When I see armed men carrying Nazi flags, raising stiff-arm salutes and spewing anti-Semitic chants, I picture my relatives in the town of Borisov in 1941 as soldiers herded them and the rest of the town’s Jews together and drove them into giant pits. The soldiers killed them all, thousands of Jews, sparing bullets by burying most alive.
When I watch members of the KKK and other white supremacist groups marching defiantly and hoodless, I see the outrage of my black friends and colleagues at this echo of the long history of lynching in the U.S. Some lynchings happened in the dead of night, with or without a noose, but many took place in broad daylight, celebrated by mobs of white folks who brought their children to picnic at the spectacle.
But here’s what we must remember: the open display of white supremacy represents only the tip of the iceberg.
You can't say you denounce white supremacists and at the same time support voter suppression, attacks on immigrants, a ban on Muslims, an increase in use of force by police, a dismantling of affirmative action, and the defunding of public education. Powering all of these and more are efforts to diminish the power and status of people of color. They’re also meant to divert the anger of whites who are struggling to get by, in a democracy that has transferred the nation’s collective wealth to the millionaires.
The most insidious white supremacists don’t brandish Nazi paraphernalia or mouth KKK slogans. Instead, they paint a false picture of blacks who get preferential hiring and fraudulent handouts. They purposefully lie about undocumented immigrants, describing them as people who escape paying taxes (they pay billions) and monopolize public services that in fact mostly exclude immigrants. They insinuate that refugees are secret terrorists rather than those fleeing terror. They support Donald Trump’s recent executive orders calling for the Department of Justice to partner with local governments to militarize their police force and limit police accountability. They back a resurgence of hyper-masculinity that wants to see men securely positioned as the boss and women as submissive. They also back the attack on unions that have the potential and often the reality of bringing together workers across race and gender and helping them see their common enemy.
The result these covert white supremacists seek? To turn resentment – over stagnating wages and underfunded schools and jobs shipped overseas – away from wealthy corporations and their defenders in Congress and onto neighbors who aren’t white.
The current occupant of the White House has embarrassed the majority of people in this country, but in one area he has been enormously effective – he’s the Organizer-in-Chief of white supremacist forces. His rants and agenda have helped bring together individuals and groups who were often isolated before. He’s given them a platform and visibility. He’s given them hope.
Whites, including white women, have significant work to do to root out the legacy of growing up in a white supremacist culture – one whose past includes shameful accusations by white women used to murder black men, and whose present includes the fact that the majority of white women voted for Trump.
Our response must continue to include mass rallies and protests. But our work will not succeed unless we focus on the agenda behind this resurgence of white nationalism and recognize that it has a long history of respectability in our country.
It’s not enough for elected officials to make statements decrying public displays of white supremacy. They must also lead on dismantling the policies that uphold the covert white supremacist agenda. As former Senator Russ Feingold put it, “Let’s see lawmakers like John Kasich in Ohio immediately stop the state’s intended purging of voting records. Let’s see Wisconsin lawmakers throw out their gerrymandered district map and form a non-partisan redistricting commission.”
Call on your elected officials to go beyond expressions of love and calls for unity. Demand that they take a stand on every one of the issues described above. We can only move toward the nation that claims to love democracy, freedom and justice for all if we recognize and demolish the whole iceberg in our way.