What’s in a Word: white nationalism


What does it mean?

White nationalism is a sector of the U.S. right-wing political sphere that is characterized by a white supremacist ideology.

As Chip Berlet explained, in a 1992 piece co-authored with Margaret Quigley, white nationalism “oscillates between brutish authoritarianism and vulgar fascism in service of white male supremacy” and white nationalists believe that “social problems are caused by uncivilized people of color, lower-class foreigners, and dual-loyalist Jews.”

Political Research Associates identifies white nationalism as a faction of what it calls the “xenophobic right.” Under the umbrella of white nationalism, it identifies four different major groups:

  • “cultural supremacists,” who believe that non-white people can, and should, adopt white culture
  • “biological racists,” who rely on (false) essentialist views of race
  • “segregationists,” who want race-based enclaves within a country
  • “separatists,” who want separate nations for different races

What’s the difference between white nationalism and white supremacy?

White supremacy is an ideology—a way of understanding the world—as well as a system of oppression, whereas white nationalism is a political faction that practices that ideology and upholds that system.

Some, such as Barbara Perry in her 2001 book In the Name of Hate, and Mana Kharrazi, at “Beyond the Safety Pin,” have argued that white nationalism is a coded term for white supremacy, or a rebranding of white supremacy.

Although the terms aren’t synonymous, it is true that white nationalist groups trade in using coded language to obscure their white supremacy. As Perry points out:

In their search for respectability, some hate groups have rejected explicitly racist terms for more “subtle” code words that act as proxies for traditional rhetoric. Primary among these is the assurance that they don’t hate blacks or Jews or gays; rather they simply love their own race.

This is what makes it possible for blatantly white supremacist leaders like Richard Spencer and David Duke to deny being white supremacist while simultaneously saying things like, “America was until this past generation a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

White nationalists often claim that it’s not that they hate people of color, it’s just that they naturally, as white people, love white people best—and, importantly, they wholeheartedly believe that white people and white culture are under attack.

They see white people and white culture as inherently or “naturally” superior, but instead of understanding that this is actually the definition of white supremacy, they are convinced it’s simply an unassailable truth.

Should I use this term?

Yes, but when you do, be clear that white nationalism and white nationalists are white supremacist in nature.

A good standard that many media outlets use is to say “white nationalist and white supremacist,” to avoid the risk that a reader may interpret white nationalist as a neutral term divorced from racism.

What’s your take on white nationalism? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me!

Note: Many thanks to Jessica Campbell, co-director of Rural Organizing Project, for her help with this post.

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Word: white nationalism

  1. Great resource, thanks.

    After some feedback, in part from folks at ROP and PRA. I concocted this expanded version:

    What is White Nationalism?

    White Nationalism is an ideology and system of power that constrains our activities in the United States in ways that range from subtle to blatant. White Nationalism is extolled by organized supremacist groups and armed insurgents, but also by major media figures and political leaders.

    The term “White Supremacy” is often used by academics to describe a constellation of racist ideas and practices. I use the following terms to break the concept into more easily grasped component parts, especially when speaking to audiences that are predominantly White.

    White Superiority is the specious idea that White people are a uniquely talented “race.”

    White Nationalism claims that the essence of the United States as a nation is carried in the social, cultural, economic, and political practices of European settlers.

    White Supremacist System refers to the systems, structures, and institutions of a nation that give White people special privileges and powers whether or not they want them or harbor a dislike of other races.

    Organized White Supremacist Groups are social and political organizations with the goal of ensuring White people exercise power over all non-white people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for this, Chip! I’m so honored that you weighed in.

      I really appreciate your break-down of white superiority, white nationalism, white supremacist system, and organized white supremacist groups — this is incredibly helpful.

      The one thing I’m struggling with is your characterization of white nationalism as “an ideology and system of power” rather than a political faction. My understanding of white nationalism as a political faction was (as you can see above) very much informed by your own writings and the writings of PRA on the subject.

      To my mind white supremacy is the larger system, whereas white nationalism is a political faction (or political movement, perhaps?) that actively makes use of white supremacy as an ideology and a system that confers power to white nationalists in manifesting their goals — and ultimately white nationalism is a key component in the white supremacist system.

      Since I wrote this piece on white nationalism, I’ve written a different piece on white supremacy: https://radicalcopyeditor.com/2017/04/21/white-supremacy

      I would love your additional thoughts on this! I so appreciate your input, your expertise, and all of the vital work you do in the world.


      1. I ran into conflicting uses and definitions, especially in social science and terminology involving White Nationalism and White Supremacy.

        Do all White Nationalists support White Superiority? No. A number of White Nationalists claim that they support Black Nationalism on the basis of mutual respect; as well as the idea of other racial or ethnic nation states.

        OK I am suspicious of these claims….but they publish stuff that gets analyzed by scholars who can’t just say they are liars.

        There is also a body of work, often by people of color, that uses the terms “White Supremacy” and “White Supremacist System” as describing the same overlapping set of racist ideas and practices. So I am going to respect that tradition, but try and help other White folks like me understand what I am talking about by expanding the vocabulary.

        “White Nationalism” is not just a political project of the Right in the US, and although it is a political project of “Organized White Supremacist Groups” it is also a political project of a substantial faction of the Republican Party as well as some Democrats. A lot of White folks agree with many of the concepts behind White Nationalism but don’t know it or repress it as a fact with which they need to struggle.

        If you tell the average audience of White people that they are White Supremacists they will resist being educated because they think of the Klan and the Neonazis–and that’s not them.

        So I break it down:

        “White Superiority” is the specious idea that White people are a uniquely talented “race.”

        And these ideas are not just held by members of “Organized White Supremacist Groups.”

        “White Supremacist System” refers to the systems, structures, and institutions of a nation that give White people special privileges and powers whether or not they want them or harbor a dislike of other races. So this links to the historic use of the term by many people of color scholars and activists, but places it in a context that can be absorbed by a White audience, which was the primary audience of the report for which I wrote the set of definitions.



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