The Violent Story Of American Whiteness

Above image: David Hoskins.

Three writers dive into the depths of white supremacy in America, from alt-right dating sites to the neo-Nazi movement to protect Confederate monuments.

The United States of America is a white suprema­cist nation. It always has been. Its white founders, ven­er­at­ed and lion­ized though they are in text­books and on cour­t­house lawns, explic­it­ly intend­ed the coun­try to be this way. The country’s found­ing doc­u­ments make that goal clear. Through the cen­turies, the pre­dom­i­nant­ly white rul­ing class has worked over­time to uphold this sta­tus quo, even as the goal­posts peri­od­i­cal­ly shift. A trio of new books delve into this rot­ten heart of Amer­i­can white­ness and explore how its bloody foot­prints smudged the nation’s past and con­tin­ue to influ­ence its uncer­tain future. Con­nor Towne O’Neill’s Down Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reck­on­ing with Mon­u­ments, Mem­o­ry, and the Lega­cy of White Suprema­cy, Talia Lavin’s Cul­ture War­lords: My Jour­ney into the Dark Web of White Suprema­cy, and Sey­ward Darby’s Sis­ters in Hate: Amer­i­can Women on the Front Lines of White Nation­al­ism take slight­ly dif­fer­ent approach­es but ulti­mate­ly reveal how deeply white suprema­cy is entrenched in this coun­try. These writ­ers — a white man, a Jew­ish woman and a white woman — dig deep into the white suprema­cist cul­ture wars, from 4chan’s neo-Nazi cesspools to the insid­i­ous trad­wives move­ment to the bat­tle-scarred heart of Dix­ie. Their find­ings are all too timely. 

In jour­nal­ist Con­nor Towne O’Neill’s book, Down Along with That Devil’s Bones, the Civ­il War-era ghosts of dead racists (and the lost South­ern cause) take cen­ter stage in this deeply report­ed, occa­sion­al­ly per­son­al, odyssey. O’Neill’s inter­est was sparked on March 7, 2015 — the anniver­sary of the Bloody Sun­day march across the Edmund Pet­tus Bridge in Sel­ma, Ala. — when he stum­bled upon a group of locals work­ing to replace a stat­ue of Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­al Nathan Bed­ford For­rest. The stat­ue had been stolen three years pri­or. For­rest, a for­mer slave trad­er, is known as the Butch­er of Fort Pil­low for over­see­ing the mas­sacre of more than 100 Black sol­diers who had sur­ren­dered dur­ing the Civ­il War. After the fall of the Con­fed­er­a­cy, For­rest became the first Grand Wiz­ard of the Ku Klux Klan. He is one of history’s most con­temptible fig­ures, yet O’Neill soon dis­cov­ered, in some quar­ters, For­rest is still hailed as a hero.

As O’Neill trav­els through the South in search of a deep­er under­stand­ing, he pass­es through towns and cities stud­ded with mon­u­ments to the blood­thirsty Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­al, and inter­views locals who feel called to pro­tect the stat­ues as well as those dead set on tear­ing them down. On one side of the debate, there is the demand for jus­tice and acknowl­edge­ment of this country’s sins, per­son­i­fied (in the book) by ded­i­cat­ed activists like Shel­by Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­er Tami Sawyer, a Mem­phis orga­niz­er who found­ed the #TakeEmDown901 move­ment to remove Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments. On the oth­er side is a stub­born alle­giance to a vicious her­itage, exem­pli­fied by men like Lee Mil­lar, the spokesper­son for the Mem­phis chap­ter of the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans. When O’Neill encoun­ters Mil­lar after the city’s For­rest stat­ue was torn down in Decem­ber 2017, Mil­lar dis­miss­es those opposed to the stat­ue as hav­ing a men­tal hand­i­cap.” Mil­lar tells O’Neill, They say [For­rest] was a slave own­er. Well big deal, so were 11 of the first 13 pres­i­dents … You can’t blame him for that because he was just in business.”

The wider, nation­al debate about the country’s many Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments (and oth­er stat­ues of assort­ed racist mon­sters) con­tin­ues to fer­ment and has boiled over in cities like Char­lottesville, Va., New Orleans, Durham, N.C., and as far north as Philadel­phia (where a proud his­to­ry of abo­li­tion­ism con­trasts with the city’s for­mer sta­tus as a slave trad­ing out­post). These con­tra­dic­tions are every­where in Amer­i­ca, a coun­try that has nev­er tru­ly rec­on­ciled with its racist lega­cy or offered jus­tice to those who have borne the brunt of its evil.

Since the 2016 elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, those who cling to fab­ri­ca­tions of this past glo­ry have been pub­licly reward­ed by the hold­er of the country’s high­est office with dog-whis­tled recog­ni­tion. But America’s var­i­ous racist move­ments are not con­tent with a mere wink-and-a-nod recep­tion from the White House. Today’s white suprema­cists, as jour­nal­ist Talia Lavin dis­cov­ered dur­ing her research for Cul­ture War­lords, find them­selves encour­aged to vio­lent­ly impose their views on oth­ers, itch­ing for a war.

Lavin goes under­cov­er in online incel forums (short for invol­un­tar­i­ly celi­bate,” a breed­ing ground for misog­y­ny), encrypt­ed neo-Nazi chat rooms, booga­loo meme fac­to­ries (home to vio­lent, far-right inter­net cul­ture) and the tox­ic morass of racist YouTube, observ­ing how social media giants (includ­ing Twit­ter and Face­book) pro­vide fer­tile ground for extrem­ist move­ments and their vio­lent apol­o­gists. In 2019, Lavin is chased out of a con­fer­ence full of far-right social media per­son­al­i­ties, then infil­trates chat rooms full of Ukrain­ian ter­ror­ists hun­gry to start a race war in the Unit­ed States. Through­out her research, she uncov­ers a bot­tom­less well of blood­thirst against a host of per­ceived ene­mies, includ­ing Jew­ish peo­ple like herself.

In one mem­o­rable excur­sion, dubbed Oper­a­tion Ash­lynn, Lavin ven­tures into the sad, malev­o­lent mem­ber­ship of a white nation­al­ist dat­ing site. She pos­es as a fac­sim­i­le of white nationalism’s ide­al woman — blonde, thin, com­mit­ted to tra­di­tion­al gen­der roles, racist — offer­ing a dis­turb­ing peek into the way white suprema­cist men think of women.

Sey­ward Darby’s Sis­ters in Hate expos­es the real-life white women coun­ter­parts to Oper­a­tion Ashlynn’s online world. As Dar­by explains in the book, while white men have always been the far right’s most rec­og­niz­able faces (and are respon­si­ble for the lion’s share of the vio­lence that pro­pels the move­ment), There is oth­er work keep­ing the flames of hate alive. That work is often done by women.”

White wom­an­hood has long been weaponized against Black peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or, used to dri­ve injus­tice and vio­lence. As a demo­graph­ic, white women are often paint­ed as inno­cents (or entire­ly kept out of the his­tor­i­cal record), but they active­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in (and prof­it­ed from) the enslave­ment of human beings. Act­ing as agents of white suprema­cy, they lat­er fought tooth and nail to uphold the sys­tems that pro­tect­ed their white priv­i­lege. Now, long after slav­ery has most­ly end­ed (the U.S. mass incar­cer­a­tion sys­tem is con­sid­ered mod­ern-day slav­ery), the spir­i­tu­al prog­e­ny of those women con­tin­ue to serve as will­ing foot sol­diers in the cause.

Dar­by pro­files three mod­ern women, all born in 1979, who make up a rogue’s gallery of vir­u­lent racism, will­ful obfus­ca­tion, dan­ger­ous pro­pa­gan­da and pure hatred. Corin­na Olsen is a depressed neo-Nazi who becomes an FBI infor­mant. Ayla Stew­art is a white nation­al­ist trad­wife (far-right short­hand for a sub­mis­sive, tra­di­tion­al wife”) who gained a fol­low­ing by preach­ing strict gen­der roles, white pride and female sub­mis­sion to men. Lana Lok­t­eff, arguably the most odi­ous of the lot, runs an influ­en­tial far-right media com­pa­ny called Red Ice and serves as an eager pro­pa­gan­dist, con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist and mouth­piece for the white suprema­cist move­ment. All three find ways to exploit their priv­i­lege as white women to fur­ther regres­sive, big­ot­ed views. Darby’s approach, as an uneasy observ­er, gives these women plen­ty of space to indict themselves.

Each of these three books has a dis­tinct focus, but they are ulti­mate­ly part of the same sto­ry. Darby’s book is a chill­ing doc­u­ment on its own but is espe­cial­ly unset­tling paired with Lavin’s find­ings on the roman­tic yearn­ings of white suprema­cist men. O’Neill’s self-reflec­tion — on the ways he, as a white man, ben­e­fits from white suprema­cy — echoes the care tak­en by Dar­by and Lavin to exam­ine their respec­tive roles as white or white-pass­ing women who have been alter­nate­ly cod­dled and pun­ished by the same white suprema­cist sys­tem (which hap­pens to place some of their more will­ing sis­ters on a swasti­ka-embla­zoned pedestal). All three empha­size the need to dis­man­tle white supremacy.

Their nar­ra­tives even share some com­mon geog­ra­phy, like the neo-Nazi ter­ror attack at the Unite the Right white suprema­cist ral­ly in Char­lottesville, Va., on August 12, 2017. O’Neill describes how Charlottesville’s Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues became a cause célèbre for the neo-Con­fed­er­ates and neo-Nazis who invad­ed the sleepy col­lege town. Lavin attends a 2019 memo­r­i­al ser­vice for Heather Hey­er — the woman who was killed at the ral­ly when a neo-Nazi ran his car into a crowd of peace­ful counter-pro­test­ers — to col­lect sto­ries from locals who sur­vived the attack. Dar­by explains how Ayla Stew­art, who was sched­uled to speak at the ral­ly, ratio­nal­ized away the events and con­jured up ways to blame Hey­er for get­ting murdered.

These inter­lock­ing books offer a glimpse into the end­less ways white suprema­cy enmesh­es itself in every facet of Amer­i­can soci­ety, but they also make the path for­ward clear and cre­ate space for opti­mism by high­light­ing the efforts of the activists, anti-fas­cists and orga­niz­ers work­ing to expose and erad­i­cate the weed of white suprema­cy. Only by pulling it up from the root can we stop its spread.

Kim Kelly is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Philadel­phia. Her work on labor, cul­ture and pol­i­tics can be found in EsquireTeen VogueThe Baf­fler and the Wash­ing­ton Post.