Public Thinker: Kathleen Belew on the Rise of “White Power”

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
Kathleen Belew is an international authority on the white-power movement ...

Kathleen Belew is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and an international authority on the white-power movement. Drawing on an expansive collection of archives, Belew wrote the field-defining book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (2018). She developed research methods for tracking a network of anti-government extremists from a collection of disparate sources and a narrative practice that exemplifies an ethical approach to writing histories of violence. Since the publication of Bring the War Home, Belew has made public appearances on Fresh Air, Weekend Edition, and CBS, and has written for the New York Times. The book has received rave reviews in The Nation and the Los Angeles Review of Books and was named a 2018 Best Book of the Year by the Guardian.

Belew is an award-winning teacher who centers her courses on the broad themes of race, gender, violence, identity, and the meaning of war. Since the publication of her book, she has generously moved well beyond the classroom to share urgent historical lessons with public audiences. In her public writing and media appearances, Belew is shaping how the public understands the white-power movement. She simultaneously teaches the history she uncovered and helps journalists and the public interpret white-power terrorist acts today. In this interview, conducted last fall, Belew discusses the term white power and her research methods; she offers advice for future researchers; and shares some of the urgent lessons of history that we must heed for today. She is a pivotal and unwavering intellectual and public voice for our time.

Monica Muñoz Martinez (MMM): Would you tell me about the term white power in your book and why you intentionally chose to use the term white power? What does it encompass?


Kathleen Belew (KB): I wrote a history of an ideologically diverse groundswell of people including Klansmen, neo-Nazis, white separatists, racial skinheads, and others who came together in the wake of the Vietnam War in a coherent social movement that in the book I argue we should think of and call the white-power movement. I think that that intervention has become even more critical in a moment where people are thinking about the meaning of the appearance of white nationalist rhetoric in our mainstream politics.

First of all, because it makes a distinction between the mainstream invocations of some of these tenets in American thought and the very extremist anti-government groups that I’m writing about. And, secondly, because I think that while the term white nationalism is correct from a political science perspective in defining some of the people I was writing about at the time, one of the implicit assumptions that I think especially mainstream readers might make is that that phrase signifies an overexertion of patriotism or an excess of nationalism. In other words, people think it means too much of supporting the country. This misunderstanding implies that the nation in white nationalism is supposed to be the United States. For the people I write about, the nation is the Aryan nation. It is an inherently anti-American project in that it’s trying to overthrow the federal government and create a united white polity that will then eventually eradicate people of color in the country and in the world. That’s not an overexertion of patriotism. That is a revolutionary challenge to the United States itself.

MMM: So, I’ve got a question, just pulling from that. You do incredible archival work, and I’m always captivated by what you do to show that this history, the activities of the white-power groups, were being documented and followed by journalists. Could you talk a little bit about what some of those journalists did to shine a light on the violence and the recruitment and the terror that was taking place? And also tell us a little bit about how we’ve come to forget this history?


KB: Absolutely. One of the interesting things that came out of the archives is that I entered this field where there hasn’t been a lot of historical writing. Most of the scholarly work has been in very time-limited studies, so that much of the best work about white power has been ethnographies, where of course you get a very deep view, but it’s of one group over the course of a few years instead of a broad picture of how activists match rhetoric and action over decades, which is what I’m trying to do in Bring the War Home.

One of the things that I anticipated going into the project was that most of this activity would be underground, and, in fact, what I found is that all of the major events that I talk about in the book were reported at the time. They were on the front pages of major newspapers; there was footage of Klan paramilitary training camps on morning-news magazine shows; one major event, the Greensboro Massacre, even became the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch. So, this stuff was out there in the zeitgeist. And there were a few journalists—people who wrote for The Oregonian, the Houston Chronicle, and the Christian Science Monitor—who did an incredible amount of work, really doing the beginning part of this project at the time it was happening, which, as a historian, I find amazing and inspiring, because we rely so heavily on the archive for perspective. To be able to do it in real time is an amazing feat.

So, what I found is that a lot of people had a piece of the story, but that the big connective apparatus is what the archive and its perspective can give us. Even a journalist working in depth on this topic, on a beat over a decade in one region, still would have the story of Houston and the surrounding area, for example—rather than Houston, which is connected to Idaho, which is connected to Arkansas, you know what I mean? For that, you really need the archive of what the people are doing, what the people are saying, kind of an archival map of subjects, so you can tell who has social relationships with whom. And then all of the surveillance documents that show how the government was keeping tabs on people add another level of who was where at what time. All that together is how you get to see how this works as a social movement, which, for me, was really one of the surprises of the story.


MMM: Tell me a little bit more about the sources that allowed you to build this connective tissue.


KB: So, I used three repositories of white-power ephemera, located at Brown University, the University of Kansas, and the University of Oregon. Those included everything from informally to formally published white-power periodicals to correspondence between people, to some of the materials from computer message boards, to posters and drawings and bumper stickers and the many random pieces of paper that are generated by a social movement.

The interesting thing is that the archivist at Kansas sent around a questionnaire that said something like, “Can you fill this out about what you believe, and just send me whatever materials you have lying around?” And he got boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff. At Brown, two people went into the groups, pretended to be members of the groups, and collected things that were handed out at meetings. At Oregon, it’s the repository of a journalist who was going around and asking individuals who were important in the movement what they had saved and collecting as much of it as they would part with, or let her photocopy.

Significantly, all three of those places have basically the same stuff. Which gave me a sense of coverage, of what kinds of things are being written and at what volume, and which things were important across regions.

So, that’s the white-power archive. Then I did a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests for FBI, Department of Justice, US Marshals Service, and ATF files, which are, of course, their own imperfect sources for a lot of different reasons. I worked in some trial transcripts looking at testimony, which is one of the only places we see women actually speaking for themselves (women’s periodicals being the other). I also did a little bit of transnational work to pin down how much of the mercenary soldier story was fictive and how much was actual people going places, which is always a blurry kind of a line.


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MMM: So what could have been done differently? There were journalists discovering this activity, and the government was tracking it. What prevented it from being faced? Confronted? Halted?


KB: That’s a great question, because I think it’s a really tricky answer, and I think, for me, the ethics of this project have always been rooted in that question. And to the extent that this phenomenon has become resurgent in the present in a way that I sort of anticipated, it’s become very urgent to me. I think the utility in the book, in a lot of ways, is how can history teach us how we can learn from the past.

So, I think the answer is that at different moments different problems contributed to public misunderstanding of this movement. I should say from the beginning, I don’t think it’s the case of a whole bunch of complicit and bad people paving the way for racist violence committed by extremists. I think that this is a movement that uses activism that is very sophisticated and opportunistic in finding ways to circumvent existing structures of punishment and in using existing mainstream public opinion to create loopholes for itself.

This movement has also benefited from entrenched and systemic white supremacy in all kinds of different institutions. For instance, in Greensboro, North Carolina, neo-Nazis and Klan gunmen came together to shoot leftists protestors and killed five people. It’s caught on video from several different angles and you can see who is shooting, but they were acquitted in the state trial and the federal trial. A later civil trial returned only one of the deaths as wrongful, and it was for the one demonstrator who was not a card-carrying communist.

So, what’s happening there is a combination of using public opinion, which, at that time, painted the leftists as kind of dangerous outsiders and the Klansmen as patriotic good old boys who were just taking it too far, and things like preemptory challenges, which allow the dismissal of jurors without cause and enable the seating of an all-white jury. Preemptory challenges, which were so biased that they were overturned in North Carolina very shortly after the Greensboro trial (not because of Greensboro), are just one example of limitations on the capacity of courts to deal with racist violence. Lastly, in the federal trial the jury instructions stated that in order to prove that these gunmen were conspiring to deny the leftists their civil rights by killing them and keeping them from exercising their right to protest and free association it had to be for reasons of race.

So, because the gunman said that this was anti-communist violence, not racial violence, and because the rhetorical connections between those two things, which were intimately tied together in white-power ideology, were not made explicit, there was a lack of jury instruction to understand what this was and how one might then confront it. The jurors had no opportunity to really reckon with this event, because the system framed it so narrowly.


KB: And you see similarities in how people in the military faced the problem of what to do about white-power violence by active duty personnel in the 1980s and the ’90s. It takes them a very long time after stolen military weapons start going to white-power groups in the early ’80s to ban white-power activity among active duty personnel. And it’s an issue that is still largely unmonitored and unrecorded, so it’s something that we have a very, very amorphous understanding of even into the present.

That’s partly because the meaning of this movement was not made clear. This movement declared race war in 1983; it declared war on the federal government. I think reasonable people can agree that if you are at war with the federal government, you cannot also be fulfilling an oath that says you’re going to protect the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic, because you are yourself an enemy. But because that is not made clear, and because it is so splintered, and trying to occlude its own nature as a social movement, it’s able to circumvent a clear response from the military. And so those kinds of things happen over and over again. We have a history of all of these opportunities where we might have rendered a more decisive end to this movement.


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MMM: So, could you distill some of the lessons that you picked up that people who are trying to wrap their heads around white power and the way that white nationalism is being thrown into public conversation can pay attention to?


KB: One thing that is widely misreported and really important to understand is how long this movement has been using the internet. A lot of people still think of white power and affiliated activism starting on the internet after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. And certainly that’s when the main website, Stormfront, gets going. But these activists were using early computer message boards in 1984, on a network called Liberty Net. And that was not sort of a casual “I’m going to post on my olden-time keyboard message board” kind of situation. This was the movement stealing millions of dollars in Northern California, traveling through the country to distribute the money to groups in all regions, getting those groups to buy Apple minicomputers, and then sending an activist around to train them how to use these message boards in 1984. And the message boards included not only assassination lists and ideological content; they also included things like personal ads and religious information.

So, effectively this movement has been using social network activism online since way before Facebook. They are pioneers of these strategies that have proven incredibly effective at radicalizing people and bringing about social change in all kinds of different registers around the world. So when we’re thinking about the effect of the internet on this movement, we have to be mindful that they are incredibly good at this. They are generations in.

Another thing is just the broad idea that when we’re thinking about the impact of warfare on American society, every surge in vigilante violence in American society has correlated with the aftermath of warfare. And that’s not anything so simple as veterans coming home and doing violence. It’s not so cut-and-dry as a story like Rambo, because when we look at the statistics, the effect seems to be something more like it’s dispersed across genders and across age groups. So all of American society becomes more violent after warfare. We now are in this time of unending war and prolonged return and continual deployments and redeployments, stop-loss and other strategies that prolong that period of aftermath that is entirely new in American society, but we should assume that there will be repercussions on the home front for the violence of warfare abroad.

One last thing I would say is just that in the resurgence that we find ourselves in now—and I will say too that, as a historian, I don’t have the archive to speak with depth and authority about the current moment—is that the archive suggests that we have a very low body count so far. If we think about Charlottesville and the Tree of Life shootings in Pittsburgh, we are still at a very low body count. This movement has thought about acts of mass violence like the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, including 19 very young children, as not the end point of activism, but as events that are meant to awaken people to further guerilla violence and race war. So when we think about rising and waning violence, we have to think about these cyclical patterns that, in the past, have ticked up to further violence. I think the archive shows very clearly that we should expect further violence in the present.

MMM: Terrifying. So, in working together in the Histories of Violence Collective, we spent a lot of time talking about the politics and ethics of writing histories of violence. And we gave thought to how to do it responsibly. Is there a section of a paragraph in the book that was the most challenging for you to figure out how to write? How did you approach writing that section?


KB: I think my answer actually might be that the whole book has this problem, because there are several ethical questions related to depicting white-power violence. One is that some people have argued that naming these actors contributes to a sense of fame or notoriety that might spur others to violence. We see an example of this in one really excellent journalistic book about white power in the ’80s that Timothy McVeigh used to organize his cell in the ’90s, and we know that because he checked it out of the library, and made everyone read it.

Some scholars have, for this reason, elected not to name their sources when they write about these groups, or to name the specific groups. The problem for a historian is that others can’t replicate their research or track change over time, because you haven’t established a baseline archive of how it has worked. I struggled with this a lot. And also with the problem of different constituencies along the way that were concerned that I was extending too much historical empathy or not enough historical empathy to my actors.

For me, all of this comes down to the ethical question of how we think about what could be the good of the book. To me, depicting it and naming the people is an ethical call to treat white-power violence not as the isolated work of madmen or lone wolves, which is a frame that evacuates culpability both from the people doing the violence and from the broader movement that supports them, and also from the state and its role in waging wars, which come home into the domestic space in all kinds of unpredictable ways that we haven’t grappled with.

So to me, that project of accountability, the urgency of that, outweighs those other concerns. But it’s hard, because as you’re writing, you do have to weigh out exactly how you want to proceed through these things. I also find that, as a historian, without extending a degree of historical empathy, there is simply no way to follow the story. If you don’t take seriously that these actors believe in this as a persuasive political ideology, then there is no reason to follow them from place to place and figure out how this all fits together.

I actually followed the story into the archive from the idea of the overspill of warfare, and the thing that was surprising to me was the social movement. It was so surprising how deeply connected these activists were across the country, across groups. And, of course, that’s a story you get from looking at women. It’s much more than the story of political relationships with one another or ideological concurrence. It’s about when you come through town, someone will come and pick you up from the airport, and that person will be a member of the movement. And if there are problems in your marriage, you go to a counselor, and that will be someone in the movement. They take care of each other’s children, and they drive getaway cars, and disguise each other, and marry within the movement. All of this is a social movement. It’s deeply, deeply interconnected.


MMM: And if you don’t go there, and you don’t trace those stories, then you don’t get the bigger picture.


KB: Well, if you go into this framing them as madmen, you would never even look for those connections, or think about what might motivate a person to take this line of activism. Because you have to start with the assumption that they’re people who are making decisions within something that, for them, is a persuasive cultural imaginary, a persuasive repertoire, a persuasive set of stories.

MMM: So with that in mind, what’s the best piece of advice you have for students who are writing histories of violence? When I’m giving public talks, especially to graduate students, that’s the question that I get most often. Students who are sitting in archives of war, archives of lynching, they’re sitting with these documents, and they’re seeking some guidance. What’s your advice for them?


KB: My major piece of advice, and it’s so lovely to say this to you in this context, when both of our books have now come out, is to find other people who are doing this work, because communalizing the experience of encountering these archives is one of the ways that we take care of ourselves as we’re doing the work, but it’s also one of the most generative set of conversations that I have had about what does it mean, how do we write about it, how do we teach about it, how does it behave narratively? So working with you and others in the Histories of Violence Collective has been enormously important for me to be able to be in this archive and to be able to make sense of what I found there.


MMM: That’s the same answer I give. Find people. Share your work.


KB: [Laughter] Yes, and I guess we should probably plug that we have this website called the Histories of Violence Collective where you can go and find things like books that have been helpful to us for different reasons. And, I think, at some point, we’ll start putting contact information there for our graduate students. I have a number of people at the University of Chicago doing this kind of work now, and I know that you do at Brown as well. And they should be finding each other and talking about what it means to be doing the work.


MMM: And when you were writing and setting out on this project, what was one of the texts that you looked to for its sensitivity in the writing of the narrative?


KB: Oh, what a good question. We both studied with Alicia Schmidt Camacho. I think her treatment of violence has really been the major shaping model for me in that way. A lot of the new work that’s oriented around the carceral state does a really good job with violence and accountability. There are also the people who work on vigilante violence and lynching, including you, Kidada Williams in her work, and others who work along those lines. Elaine Tyler May’s new book, Fortress America, is fantastic at bringing together different kinds of violent experience into questions of what it means to live in a world structured by violence. I really highly recommend them.

MMM: Your book has received rave reviews from both academic and public media outlets. But you also deserve a lot of credit for the public writing that you do, contributing to a public conversation about white power, white nationalism, and terror. What are some of the strategies that you’ve used, and how do you think about current events and your work? What are your strategies for taking the research that you’ve done and bringing it to a public audience?


KB: I think my first piece of advice for academics that want to do public history is that the public doesn’t need us to oversimplify or “dumb down” the work that we’re doing in historical monographs. But I do think that we, as a profession, need to do some work in learning and teaching how to write for public consumption. Mostly because figuring out how to distill the stakes of historical argument such that they are relevant to the public debate is a learned craft, just like any other kind of writing. Figuring out how to think about news cycles and public discourse in such a way that you are ready to comment with the appropriate and pared-down part of your argument is a learned craft. And I have benefited enormously from the help of people who have been through this kind of writing and teaching themselves. Thinking about a historical monograph as a collection of claims about the present moment and also figuring out the stakes of your project in such a way that it breaks into smaller pieces is one of the concrete ways to approach public history.

There’s also cultivating relationships with people who are working in media, and not just op-ed page editors, but journalists and bloggers. For me, there’re a lot of people doing the very difficult and incredibly important work of trying to document in real time the kind of violence that I am looking at with all of the luxury and remove of the archive. Those people need the historical context, and they often need to know how to find an archive to look at something from a couple of years ago. Historians can provide journalists tools for how to understand something they’re seeing, or perspective on what might be different or the same. Things that feel very specialized, like historical conversations about change versus continuity, actually are exactly what journalists are sometimes wondering when they encounter white-power violence in the present.

So I’ve learned that my utility as a public scholar can range from giving somebody my take on an image or a quotation, or on a piece of violence that has happened, all the way up to writing an op-ed on “here is a big problem that we’re having in the reporting around events, and here is how we might address it.” It can also be in thinking about the ways that we might impact journalistic tropes—particularly, the “lone wolf” genre of reporting. For example, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting was reported as an act of exclusively antisemitic violence. In fact, it belongs squarely in the history of the white-power movement.

What does it mean to fail to draw those connections? If we want to be involved in changing how the media might think about a subject like this, it’s through relationships with people and talking with journalists about how they might use history in their work.


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MMM: In addition to being engaged with journalists and your public writing, how do you approach public talks, which are very different from speaking at a university or making academic formal presentations at a conference. How do you approach speaking to broad audiences?


KB: I try to vary the talk a little bit, based on who will be attending. And actually something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that presenting this work is tangibly different in places that have experienced white-power organizing and violence in their own community. So when I take this work to Charlottesville or Berkeley or Pittsburgh, now it’s just different, because people have a sense of urgency about the need to understand and the need to figure out how they might use history to better confront organized white-power activity in their lives. And this is becoming a pressing concern for more and more places and for more and more people, as they start to really reckon with what it means that these ideologies have come back into mainstream American politics.

Talking about the book in public is tricky, because it’s usually a pretty short presentation. I try to talk about the big provocative question of the relationship between warfare and peacetime, which I think is one of those loose-thread-on-a-sweater kind of moments that people can think about and unravel through many different areas of their own experience. In preparing talks, I try to think a lot about what we knew about white-power violence, what we forgot, and the mechanism of forgetting that we need to attend to in order to move past this as a danger to our democracy.

One of the ways I like to phrase this for audiences is that the Oklahoma City bombing is the largest deliberate mass casualty between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. It does not appear in our history books that way, and we still don’t have a narrative about it as part of an anti-government social movement that had been organizing to bomb this particular building for at least a decade and was following a strategy that had been in place since 1983. That is a strategy of cell-style terrorism that is not looking to have larger and larger numbers of people but looking to recruit a highly dedicated cadre of totally committed activists. That really recalibrates how we think about not only the Oklahoma City bombing but about this particular kind of activism that we have never devoted resources or public education to and that we could really change a lot by learning some history.


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MMM: What have you learned about your work since the book’s publication?


KB: I had the very odd experience of having this book shift from being seen as sort of a niche political extremism book to a mainstream “here is one tool in understanding our current moment” book, at the very last stages of writing. It used to have a whole section in it called “why it’s important to study the fringe” that ended up being cut, because the fringe has become self-evidently important in American politics. I think the thing that I’m learning is what I just described to you: this sort of tangible change in how people think about this in their own lives.

And I would say that the public conversation around this, post-Charlottesville, is unlike anything I write about in the book. We’re in a completely different moment of possibility in that there is public interest and a sense of public urgency around trying to make sense of this. There is a moment of opportunity here, I think, where simply the act of understanding it as a social movement—were that to percolate to juror education, investigative strategy, media representation, and public discourse—has the potential to really change the efficacy of white-power organizing.


This article was commissioned by Imani Radney. icon

Featured image: Kathleen Belew leading a session of The American Vigilante, a Winter 2019 colloquium at the University of Chicago. Photograph by Jean Lachat,