American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress, by Wesley Lowery. Mariner Books, 2023. 272p, 9780358393269, $29.99, 9780358394983 ebook, $16.99
Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States in 2008 and subsequent re-election in 2012 marked a historic turning point in the nation’s centuries-long struggle against racism. However, this soon ignited a “whitelash”: a hostile backlash to Obama’s presidency from white supremacists, anti-immigration activists, neo-Nazis, and nativists who saw in his presidency not racial progress but evidence of racial replacement by a multicultural society that threatened to upend the long history of the United States as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation.
In this important book, Wesley Lowery (American Univ.; Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, CUNY), a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, charts how the rhetoric of white power divided the country and remains a powerful force as the 2024 presidential election approaches. Lowery builds on the work of such scholars as Ibram X. Kendi, Erika Lee, Carol Anderson, and the authors of The 1619 Project(CH, May’22, 59-2690), among many other scholarly sources, and complements his sources with profiles of perpetrators of racist violence and their victims.
Lowery’s purpose in writing American Whitelash is not “to analyze or characterize the actions of those … seeking to advance a system of white supremacy intentionally or otherwise” but to examine and explain the violence of avowed white supremacists who believe in the genetic and societal superiority of the so-called white race (p. 27). What seems to link white supremacist neo-Nazis and their ilk was the reaction to Obama’s presidency, which they believed solidified their belief in the idea of the “great replacement”: that elites, specifically Jews, are bringing in darker-skinned immigrants to replace white Americans (p. 73). This theory came to the United States through the writings of Jean Raspail, a French author whose dystopian novel The Camp of the Saints (1973) became essential reading among white supremacists along with William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries (1978), an anti-Semitic book that described the supposed Jewish plot to rule the United States.
The replacement theory entered the mainstream through Fox News where it became standard fare on Tucker Carlson’s show, reaching millions of viewers every night. This belief in a so-called brown invasion can also be traced back to social networking sites like Gab, which espoused the replacement theory along with anti-Semitic posts to nearly six million accounts through social media platforms. However, in the aftermath of the far-right Unite the Right rally in Charlottsville, VA, in August 2017, racism and anti-Semitism symbolically moved from the shadows of permissible speech into the mainstream of American political discourse. During the rally, neo-Nazis and white supremacists displayed banners with swastikas while marching and shouting “Jews will not replace us.” The rally made it evident that along with anti-Black racism, the demonstration was suffused with anti-Semitism and violence. In the days that followed, during which a white supremacist murdered Heather Heyer, a young woman counter-demonstrator, Lowery gives the incident and its aftermath full due in one of his chapters—then new President Donald Trump, when asked about the rally, stated that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
In previously questioning President Obama’s citizenship, speculating that Obama had been born abroad and was thus ineligible for the presidency, Trump became the voice of the birther movement beginning in 2012. In his own campaign for president in 2015–16, Trump appealed to those elements in American society that feared the United States was becoming a multicultural society that would leave white people behind. Trump’s popularity among white supremacists should not have surprised anyone. For decades, white supremacists had predicted that integration, affirmative action, multiracial families, and growing racial and ethnic diversity would bring about the end of the white race. Trump’s election, therefore, was the antidote to the election of a Black president, clearly showing “how far a white nation has succumbed to the suicidal stupidity of integration” (p. 1), as Pete Simi and Robert Futrell write in American Swastika (CH, Nov’10, 48-1786).
Soon after launching his campaign, Trump warned the American people that the migrants crossing the southern border from Mexico were “rapists.” Trump’s candidacy and later presidency stoked fears of ongoing waves of refugees being resettled in suburban America, as Trump declared over and over again that this was an “invasion.” His speech had consequences. Lowery tells of a twenty-one-year old white man who in August 2019 drove from Dallas, TX, to El Paso and murdered twenty-two people, specifically targeting Latino immigrants. Lowery writes, “In an online manifesto, the mass murderer stated explicitly that his own racist views predated Trump’s presidency. But he echoed the president’s ugly rhetoric about immigrant invasion and cited the white supremacist replacement theory” (p. 85).
Trump, Lowery concludes, “explicitly played to the racial discomfort of the Republican party’s nearly all-white political base and expanded it to include pockets of working-class white ethnic voters who had previously supported Democrats” (p. 11). However, Trump was not an outlier who played the race card to get elected; American history is in part the history of race and racism.
Lowery reminds readers that, following the election of 1876, which ended Reconstruction and introduced Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, literacy tests for voting, and lynching, the American South strove to emphasize to the generation that followed emancipation that they were not equal to whites and to deprive them as much as possible of their rights as citizens. In fact, anyone with even one drop of Black blood was considered Black in the American South. Even Nazi jurists who wrote the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, which deprived German Jews of their citizenship and created categories of Mischlinge, a pejorative term to denote people with supposedly mixed heritage, rejected the one-drop rule as going too far.
Black and Native Americans were not the only victims of racism. In 1882, Congress prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country for at least ten years. Lowery draws on the scholarship of historian Erika Lee, who writes in America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States(CH, Sep’20, 58-0235) that Americans have always been wary of every group of foreigners that has come to this country: German immigrants in the eighteenth century; Irish Catholics and Chinese in the nineteenth century; Italians, Jews, Japanese, and Mexicans in the twentieth century; and Muslims during the Trump administration. In the aftermath of World War I, when a revived Ku Klux Klan reached a membership in excess of four million members by 1924, Congress enacted the National Origins Act. The objective was to limit by quota the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The purpose of the law was directed at the birthrate of this new immigrant population that represented a threat to the primacy of the white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant majority. In an age when eugenics influenced policy, it was thought that new immigrants might become citizens, but they lacked the “instinct for liberty” that characterized people from Northern and Western Europe, who purportedly provided Americans with democratic institutions and a way of life—David Hackett Fischer proffers a fuller picture of the origins of American ideals in African Founders(CH, Dec’23, 61-1111). Lowery comments that this overtly racist law “was driven as much as anything by fear” (p. 43).
Lowery does not allude to the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, during which Robert Bowers, a white supremacist who believed that Jews are part of a conspiracy to destroy the white race, murdered eleven worshippers in the Pittsburgh, PA, synagogue and wounded six others in October 2018—the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. However, he does profile Frazier Glen Miller, a white supremacist who killed three people at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City, KS, in April 2014. At his subsequent trial for murder, Miller proudly stated that “I’m going to prove … that the Jews are committing genocide against white people” (p. 154). Found guilty of murder, Miller screamed “death to the Jews” (p. 157).
Bowers and Miller, together with Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in the Charleston Church massacre in South Carolina in 2015, and Peyton Gendron, who murdered ten Black people at a Buffalo, NY, supermarket in 2022, are examples of the white supremacist theory of “leaderless resistance” (p. 60). This strategy in the racial war against non-whites and Jews was formulated by Louis Beam, a former Klansman and member of the Aryan Nations. This form of decentralized warfare called for the unification of far-right communities through social media platforms leading to the emergence of “lone wolves” who, as Lowery points out, engage in violence without recourse to anyone but themselves, a phenomenon almost impossible to prevent (p. 133).
As the 2024 presidential election approaches, voters face a dilemma. The January 6 attempted coup at the Capitol shows that citizens cannot be complacent about the possibility of extremist violence impacting the results of the election. Lowery ponders how white supremacist elements can be effectively marginalized when their ideology is mirrored so closely in mainstream political rhetoric. Looking at the past, he states that “history shows clearly how the demonization of immigrants prompts violence towards new arrivals and how white supremacist groups have nearly from their inception manipulated the fear of immigrants and outsiders to strengthen their ranks” (p. 87).
Lowery raises a question: if the United States is to be a nation and society that holds multiracial democracy and freedom of speech as foundational values, “what do we do with those who would use one to go to war against the other?” (p. 88).
Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – Political Science – U.S. Politics
Jack Fischel is professor emeritus of history at Millersville University. He received his PhD from the University of Delaware and is the author/editor of nine books and hundreds of articles/reviews in various publications.