© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Old Racist Books, Artifacts Are Influencing White Nationalists Of The Digital Age


Today's white racial extremists rely on technology. They use social media to recruit and radicalize to ensure that their movement has a future. But many young extremists, including some who've carried out violent attacks, seem just as interested in the movement's past. NPR's Hannah Allam covers domestic extremism. She's with us now to talk about how old racist books and other artifacts influence white nationalists of the digital age, including, it appears, a suspect in the mass shooting in El Paso.

Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: So what kind of historic materials are we talking about? How are they being used today?

ALLAM: Well, there's a whole canon of white supremacist literature, theory from the 19th century, early KKK pamphlets, speeches, the racist eugenics writings of the 1920s, biographies of prominent white supremacists like David Duke and translated literature from Europe and abroad. So white supremacist forums often have recommended reading lists, and sometimes they're really obscure titles.

And then there are some that have become, quote-unquote, "classics" of the genre in the eyes of white nationalists. And one example of a that is a French novel from 1973 that lays out so-called replacement theory. It's sometimes called white genocide theory, this idea that this tidal wave of immigration is coming to wipe out the white race. And that theory - it was revived in an even more recent book - is woven into the manifestos that we've seen out of the Norway mass shooting, the attack on Muslims in New Zealand and now in the purported manifesto of the El Paso suspect.

Kathleen Belew - she teaches history at the University of Chicago - she's dug through a lot of this old material for her book "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." She says there is an incredible trove of information available.

KATHLEEN BELEW: It turns out that the white power movement left behind a huge paper archive. This is a movement where people are really interested in printing periodicals. And these ranged from official and polished-looking newspapers and magazines all the way down to, like, hand-drawn memes that are made and then just photocopied at the local grocery store.

CORNISH: Why do people go looking for them and looking for them online?

ALLAM: Well, according to extremism scholars, they go looking at them for many of the same reasons people become radicalized in the first place. They want a sense of belonging to a greater cause, something with history and a tradition of rebellion - Some of the same justifications we saw Islamist extremists using when they were cherry-picking obscure old texts to justify their own violent causes.

I spoke with Arthur Jipson, a professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, who's interviewed white racial extremists for 30 years as part of his research. And he says, sure, they can find the stuff online, but there is a point of pride attached to owning a physical copy. And he says extremists he's interviewed sometimes show up with a rare book, sometimes autographed books with the names of prominent racists.

ARTHUR JIPSON: For the members of this movement, they believe they're reading the forbidden material, the forbidden books, the forbidden newsletters.

CORNISH: And why should we give this our attention?

ALLAM: Well, in the words of Jipson, the professor I spoke to, he said, we ignore it at our peril. He said, we can dismiss their ideologies, but to understand this brand of extremism, and ultimately to prevent its spread, you have to understand what they take seriously.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hannah Allam.

Thank you so much.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.