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The New White Nationalism: Its Causes, Its Effects, and Ways of Dealing With It

January 29, 2003 // 11:00pm

Carol M. Swain, professor of political science and law, Vanderbilt University, and author, The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration; commentator Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics, University of Maryland, and author, White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community

Carol Swain began the session by reading an op ed column written by a former civil rights worker who had become a new white nationalist. She epitomized him as typical of the new white nationalists: well-educated, relatively affluent, and versed in the language of multiculturalism. The new nationalists, Swain reported, are dangerous because they do not speak of racial hatred or violence; instead, they rely on social science data and governmental statistics about, e.g., crime and illegitimacy rates and health problems, to "prove" what they insist is the inferiority of racial and ethnic minorities.

The new white nationalists are dangerous as well because they find a willing audience among mainstream white Americans who are reacting to a new set of conditions. The conditions include changing demographics, and the recognition that the country will soon no longer be majority white; globalization, and the resultant loss of jobs in the United States; racial preferences that now encompass more of the population than in the past; the language of multiculturalism; identity politics; concerns about black crime; technological advances such as the Internet, which make it easier for like-minded people to reach each other; and liberal immigration policies, which Swain believes make it harder for African Americans and other Americans with low levels of skills to find employment. The combination of these factors, she asserted, has resulted in fear and desperation on the part of good, ordinary white people, which could result in unprecedented levels of racial turmoil and conflict.

"Racial preferences cannot be sustained in a nation as diverse as ours," Swain declared, calling affirmative action and the privileging of people on the basis of race a major factor in the popularity of the new white nationalism. Once race becomes the basis for the allocation of resources, it is easy for white nationalists to claim that whites, too, should be favored. Her prescriptions for minimizing the appeal of the new white nationalism include arranging more open forums, particularly on university campuses, so that racial issues can be discussed freely; listening to white nationalists and addressing some of the concerns they raise; substituting race-neutral social welfare programs for race-based affirmative action; budgeting more support for vocational education; giving all Americans access to community college; introducing a meaningful living wage, including a government subsidy for the working poor; and changing the priorities of the national black leadership. She argued that the leadership should abandon issues such as felony disenfranchisement and reparations and concentrate on, e.g., lowering the crime rate and teaching young black men how to comport themselves when stopped by the police.

Ronald Walters agreed in large part with Swain's analysis of the strength of the new white nationalists. Alienation, he said, has spawned a social movement. The union of social and economic conservatives has resulted in the social conservatives driving the coalition's public policy agenda. He is less concerned about who the new white nationalists are, however, and more troubled by the policy results of their popularity, which he views as resulting in their having taken over much of the governmental policy-making apparatus.

Walters disagreed strongly with the prescription for giving up an emphasis on group rights and focusing instead on individualism. White Americans, he argued, understand that political strength lies in the mobilization of cohesive groups. Material goods are not gained on an individual basis in the United States; rather, they are distributed on a group basis. Because institutions and resources are finite, decisions have to be made about who gets what; who, for example, is admitted to institutions of higher education. "The politics of the SAT have to be deconstructed," Walters declared, asserting that such tests are still culturally skewed. Racial minorities should be asked to give up special preferences only if that applies to whites as well; to, e.g., the children of alumni, athletes, and people from particular geographic regions. White men still dominate U.S. institutions, he noted; affirmative action remains necessary if we are to address this disparity.

Walters charged that Swain's proposals "bear a striking resemblance to the Contract With America" and that they serve to legitimize white nationalists' claims instead of marshalling the intellectual resources needed to defeat them. Black Americans don't have the power to curb crime and illegitimacy in their communities, he argued, in large part because they lack the resources for doing so. Minority communities continue to need restitution, which also serves the larger national interest. What is at stake, he declared, is not only racial peace but the definition of democracy. As the United States becomes more diverse, the country must decide how it will fashion its response to the demographic challenge in a way that will enable it to remain a just, democratic society.

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