In Charlottesville at a rally of white nationalists, a man with neo-Nazi sympathies drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer. The need to condemn racist ideologies and the violence they inspire remains urgent.
The language we use to combat racism matters. Calling white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and their ilk “far right” or “extreme,” rather than white supremacists or the like, only obscures their vile nature and helps them falsely claim ties to mainstream America. White supremacists openly welcome such labels—the event in Charlottesville was called the “Unite the Right” rally.
Whether we look to USA Today op-ed pages or the Anti-Defamation League or beyond, often we see critics of white racists refer to them as “far-right” or “right-wing extremists.” A recent media release by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado criticized Donald Trump’s administration regarding its handling of “far-right extremism,” as did a letter signed by Bennet and twenty-three other senators.
However well-intentioned, charges that racists are right-wing or extreme serve to give the racists cover by lumping them together with many respectable people and intellectual traditions.
Many people call themselves “center right,” by which they mean roughly that they support lower taxes and less regulation. Although I eschew the label, I have attended local center-right meetings filled with good people with whom I often ally in politics. Neo-Nazis are quite happy to be called “far right” because of the seeming implication that they have something in common with my “center right” friends. But they have nothing in common. Being a racist is not a more extreme version of being for low taxes (or the like); logically the two things have nothing to do with each other.
The basic problem with the terms left and right as applied to politics is that they imply two opposing viewpoints. But typical ways of describing left and right combine various views that are not alike.
Today in America “the left” generally is understood to refer to advocacy of a robust welfare and regulatory state as often championed by Democrats. “The right” usually is associated with conservatism that advocates governmental restraint. Where do white supremacists fit into this? They don’t.
Of course, some people on today’s left would call all conservatives and advocates of limited government racists and say that neo-Nazis and the Klan represent an extreme form of that evil. But not only is this view unjust toward the scores of millions of Americans who regard themselves as right-wing and who condemn racism—many of whom are members of the Party of Lincoln—but it gives the racists a false claim to an affinity with those Americans.
This is not to say that all conservatives and advocates of limited government have done a good job distancing themselves from racists. For years many conservative Republicans beat the anti-immigration drum with a nod and a wink toward those who reject most immigration on racial grounds. Who can forget Trump’s slander of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, exempting only “some” as “good people”? Such libertarians as Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul (or at least Ron Paul’s ghostwriter) openly flirted with racists.
Part of the problem is that the term conservative is itself ambiguous: What is being conserved? White supremacists can claim that they’re trying to “conserve” the tradition of racial oppression.
Yet insofar as conservatives aim to conserve America’s tradition of liberty—the principles that all people are “created equal” and have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—they fall squarely within the classical liberal tradition of representative government, individual rights, and free markets.
There is no logical link between “right wing” views of limited government or classical liberalism and racism. Classical liberalism generally is individualist and hence anti-racist. Racists generally call for powerful government action to keep people with the “wrong” skin tone at bay.
American leftists who wish to paint free-market “right wingers” with the racist brush would do well to remember that eugenics once was a Progressive cause, and the Democratic Party once was the pro-slavery party. Do we want to play games of guilt by association or get down to the serious business of eradicating racism?
The tag of extremism is just as troublesome. We must ask, extremely what? Shouldn’t we be extremely opposed to racism and not just moderately opposed? The Abolitionists were extremists; they sought to overthrow an institution that had existed for thousands of years. Gandhi was extremely nonviolent. America’s Founders sought the extreme goal of separating from England. Extreme doesn’t always mean bad. (Yes, I also think people should stop calling Muslim terrorists “extremists.”)
If you mean racist, then say racist. If you mean violent, then say violent. To get serious about fighting racism, we need to stop obscuring its nature with vague labels and call it what it is.
A version of this article originally was published by the Colorado Springs Gazette on August 26, 2017.
Image: Evan Nesterak