Dr. Kathleen Belew says she studies “the history of the present.” Put another way, she studies the history that shapes issues of the modern day. And in her particular case, those issues have to do with white power activists.
“I’m interested in a number of recent histories that can give us a clearer idea about the problems that face contemporary society and also about the kinds of solutions that we might not otherwise encounter without the benefit of that historical perspective,” says Belew.
Belew is in her first year as an associate professor in the department of history at Northwestern University. She says she has spent a good portion of her career examining the concepts of white power and extremism. Her first book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, chronicles the white power movement, which she says brought together Klan, Neo-Nazi, skinhead, and militia activists in a social movement in the late 1970s. The book examines the movement’s escalation to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The subject matter is again growing in relevance.
“That book has had a second life as a work of urgent public scholarship after events like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the Proud Boys comment during one of the presidential debates, and then, of course, the Jan. 6 attack — alongside many other acts of white power violence, like shootings in Christchurch, Buffalo, El Paso, The Tree of Life synagogue shooting, and others,” Belew says.
The Proud Boys are a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group known for sentiments of white supremacy and misogyny. The group was established amid the 2016 presidential election.
“They wished to overthrow the United States [government], and they saw the nation not as the United States, but as a kind of conglomerate of white people worldwide,” says Belew. “So, I think it helps to think about it that way because it shows how much this is an anti-American form of violence.”
Belew suggests using the term white power and not white nationalist, “because what we’re talking about is a movement that’s really interested in revolution.” She says the nation in the term white nationalism for hate groups does not refer to the United States and it should not be mistaken for overzealous patriotism.
“White nationalism refers to the idea that whiteness is part of the national character and should be preserved as such in law and governance of the country,” Belew says. “The tricky part about the white power movement is that, when they [group members] say ‘white nationalism,’ the nation they’re envisioning is not the United States. They’re talking about the Aryan nation when they’re talking about white nationalism. They’re interested in the race as the nation.
“They don’t believe that people of color are citizens, and sometimes don’t even believe that they are human,” she continues. “They certainly don’t believe that they are full participants in the nation in that way. So, we would not want to, in our public discourse, get this confused. White power is an incredibly violent ideology, and it is in no way compatible with the idea of the United States or ‘American-ness’ that most citizens have.”
Belew explains that, during the 1980s, activists of the movement did not think they had a chance in mainstream politics. They pursued other, more violent methods, such as sabotage, assassination, and other kinds of asymmetrical warfare organized around cell-style terrorism. She says those tactics persist today, but some members of the movement have found their way into the political mainstream.
“We have problems like Proud Boys ascending the GOP command structure in Florida, with people showing up to school board meetings,” Belew says. “We have many Oath Keepers either running for office or receiving donations from sitting politicians.
“This means that we have to calibrate for two different threats,” she continues. “One of them is the sort of guerilla war that these activists were interested in the ’80s. And along those lines, we have to prepare for targeted community attacks and also acts of mass violence. But the other threat is a broader attack on our political institutions. And here we have to be worried about authoritarian developments, threats to free election, and threats to democratic institutions.”
Belew warns that those in academia — scholars studying the white power movement and extremism and other scholars of contemporary U.S. society and race, gender, sexuality, or religion — may become targets of harassment from such hate groups. She says higher ed institutions can help protect their academics.
“One thing that people can do right now with their institutions is figure out best practices for keeping themselves safe on campus, for keeping their online information out of the hands of these groups, and for having strategies worked out ahead of time for what to do if you find yourself the target of one of these campaigns,” says Belew.