Where does it come from and what can we do?
Jeremi sits down with Augusta Dell’Omo to talk about white supremacy and what it means for our democracy.
As always, Zachary sets the scene with his poem, “Torches Burning.”
Augusta Dell’Omo is a doctoral student in History at the University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in U.S. foreign policy during the late Cold War, with a particular focus on U.S.-South African relations and race in American foreign policy. Her dissertation focuses on the intersections between the Reagan administration, televangelism, and the anti-apartheid movement during an ending Cold War. Interested in public history, Augusta contributes to UT’s public history forum, Not Even Past, and acts as an interview and technical director for 15 Minute History, UT’s podcast for students, educators and history buffs. A passionate teacher, Augusta serves as a Supplemental Instruction Supervisor, developing pedagogical techniques for graduate students. Currently, Augusta possesses reading proficiency in German and Italian, and is learning Afrikaans. She graduated with highest distinction and highest honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (BA 2016) and received an MA in history from UT in May 2018. She tweets @Augusta_Caesar.
- Augusta Dell’OmoDoctoral Student in History at the University of Texas at Austin
- Jeremi SuriProfessor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
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Welcome to our new episode of This is Democracy. Today we’re going to discuss one of the more difficult but important issues in our world today. The rise or at least the apparent rise of white supremacy and violence associated with white supremacy in the United States, in New Zealand, in various countries around the world, and what its historical origins are and how we should think about it today, where it’s come from and what we can do about it as democracies that hope not to have this kind of violence. We have with us a wonderful guest, Augusta diploma. Hi, Augusta. Hi, how are you? I’m well, so good to have you on. August, is finishing her PhD at the University of Texas. Do you I said you’re finishing your pieces
Augusta Dell’Omo 1:08
like I don’t know, what is this finishing worried that we’re discussing?
Jeremi Suri 1:13
She has that?
Correct? Correct. She has done really deep and international research, unique research on not simply the rise of white supremacy in the period of the civil rights movement in the decades thereafter. But in particular, the connections between white supremacist in the United States in South Africa and various other societies. So she’s going to be able to give us the kind of background on these issues that few others can. But before we turn to our guests, we have another scene setting poem for Mr. Zachary Siri. Zachary. What’s your poem titled today,
Zachary Suri 1:51
Jeremi Suri 1:53
torches burning? Let’s hear it.
Zachary Suri 1:55
Sometimes when the heat burns down to the car windows and the news is nothing but those vials memories. I wonder why sometimes the torches have to burn and have to burn through the streets of college campuses have to burn in the hearth fires or thousand men. Why the gardens have to blaze through churches, mosques, synagogues have to blaze through offices, charity clinics, where the bombs have to come in the mail to TV stations to people’s homes and towns and cities across the American page have to come in the mail amongst our hopes or dreams sailing across miles. Sometimes I stare out and wonder why the hatred has to burn so brightly. But when these races coming for you at dusk shoot you down the sidewalk shouts and solemn news reporting. When all this seems to flow through every blow of the wind, the only thing I can do is think of all the hope. And all the hugs that come to me in my everyday walks through daily life. block out the hateful definitely white supremacy forget their names, forget their words, forget their everything and pray, sing to the wind of all dead, the aching. And when this mournful song is done, and is floated out into the depths of my consciousness, move on, collect the hugs and the hope collect the smiles and the size, the birds chirping and the misty mornings collect these moments, these words and use them to build tomorrow.
Jeremi Suri 3:11
I love the juxtaposition between the hate and the hugs. What is your poem about second
Zachary Suri 3:16
one was really about like feeling all of the sort of like violent outbursts of hate that we’ve been seeing for a long time. And learning to live with that, but also to cut it out and use that anger at these events to build something productive.
Jeremi Suri 3:35
Well, that that opens up, I think the obvious question August. What is white supremacy? What are we talking about here?
Augusta Dell’Omo 3:41
Yeah, and I’m I’m really glad that we’re starting with this, because one of the things that’s really hard is actually defining what this movement is. And I want to be very specific and thinking about it as a movement, that the kind of white nationalism, white power that we see right now is its own specific kind of intellectual and social movement. And so when we think about white supremacy, the first thing that kind of comes to mind is the sort of kkk Boogeyman or the hood, right is that we take the most the common sense, and I’m using air quotes here, the common sense version of white supremacy is actually the most extremist version, right? The violence that we see now. But white supremacy actually has a much broader definition. And we should narrow it so much to think about just the sort of violence that we see right now. And so when you think about white supremacy, it includes both self conscious racism. It includes political systems, economic systems, cultural systems, where whites control significant amounts of power, and that it’s important to think about not just material resources that white supremacist want to control, but also just ideas of entitlement, right? Oh, there’s a broader range of behaviors that fall under what we consider white supremacy. But what we’re seeing today, especially in New Zealand, and Charlottesville is a more extreme version of white supremacy that we would call white nationalism or white power, the differences between white supremacy is part of white nationalism. So white nationalism is the belief that there’s a sort of ethnic white race, and that they have some sort of shared cultural and social history that needs to be recognized and put forward. White power then is the militaristic version of white nationalism. And so if you think that sounds very similar to black power, it’s intentional. The American Nazi Party leader George Rockwell actually came up with the term white power in response to Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panther parties black power. So that sort of Co Op station is important and thinking about that they see themselves as a social movement, too. And so when we thinking about what we see over the past, really since 2016, the increase in violent episodes, that specifically white nationalism, or white power, and it’s a more extreme form of white supremacy. So I think it’s important to distinguish that while the this is a particularly radical and very scary form of white supremacy, it’s not the only form of white supremacy, right, that there’s everyday occurrences or white supremacy. Sure,
Jeremi Suri 6:08
right. But when we’re referring in particular to the violent outbursts, and the more public hateful comments, yeah, who are these people?
Augusta Dell’Omo 6:17
Yeah, so one of the things that I really hope that we can talk about a little bit here, and what I think a lot of scholars and activists have been pushing back on this idea that, you know, white power and white nationalists are kind of the boogeyman in the closet, right? That they’re, you know, disturbed kids, and that they’re very isolated. The truth is, is they’re not as isolated as we would like to show Dylan roof is not so Dylan roof. So Dylan roof is a extreme and also typical, but in also many ways, he’s stereotypical. So one of the things that really sort of set me on this path thinking about white supremacy, is you see all the images of white people protesting integration, 1960 days, where did they go? Right? They didn’t just evaporate, right? Like we there’s been a lot of really great work of identifying who these people are. They’re members of the community. They’re their bankers, their lawyers, their city council people, they’re farmers, right. So these are everyday people that have a particular kind of ideology, what sets white power, white nationalists apart, is actually their particular affinity for using media and using fear to sort of operate in the shadows. And recently, what’s it actually been a bigger shift is how comfortable they felt in the open, you saw a sort of upsurge of white nationalist violence in the 90s, like the Oklahoma City bombings. And it’s been relatively less apparent until the past few years, just how powerful these movements are. And so it’s important to think about that they’re not just you know, there’s there’s the stereotype that they’re sort of leftovers of the South, right? They’re leftovers of segregation. In reality, they’re part of a global movement that includes everywhere from the United States to New Zealand, to Australia, Germany. And there’s particular reasons for why they’ve always been kind of linked together, and then conversation,
Jeremi Suri 8:06
what is it that links them? Is it simply an opposition to racial and ethnic diversity? What is their positive program, their positive program? What are they What are they seeking to accomplish? Yes, it’s a positive in the sense of what is what is it that they’re trying to accomplish,
Augusta Dell’Omo 8:22
so they, there’s a lot of actually variation and what they want. And there’s a bunch of different schism in groups that fall under what we would call white power. But generally they want as you said, right, they want they want separatism, for the most part is that they want to form a sort of separate space, or to solidify the gains that they’ve already made. Particularly if you think about the 1960s. If you think about decolonization, their interest was preserving what they already had, as opposed to a fundamental reshaping of we need to reorient society as a whole. So a lot of times what actually white supremacy is, is a conservation of the gains that they’ve already made. And the more extreme versions, of course, you have the sort of separatists state you have the violence against encroaching black Americans, ethnic Americans, Jewish Americans, right, there’s, there’s the sort of violent outbursts, when it scene is encroaching, and things that they’ve already defined, is there.
Jeremi Suri 9:17
Right? And why the turn to violence?
Augusta Dell’Omo 9:19
I mean, that’s an interesting question. And, you know, from my research on white nationalism, it doesn’t always take a violent turn, right, that these are the more extreme versions, where they see violence is the only remaining output. What’s very interesting about white nationalist is when we think about white supremacy, if we take this sort of broader definition, white supremacy is reified in lots of different institutions, right? It’s in our political system is in education, right? Whether we want to talk about it or not, it is there. What’s interesting about white nationalists is they actually don’t see the state as a particularly useful for them for them. So they used so they see the state is actually hindering the kind of progress that they want to make that it’s not that it’s not extreme enough in their ideology. So they’re very comfortable with using traditional violence setting up, you know, there’s the the stories of like, the separate training enclaves, right, that they’ve always been very comfortable operating outside the state, and training in these kind of violent programs. And, you know, you’ve seen the kind of initiation videos that have been kind of popping up on the it’s a way also to test masculinity, right, that that’s an element of what’s happening here with white supremacy and thinking about that kind of distinct white ethnic nationalism that they’re putting
Jeremi Suri 10:31
forward. Gotcha, gotcha. And how, how many people are we talking about? Is this a huge movement? How many of United States What are we thinking about internationally?
Augusta Dell’Omo 10:39
Um, I think the real challenge is we actually really don’t know, there’s some scholars that could probably put it a bit more precise than I could. But one of the main problems is, they’re very, very secretive. And they’re very good at of hearing that there are more than in there actually are, most of their time they’re spending on 4chan, a Chan, these kind of extreme channels. But they also have a lot of secret network. And one of the big problems is that the FBI hasn’t always considered them a particularly dangerous social movement in the way that they the FBI felt more comfortable tracking black activists in the 60s, white nationalists have never really been tracked in the same way. So it’s a bit more difficult for historians to pinpoint. And activists now, to see exactly how how big or small This movement is, I think what is significant is this group is clearly very comfortable right now operating openly. And this is not to say that it’s any more or less powerful than it’s been in years past or any bigger numerically. But it it, they do have a degree of comfort, and operating and declaring their positions publicly, which has not always been the case. And
Jeremi Suri 11:44
that’s what’s difficult for many of us to understand because it, we have made so much progress on the other side of the issue, right, in terms of civil rights in terms of women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights. So why do they feel more comfortable at a time when it seems less acceptable in many circles to have these views?
Augusta Dell’Omo 12:05
And I think that’s exactly what you touched on? Have, we seem to have made so much progress, and I think that there’s always going to be this revolution, right? If there’s revolution for social change more, right, there’s always a counter revolution, right. And so one of the big images for this group was both the 1960s and the start of the Cold War. So the start of the Cold War offered a kind of unifying ideology against communism, which was very attractive for white supremacist, white nationalist, that that’s kind of political rhetoric that falls very in line with their sort of authoritarian tendencies already. So that gave them the kind of momentum to start really thinking about international, the sort of international, anti communist movement that was more extreme than anything the US government felt comfortable doing. And so then you have in the 1960s, gains and civil rights for black Americans, United States, and then you also have decolonization, which is for the sort of international white nationalist white power movement. And again, it’s important to think of nationalist not as specific territorial boundaries, right. They’ve always been global, they’ve always seen themselves, you know, we have records as early as the 1930s of the Nazi state being mirrored off of us segregation practices, right, these ideas have always been an exchange. And so to think that they’re suddenly global in the 21st century is simply not true, right? That there, they’ve always been particularly good at this. And in the same way, they, they’ve taken many of their tactics from 1960s, decolonization and Black Power activists, right, Rockwell taking white power, right, they’ve always felt comfortable, co opting, and learning from different social movements to try and gain ground. And so what happens in the 60s, is they really start to feel like both at home and abroad, they’re kind of losing across the board. Particularly I study, South Africa is Dr. Surrey mentioned in South Africa, Rhodesia after Rhodesia collapses in 1978. South Africa really becomes the last bastion of white rule, and they really fixate on it, that ends in 1994, as a sort of marker of what a white state could look like. And then you see this outpouring of violence. And I don’t think those things are unrelated, right? The last fall of the only real in air quotes, white supremacy is inscribed government collapses. And you see this upsurge in violence. So you have this sense, especially in the 60s that these gains that I was talking about them trying to protect her starting to evaporate, the sort of global consensus that they had seen whether it was through colonial empire sort of informal colonization, that seems to be disappearing for them. And in the ways that sort of Southern segregationist or modern conservatives were able to adapt and perform sort of respectable civil rights position ality where it was not incredibly threatening to their white base, but it wasn’t over well, you know, inclusive. White power activists never tried to do that. And so they are very unique in the fact that they had to kind of segregate themselves, no pun intended, but they were pushed out of the acceptable spectrum of conversation in the United States, particularly after the Civil Rights Movement, where conservatives and liberals alike, both Republicans and Democrats kind of sectioned off acceptable, like specters and parameters have
Jeremi Suri 15:28
famously happened in the Republican Party, right, William F. Buckley and others said, we don’t want to be associated with john birchers. And that seems so different from where we are today.
Augusta Dell’Omo 15:37
Yeah. And so especially during apartheid, you have both parties basically agreed that the South African state, as it currently stands needs to go right, they need to release Nelson Mandela, we need to defer to an approach. But there was a general consensus that something needed to be done. Now if we want to parse through the particular reasons why they thought that right, it gets more complicated. I’m not going to say they’re all touristic, or that they want racial equality. But we’re uncomfortable with supporting real estate as it started. But you have Southern, not always Southern, but you have this old segregationist that’s like, Well, I’m not so comfortable with some not supporting the South African say, and you had that extreme clump. And so I think what starts to happen, right after the election, and obviously the I think one of the big turning points that a lot of scholars were identified is the election of Obama, in the kind of race hatred that these groups felt comfortable espousing to him and what started to become except why
Jeremi Suri 16:40
would have, you would have had the opposite. We thought that people were even talking about a post racial
Augusta Dell’Omo 16:44
Right. And I think, I think it’s that post racial, that post racial society comes from our comfort unseen, linear notions of progress, right, that if you’re not paying close enough attention, you don’t see a lot of these groups. You don’t. It’s That’s right, you know, our country isn’t conference identifying that one of the major, the major terrorist domestic terrorists force is white nationalist. So, you know, it’s always been that kind of discomfort with talking about specifically white power activists, in a way that felt far more comfortable attacking sort of identity, identity activists, things like that. So, you know, white power is just another identity activist. It’s just we feel less comfortable talking about that.
Jeremi Suri 17:24
But why did Obama in particular just just having an African American pride? I think so. And
Augusta Dell’Omo 17:28
he, you know, he has, he has a black family, right? His wife is a descendant of slaves that, you know, they represent a true in some ways notion of progress of this is a black man and a black family reaching the highest office. And so you have, I think, is sort of an impulse, especially in some sectors of the sort of white power movement, like there’s going to be discomfort, right. But I think what’s different is, you watch members of the Republican Party feel very comfortable attack, you know, indulge in conversations about his where he was born, right, comfortable and thinking about, well, is he a Muslim? I don’t know that they’re, they’re playing to this sort of idea of is he legitimate? And so for white power activists and white nationalists, they kind of see that as like, Okay. There might be more cracks in this sort of barometer of what is acceptable behavior that we previously thought. And so then when you have someone like Donald Trump, who is very comfortable, allowing for in plane to some of these ideas, the crack opens even wider. And so now they feel far more comfortable being in public spaces in a way that they weren’t always
Zachary Suri 18:37
have the numbers of these people, how have they grown recently? Like, have you seen the spike in the numbers? And is it something that’s passed down through family generations?
Augusta Dell’Omo 18:47
That’s a really good question, Zach, because one of the things that you do see it is, is it is very family oriented. And one of the reasons that you do see that is because of how insular they are. So especially, I’ve seen a lot of instances in the South African case where if you have South African white nationalist, a lot of times they go to the same schools, they educate them and kind of separate enclaves that it’s already a very insular community. And when you do have somebody deviate, it’s it’s very shocking. So there’s a famous, I can’t remember his name. There’s a famous SON OF A, like kkk activist. I think they’re called grand wizards. But they’re his grandfather is a very prominent member of white power organization, and he defected, and it was a very big deal. And so it’s very rare that these things happen, especially because they’re so isolated, like I just mentioned, and then as for the growth, you know, it’s really hard. I think, also right now, it feels like there’s more because there are more, right, there have been more violent attacks, there has been a great emboldening by white power activists. You know, if you’re thinking about Pittsburgh, you’re thinking about New Zealand that they feel emboldened in a way that they hadn’t seemed to in the past. But I don’t necessarily know that that means that there’s more of them. Right?
Jeremi Suri 20:03
You could also mean that they they feel this is their last moment, it’s a last stand.
Augusta Dell’Omo 20:09
Yes. And you know, it’s, it’s very scary, too, because you also have, I think, I think what’s truly scary for me is not, there’s always going to be people, especially if you look at the history of these groups, there’s always going to be people that possess this kind of ideology. But what’s scary is this so called moderates feeling comfortable with allowing some of these forces in and I think that’s what’s very scary, is it’s not just the people that are talking about these things, and doing these things. It’s the people that absolve them at that time, right? It’s the
Jeremi Suri 20:37
it’s the silence of the moderates.
Augusta Dell’Omo 20:39
Yeah. Yeah. Or it’s the same, you know, Oh, this is so horrible, but not actually doing anything about it.
Jeremi Suri 20:45
members of the Senate.
Augusta Dell’Omo 20:46
Yeah, that’s it. That’s a name.
Jeremi Suri 20:48
So we have a couple of student questions here. Our first question is from Jazzlyn Burke Cockburn. Let’s see what Jazzlyn has to ask.
Jazzlyn Burke Cockburn 20:57
Do you think white supremacy played a role in our America makes and remade foreign policy?
Augusta Dell’Omo 21:02
Oh, yeah. Jazzlyn? Right. That’s a great question. I will answer 100%. Yes. Is your book.
Yeah, Dr. Suri knows my opinions about this? Um, no. So I think I think it is fundamentally shaped the way American foreign policy has been made, particularly in the case that I study. So I study the 1980s, I study apartheid, and I studied both the pro apartheid movement. And I mean that quite literally the people that were supporting apartheid in the anti apartheid movement. And what you see is not just the sort of white radicalism that I’m talking about. And again, I’m using the term radical intentionally because they do possess a radical vision of the world that, you know, deserves to be considered as its own kind of intellectual social force, not in a positive way, but as something to be considered as something that is very powerful and very dangerous. And so with that also comes a kind of decision on the part of especially the Reagan administration of really addressing apartheid. And so there’s a bunch of different reasons why you could say that, but I would also be very inclined to say that Reagan didn’t care particularly about black South Africans, right, that maybe it wasn’t as outwardly racist as the white nationalist and talking about where they’re happy that apartheid is existing. But that does interest right, that we talked about the beginning of what white supremacy is, is another component of that,
Jeremi Suri 22:27
right? And in a certain way, these groups enable the US government at times to associate itself with regimes that are doing horrible things for certain racial groups.
Augusta Dell’Omo 22:35
Yeah. And you that’s a great point. And you also have these kind of paramilitary groups that they feel very comfortable army. Yeah. Especially in South America. Yeah. And, and, and,
Jeremi Suri 22:45
and Angola, United States actually hires South African white supremacists to fight communists in Angola.
Augusta Dell’Omo 22:52
And you know, the fact that us I express discomfort from with the, with the apartheid regime, basically, soon as it was formerly inscribed in 1948. Right, they’ve always been uncomfortable, but have always continued to support it, basically, until political opinion reached a point where they didn’t feel great.
Jeremi Suri 23:10
And this is a case certainly where social activism within the United States in other countries, a huge role,
Augusta Dell’Omo 23:14
right, perhaps one of the best examples
Jeremi Suri 23:16
of Yeah, I remember when I was in college, this was a big issue. We were all protesting. investment in apartheid.
Augusta Dell’Omo 23:22
Right? Yeah, the divestment of
Jeremi Suri 23:24
Just as of the divestment movement today focuses on fossil fuels focused on apartheid. Yeah. So our last student question, I think takes us into what I think I would like to discuss the last couple of quick minutes is really where we go from here. And Brooke Brannum has a question about this.
Brooke Brannum 23:43
Do you see white supremacy ever truly coming to an end? Or is it too deeply rooted in American society?
Augusta Dell’Omo 23:51
That’s a great question. And I’m afraid that I do not have an optimistic answer for you. I think it’s always going to be here. But I think that there is great power in acknowledging that reality, that this is something that we are always going to have to fight in whatever form it takes, and that it is comfortable to, you know, I don’t think that this particularly violent episode of white nationalism is going to last forever. It tends to if you look at it historically kind of appears, there’s very violent bubbles, and then it kind of goes back down. But what happens is we kind of lost ourselves into a sense of complacency that, okay, it’s done, right, that we’ve we fought it off, these people are crazy. And we won’t have to deal with this again. We know that’s not true. And I think that we have to be constantly vigilant about the kind of ideology that this includes, is not just the kind of disgusting violence that we’ve seen over the last few years, but it is this broader definition of white supremacy. And I think that’s, you know, I don’t know how you combat the kind of disgusting elements of white supremacy. Because, you know, you you run into the problem is, there’s two elements, right? there’s kind of two forms of thought that people have when how do we combat white nationalism, it’s one, get it out in the open and kind of debate it and make it seem invalid? The problem is, is it’s very hard to debate those kinds of people. They’re very set in what they think, you know, and in some ways, it’s an exercise in futility, in which people are we going to be asking to do that kind of emotional work is important, and so that there’s problems with that approach, right, that it’s not always effective. The second approach of isolating them is also not always effective, right? That’s the probably the one I would lean more towards, but my own research shows that just isolating them doesn’t make them go away. They just go somewhere else, right? It empowers them waves and empowers them. And so, you know, where do you go when the two options seems to be we’re trying to talk about it right now. And they just seem to be getting validation from different sectors. But
Jeremi Suri 25:55
But when you said maybe this, this is really the key question. When do you say that, in fact, this moment offers a reason for optimism. Because the fact that we’re having this discussion, yeah, that people can see this in front of them, and that the vast majority of particularly young people, who are pretty moderate on these issues, that they can in a sort of in a civil rights sense, following the model so rights movement, can see the ugliness and turn away from it and act against it. Yeah, that that that mobilizing factor might be one of the best things that’s happening in our world.
Augusta Dell’Omo 26:29
I think. I think that’s true. I think the I think the thing that scares me particularly is how is how much these white nationalist forces seem to have gained political support in a way that it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Right? If you think about the Trump administration, if you think about, if you think about Brazil, if you think about, you know, what almost happened in France, what’s happening in Germany, right, that these forces are starting to gain political support in ways that is very different than anything that we’ve really seen for very long time. I think that’s where my sort of notes of caution are. But I mean, one of the great things that we really saw is the response of the New Zealand government to what happened yesterday, you know, the kind of outpouring of support both from people and politicians and coming up with tangible solutions, like those are the things that are best about policy. Right? Those are the things that we love to see. And so I am more optimistic about what I’ve seen in other places than in our own country right now. But like you said, I think we’re at a particular kind of crisis point. And I think it could go either way. But I think it’s important that even if it does go away, we can’t forget that this happened, especially in our lifetime. It’s such a formative part of, especially for our students, you know, this is these are the formative college experiences that shape a lot of your political leanings. And so it’s important to think about the kind of violence even if it disappears, that you saw and your friends who are black, who are Jewish, who are Latino, who they were, that they feared, for good reason, it’s important to remember those and I
Jeremi Suri 28:01
think one of the core missions of for those of us who care about democracy, is making sure we’re aware and making sure we’re active around these issues. And and this is a wonderful time to remind ourselves of that, and to take more action on behalf of these issues. You’ve given us so much historical background, and I think, motivation to really think and act around these issues. And that’s the best kind of history. So thank you. Yeah. And and Zachary, I think your poem really captures how personal This is, and how it’s a personal mission. If we care about democracy. We have to all personally be involved in this struggle, probably an endless struggle against some of the worst elements of our society, some of the worst attitudes. Thank you for joining us. For this really interesting episode of This is Democracy.
Unknown Speaker 29:00
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