Internet Racism is a Longstanding Feature of American Politics

By Jessie Daniels

Trump's candidacy appears to have closed the gap between right-wing extremists like longtime Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the mainstream in a single campaign cycle. But as someone who has spent more than twenty years studying white supremacist rhetoric before and after the Internet, I view Trump's rise differently. It is not new but rather a continuation of a trend that has been sped up and amplified by social media.

This trend involves people hijacking topics that are considered closed in mainstream society and opening them up to debate. Today, this debate happens on Twitter. It gains momentum when cable media feeds them back to the general public. This is why the sharing of a white-supremacist meme should not come as a surprise. It is hardly news.

In the early 1990s, I made copies of hundreds of publications from groups like David Duke's National Association for the Advancement of White People and the Ku Klux Klan, which at the time meant travelling to an archive of printed newsletters at the Southern Poverty Law Center. What I copied back then was strange, but eerily familiar.

The language of these extremist groups was very similar to mainstream political talking points from the early 1990s. When placed side-by-side, David Duke's call to value European American heritage did not sound that different from conservative political commentator Patrick Buchanan's 1992 culture war speech. And it was not only the case on the political right, either. Bill Clinton's vilification of hip-hop artist Sister Souljah shared the extremist view of African American women as particularly threatening to society.

At the same time, my students were also beginning to encounter white supremacist sites through search terms like "KKK" and even innocuous terms like "Martin Luther King." These students were not being recruited, but something was happening that I wanted to study. By then, I didn't need to go to an archive, I could just log on to the Internet, where I discovered a different kind of attack on civil rights. The website Martin Luther King dot org appears to be a tribute site, but it is actually a white supremacist site. It is intended to undermine hard-won civil rights victories by questioning Dr. King's legacy.

This is a strategy shared by the white nationalist accounts that Mr. Trump is prone to retweet. Rather than simply shouting racial epithets, white nationalists would rather engage in a "reasoned debate" about ideas that are considered settled in polite society. Notions of the inherent criminality or lasciviousness of black people, or the innate avarice of Jewish people or their "control of the media," are topics that could be debated, were it not for "political correctness" of Trump and his followers.

The innovation that Trump brings to white nationalism is to combine his persona from the "Apprentice," edited to offer a facsimile of realness, with the unfiltered platform of Twitter. The cable news networks have augmented this by covering his tweets as if they are news, allowing him to be a call-in guest and featuring his campaigns events. Trump then leverages this media into political feelings. His gift is the ability to arouse a noxious farrago of emotions among white people, from white resentment and rage to the faux victimhood clustered in the phrase: "We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore."

There is a kind of naïveté among some writers covering Trump who are shocked at his success. But we should not be surprised. In the U.S., we cling to an illusion about our inevitable progress away from a past of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and overt racism. Some of us even hoped that electing the first African American president would mean a post-racial era, but the fact that Stormfront's servers crashed the night Obama was elected should have made us warier. Trump's broad appeal should remind us that white supremacy is neither new to the U.S. nor an aberration, but rather it is a consistent feature of our political landscape.

This text originally appeared on ResearchGate News.

Jessie Daniels, PhD is Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY (Sociology, Critical Social Psychology). An internationally recognized expert in Internet expressions of racism. She is the author of two books about racism on either side of the digital revolution: Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) and White Lies (Routledge, 1997).