Maybe now when I tell you that we’re not in a post-racial society, you’ll pay attention, OK?
The latest evidence includes an intriguing debate over how to identify the loosely organized but increasingly prominent alt-right movement.
Should we call them by their chosen label, “alt-right,” which is short for “alternative right?” Or should we address them as I prefer by such traditional labels as “white nationalists” or simply “white supremacists?”
It’s a tricky question because the alt-right is a Twitter-age hashtag movement like the tea party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, “NotMyPresident” protesters and whatever other new movement may be percolating into a flash mob.
The question gained new prominence after President-elect Donald Trump chose Steve Bannon to be his chief strategist. Among other achievements, Bannon is former chairman of Breitbart Media, which he described last summer in a Mother Jones interview as “the platform for the alt-right.”
Does that mean a guy who proudly helped to provide a “platform” for anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, ethno-nationalistic pranksters and provocateurs will now have a White House office and the president’s ear?
Bannon’s defenders argue that Breitbart is not a white nationalist site and that Bannon is not a racist, anti-Semite or other kind of hater. Joel Pollak, senior editor at large for Breitbart News Network, memorably attributed such charges to sore losers on the left, “still in tantrum mode” after losing the recent presidential election.
No question that Trump owes Bannon, as Trump likes to say, “big league.” Trump’s campaign seemed dead on its feet until Bannon took charge. Yet imagine for a moment if President Barack Obama gave a White House post to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and you’ll have some idea what the fuss over Bannon and the al-right is about.
In America’s long tradition of political pendulum swings, the rise of the alt-right or something very much like it was downright predictable. The end of slavery and the beginning of citizenship for all African-Americans brought the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
The passage of federal civil rights and voting rights legislation in the mid-1960s brought the rise of “white backlash,” the presidential candidacy of George Wallace and the beginnings of today’s racial polarized political parties.
The feminist advances of the 1970s produced a similar reaction as described in the title of Susan Faludi’s landmark 1991 book, “Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women.”
And we have President Barack Obama’s election and very real backlash of tea party politics and congressional gridlock that followed, culminating with the thoroughly unexpected rise of candidate Trump.
The alt-right rose early in Obama’s first term with a website founded by Richard B. Spencer that was described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “loaded with contributors who … have long lamented the white man’s decline.”
Spencer caused an uproar last weekend by celebrating Trump’s victory with raised-arm Hitler-style salutes and “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” at a gathering in Washington that went viral on the web. The conference of about 200 attendees was held by the National Policy Institute, which describes itself as “dedicated to the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent.”
Earlier haters smeared non-whites as inferior. Post-1960s haters claim white guys can’t catch a break, even when they want to have a little innocent fun by making fun of woman and other groups.
In a recent episode of public radio’s “On the Media,” Andrew Morantz, who has reported on the alt-right for The New Yorker, divided this political species into four subgroups. White nationalists are only one of them, with their war on immigration and multiculturalism.
The other three are web trolls with no specific agenda other than to make themselves an irritating nuisance, anti-feminists who delight in harassing women and, finally, the paranoid conspiracy theorists who weave an alternative reality on the Internet to explain every human disaster as part of a larger plot.
What I hear in their rhetoric is the latest version of an ancient narrative intended to divide the races against each other as we try to claim what every American should be looking for: a fair chance to work hard and earn a better future for ourselves and our families.
It would be much too simplistic to credit or blame the rise of Trump or the rejuvenation of the far right on racial issues alone. But we’re not “post-racial” either. Not yet.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at [email protected]. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.