Much of social media –- as well as some private citizens and mainstream media – whipped themselves into a frenzied tizzy over the recent article written by New York Times reporter Richard Fausset called “A Voice of Hatred in America’s Heartland.” Fausset profiled Tony Hovater, a young millennial family man and self-avowed Nazi who resides in New Carlise, Ohio.
Many people who read the piece (including me), were surprised, shocked and, in many cases, outraged by what appeared to be a sympathetic ― or, at the very least, ambivalent ― profile of Hovater and his ardent, unabashed white supremacist viewpoints. Reaction was swift across the political and religious spectrum.
Numerous New York Times readers lambasted Fausset and went to town, criticizing the Times editorial staff for publishing such an uncritical assessment of a person who harbors racial and religious hatred (despite his denials) and who strongly advocates for a nation where people are segregated based on racial pigmentation. To be sure, the “Tony Horvath is just a regular family man, who loves video games, certain classic television shows, certain food, etc.” was very troubling and arguably disingenuous. In the fact that such an article, whether intentionally or not, inadvertently normalizes white supremacy.
For its part, the paper made the case that the editors believed Mr. Fausett’s article had fallen short of NYT standards and Fausset himself conceded as much. Hoopla and dissent aside—and there were indeed legitimate criticisms of the entire episode—the more interesting question we should be asking ourselves is Fausett’s attitude and coverage of his subject an aberration or par for the course as it relates to mainstream attitudes about White supremacists ?
To be sure, if interviewed about the question, the average person would likely vehemently deny (at least in public or in mixed company) the fact that they harbor racial or religious hatred toward others who are different from them. Indeed, as a society we have evolved to a level where views that would have been seen as socially acceptable as late as the 1950s or even early to mid-1960s are no longer embraced (at least publicly, though we are seeing some changes on this front) by the majority of people and are seen as taboo. Thus, the level of public scorn heaped upon Fausset and his colleagues at the Times was not all that surprising. However, for many of us who are people of color, we know all too well in our dealings with many White people, even those with generally good intentions, that more often than not, racial attitudes and bias are often bubbling under the surface.
Indeed, the forces of White denial, White fragility and yes, White supremacy tend to rear their troubling heads. The fact is that more than a few Whites, including some who identify as liberal or progressive, harbor negative, or at the very least ambivalent attitudes about Blacks and for the most part, other non-Whites. What is more troubling is that many liberals (particularly those of the hipster persuasion) are all too willing to normalize White supremacy, while at the same time, vehemently denying that they possess such attitudes. These are also the same Whites who do not hesitate to utilize all the advantage that come along with being White, yet are often reluctant to call out or acknowledge systemic racism that has deeply pernicious effects on the lives of many people of color in this nation in the forms of gentrification, police brutality, subprime lending, subpar educational systems, deplorably inadequate health care and other social ills.
These are often the same enlightened people who usually remain silent when a relative, neighbor or co-worker makes a disparaging remark about a certain ethnic or religious group. These are the same men and women who read the Times piece, reveled in shock and disgust, yet fail to realize that they themselves are possibly not too far removed from similar attitudes they rightly chided Mr. Fausset for. Hypocrisy and faux self righteousness abounds. It is a sad commentary.
The young men (and few women) who marched in Charlottesville this summer along with David Duke, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and others of their ilk, are well aware of their disgraceful bigotry. They are self-avowed extremists. They are likely a lost cause, (including those that are young) but nonetheless, must be monitored. We already have a vivid premonition of the sort of havoc they can unleash if unchecked and left to their own sinister devices. What is more important to acknowledge is the fact that White supremacy can be varied and multifaceted. It can be subtle, sly, seductive, reductive and unsuspecting to those possessed with it. Too many White people, in particular, progressive and liberals are under the assumption that due to the fact that they do not have a swastika in their drawer, a white sheet or hood in their closet, do not espouse racial or ethnic slurs or would overtly mistreat a person of color, that they are immune from racism, anti-Semitism and other related prejudices. Such a self-righteous mindset can be dangerously misguided.
It would likely behoove some of those who were outraged by what they read in the New York Times to do some deep soul searching, and ask the question, am I that much different? You may or may not like the answer you receive, but the truth is that you will have come to grips with where you stand in regards to your value system. What better gift could you ask for?
Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University. He is an author and public speaker.