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American Nazis and the Fight for US History

Photo by Patrick Feller | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Patrick Feller | CC BY 2.0


“Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” Richard B. Spencer yelled in front of more than 200 attendees at his annual conference on November 19th, in the nation’s capitol. Several of his supporters then raised their right arms to give the Nazi salute. This video, taken by a reporter for The Atlantic, features Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white-nationalist think-tank in Washington D.C. Spencer is known for having created the term “alt-right.” He is also known for advocating for “a peaceful ethnic cleansing” of the United States.

“America was, until this past generation, a white country designed for ourselves and for our posterity. It is our creation. It is our inheritance. And it belongs to us,” Spencer declared during his speech.

When I first watched Richard Spencer at his NPI annual conference, like many, I was horrified by Spencer’s intentional references to Nazi language, imagery and ideology. In this political moment, as President-Elect Trump appoints to his cabinet, a crew of known white supremacists: Stephen Bannon as Chief Strategist; Jeff Sessions (Attorney General); and Michael Flynn (National Security Adviser), Spencer’s Neo-Nazi D.C. conference takes on a whole new, chilling power—not of a fringe, right-wing hate group, but of a mainstream, right-wing hate group.

After absorbing the initial shock of his fascist message, what disturbed me next about Spencer’s speech caught me somewhat off guard. The philosophy he was espousing didn’t sound totally foreign. In fact, something about it felt sickeningly familiar, like a relic from childhood.

I grew up in one of the most right-wing states in the country: Oklahoma. Formerly Indian Territory, Oklahoma was first created by the US government as an official dumping grounds for indigenous nations that were standing in the way of “white progress.” Under the doctrines of Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny, the US government removed at gunpoint, dozens of indigenous nations from all over North America. They were sent in death marches, on foot and by boat, to Indian Territory, an area the US government viewed as a wasteland, a place where no one should survive. US Explorer Stephen Long referred to this area as the “Great American Desert.”

In total, 64 nations were forcibly removed to Indian Territory between 1831-1878. After the Removals, these nations, having survived near genocide, then endured POW camps, rotten food rations, smallpox, massacres, multiple invasions, multiple land sequestrations, the Boarding School era, the Dawes Act, the Allotment era, the Curtis Act, the Land Run era, commercial oil discoveries on their lands, and finally, the complete annihilation of reservation land that remained, when Oklahoma became a state. The fact that many of these tribal nations are still here today, after all of this history, is an incredible testament to their strength, determination, spirituality and cultural resilience. These nations have been decimated since European settlers set sight on their lands over 500 years ago. And Oklahoma Native tribes have continued to survive and thrive, no thanks to the US government, who broke every single one of the more than 500 treaties it made with sovereign nations.

Today, the Oklahoma tourism industry brags about the fact that Oklahoma is currently home 39 federally recognized tribes. But how those 39 tribes got to Oklahoma is still a giant mystery for many non-Native Oklahomans, whose public school textbooks were ethnically cleansed of non-white histories a few generations ago.

Instead, the state history we were taught as kids was much more in line with the Doctrine of Discovery, Oklahoma style. We were taught that white settlers “discovered” vast open prairies when they came to settle this (presumably) uninhabited area in the late 1800s. These vacant lands were then “opened up” for (white) settlement in a series of Land Runs and Land Lotteries, which schoolchildren in Oklahoma still proudly re-enact to this day, during Western Heritage Week. The US government was giving away “free land,” our teachers said. People traveled from all over the country to grab 160 acres and “stake their claim.” We were never taught, as kids, that this land was somebody else’s. We were never taught that this land was treaty-protected Indian Territory. Nor were we taught the concept of “settler colonialism,” a distinct type of imperialism practiced in many parts of the world, where settler societies invade and replace indigenous populations.

No, we didn’t learn any of this. Instead, we were taught to embody, celebrate and emulate a “white cultural mythology” designed to elevate European colonial history above all other histories. This narrative–based on Manifest Destiny, Westward Expansion, and the Doctrine of Discovery–placed European Americans at the very center of every story, as the primary actors, agents, and engines of Western civilization, development and progress. If any non-white histories were presented at all, they were peripheral to European history and not explored in any depth.

Our public education therefore served its primary function of patriotic indoctrination, creating an inflated sense of self-importance about European American history and white culture. For young white students, US history was served up as a myopic, self-congratulating, historical fantasy.

Without any kind of outside interference, I believe this one-sided view of history, projected some 10 or 15 years out, could easily manifest itself into a deeply-rooted sense of white superiority– a cultural mythology that goes something like this:

“America was, until this past generation, a white country designed for ourselves and for our posterity. It is our creation. It is our inheritance. And it belongs to us.”

These are, again, the words of Herbert Spencer– the white supremacist, Nazi-saluting president of the National Policy Institute, and poster child for the “alt-right” movement. The fact that I recognize his origin story as the same one I was taught at a young age, is a fact that I find terrifying.

Spencer’s rhetoric, unfortunately, is not (just) the lunatic ravings of a sociopathic madman. No, this is a man who believes he has integrity, a man who bases his (fascist) conclusions on a core set of values and beliefs that he has likely embraced throughout his life, beliefs that have been supported in some large way by his community, his education, and his culture, without any major interruption. His rhetoric is also the logical result of a US history narrative that has, for generations, boldly lied about how this country was formed.

Had we all been taught in public schools that our country was founded on genocide (which is ongoing), and built on slavery (which is still legal in some states), as US schoolchildren, we might have evolved very differently, with a much more humble and critical perspective on our nation’s history of white supremacist violence, and a realistic vision for a more peaceful and just future–starting with a national truth and reconciliation process.

Imagine the possibilities for national healing, if most Americans could agree on some universal truths about our nation’s origin story—a story that recognizes the many atrocities of its founding; a story that embraces at its core human rights for all people: indigenous peoples, Africans, poor people, and immigrants from every nationality, every faith/religion, from all over the world.

This kind of democratic history education is perhaps most famously demonstrated by Howard Zinn in his seminal work, A People’s History of the United States. If a history book like this were required reading in US public schools, it would have a profound national impact. For example, it would render absolutely false any cultural narratives about white people’s entitlement to land and its fortunes. And the racist notion of all non-whites as “foreigners” and “illegal immigrants” would also be unlikely, given that we would have a shared understanding of the many thriving, non-European societies that were productively living on this continent long before Columbus, and long before US boundaries were ever formed.

There are international educational models that can guide us in an effort to address the atrocities of our nation’s history. Germany, for example, has made great strides in integrating holocaust history into its national curriculum. South Africa created, in 2000, an Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), with came out of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Process. The IJR “works with education officials and teachers, exploring two aspects – the impact of the past on teaching and teachers, as well as on how to teach a challenging ‘past’ in classrooms.” The US could learn a lot from these efforts. But without this kind of national process, we will continue to live in a country with extreme political factionalism and ideological polarization.

Furthermore, with a rapidly changing US demographic that will soon place European Americans in the minority population, the emerging fear for many white supremacists of losing racial power and privilege is already manifesting itself in a violent death grip. “A dying mule always kicks the hardest,” and so we see that white supremacist ideology is on the rise. We cannot censor Breitbart news, Fox news, and the National Policy Institute, but we can insist on dismantling white supremacist history. And we must.

In this moment, there’s little support for progressive history education on a national level. Even under Democratic administrations, the United States has long lacked the political will to institute a national Truth and Reconciliation Process for genocide or slavery. It has failed to acknowledge, let alone apologize, for these atrocities. And given the current direction of an incoming Trump administration, this kind of national healing is not even on the horizon.

And so we must take these fights to state and local levels. Our work is cut out for us. And one thing is painfully clear: Until we stop teaching history through a lens of white supremacy, Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and white supremacists like Richard Spencer will have a socially-sanctioned platform for a kind of fascism that should never be possible in a country that would dare to call itself a democracy.