America is now more important than ever.
George Hawley (@georgehawleyUA) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, White Voters in 21st Century America, and Making Sense of the Alt-Right (forthcoming).