Understanding Charlottesville: How inequality, politics and privilege play into the alt-right

Sociologist Christopher Powell on the shift in society’s ‘economy of shame’ — from the shame of being non-white to the shame of being racist — and the systemic transformation needed to dissuade further violence. 

By: /
August 23, 2017
Members of white nationalists rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

This month bore witness to some of the ugliest and most vile aspects of American society, as a group of white supremacists met in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee. The weekend of Aug. 12 was punctuated by violence, most notably when a man driving a Dodge Challenger accelerated into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring at least 19 others.

Political leaders from both parties rushed to condemn the hateful violence perpetuated by white nationalists. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump decried violence on “many sides” and waited a full 48 hours before denouncing neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists and others in a prepared statement. A few days later, he rolled his position back, insisting on attributing blame to both sides, while maintaining that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

In the days since, bipartisan criticism poured over the president for his callous choice of words, and by the end of the week the White House had removed Steve Bannon — the Breitbart ideologue who once bragged of courting the alt-right. Meanwhile, protests have continued from Boston to Vancouver, where thousands marched in opposition to the white nationalist movement, dwarfing the handful of neo-Nazis, KKK members and other hate groups.

To better understand what perpetuates this kind of violence, OpenCanada spoke with Christopher Powell, a sociologist at Ryerson University in Toronto, whose research focuses on differences within society, violence and genocide. 

What was your reaction to the violence in Charlottesville?

It's always horrifying. There's a kind of double edge to studying this sort of thing. On the one hand you get familiar with it the way an oncologist gets familiar with cancer, and it doesn't surprise you. But if you're an oncologist and you see the signs of cancer in somebody close to you, in a way you're that much more horrified because you know what could follow. What I don't feel is surprise, because I think this kind of thing has been coming, and there will be more of it.

If you think about white people as a social group, which is kind of a fictive social group, it’s defined in terms of a symbolic esteem that's attached to a certain identity. And when a status group that's been dominant is threatened with the loss of that, it can usually start trying to use violence, trying to use power, to restore its status. And we see that over and over again around the world.

What is the relationship between these alt-right groups and traditional politics?

In our [Western] society we have a tendency to naturalize whatever is stable and familiar around us. That's useful, you can't reexamine your fundamental assumptions about reality every time you put your pants on in the morning. So the interesting thing about status, privilege or a position of dominance is that, to the people who occupy it, it doesn't seem like dominance, it doesn't seem like privilege, it just seems like the way things are.

Anti-racist writers have been saying for a long time one of the most powerful effects of white privilege is that white people don't think of themselves as white people, and they don't think of themselves as privileged. Now I don't want to collapse the distinction, which is really important, between the average white person and white supremacists. The kind that we see in Charlottesville, the self-conscious, intentional, white supremacists — there's a world of difference that's really important. But…one of the factors that motivates people and enables people is that there's a taken-for-granted sense of a reality in which their identity is or ought to be defined in a certain way and not challenged. They see themselves as fighting back against something that's threatening to them.

A lot of people looked to Donald Trump when the violence was erupting to see how he would respond, and over the course of the week he seemed to have doubled down on his original message. Why do you think this is the case?

There's been a certain politics for a long time now of ‘political centrism,’ in which the only political parties that can hope to be elected are centre left or centre right.

For a very long time the radical left has been trying to free itself from the dominance of the centre — that's what theories of counter-hegemony are all about, to try to get workers to stop buying into the centre and align themselves with a more progressively left agenda. And we're seeing the right also doing this now successfully, mobilizing people with no regard to the centre, with no ambition of taking the centre. Trump is playing to that. He's been playing to that all along, which is why he doesn't act like a normal president. He's not at all thinking about drawing in the people on the left half of the political spectrum. His base of support is in this disaffected right that even sees the mainstream Republican Party as too compromised. Trump is more like a social movement leader who defines himself by refusing to compromise and is proud of that.

Obama was always trying to co-opt people on the centre right. He was always trying to appeal to moderate Republicans to get them into his camp. Basically every American president has been trying to do that for a really long time. But Trump isn't trying to do that. He's part of a different kind of strategy. Every politician decides who they're not going to bother trying to appeal to, but where he has drawn the line is really much further towards the right than has previously been the case. He's not even trying to be president for everyone.

What is behind events like the ones we saw in Charlottesville? Are you worried that we could see similar violence elsewhere?

I'm worried not just about sporadic acts of violence, but about a deeper shift in the way that power is organized and exercised.

In state societies there's a kind of “economy of shame” and we're subordinated to the sovereign, and by “the sovereign” I mean not necessarily an actual person but a symbol, and we compensate for that by expecting others to be subordinate to us, at least in the symbolic sense.

After the First World War, Turkey agreed to structure itself not as a cosmopolitan empire but as an ethno-nationalist secular state where Turkishness was the dominant identity; so the sovereign is Turkish. Turkishness is celebrated, and the sovereign is strong and dominates others, especially non-Turkish ethnic groups within the state. And so ordinary Turkish people who are not necessarily privileged in class terms, or have any real power, identify with the symbolic figure of the sovereign, and they get a kind of psychological compensation for the vicissitudes of their own life. But that only works as long as that dominance is made real to some degree in ways that they can see. It requires that Armenians, for instance, be humiliated and oppressed in various ways, so the average Turk can feel really secure about their Turkish identity. And you see how all of this applies to whiteness in America.

White racism works the same way. It's the way white Americans can feel a sense of psychological satisfaction from seeing themselves better than non-white Americans. A lot of that is unconscious; it's just woven into the way things are.

"It might be that we need a fundamentally different structure for how we deal with these kinds of differences."

What's been going on with the movement towards cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism has been an attempt to realign this "economy of shame." The cultural left has been trying to reconstruct a new sovereign. The sovereign is no longer white, male, cisgendered and so on, the sovereign is now a post-modern heterogeneous figure who is gender fluid, not heteronormatively male, and not white. And so, instead of being ashamed for not being white, the cultural left’s project is that you should be ashamed for being a racist. And so, there's a certain intensity to these constructs. There’s a cultural right that is reacting to that and trying to tear it apart.

One of the things that the militant, overt, white supremacist events do is make dialogue difficult, if not impossible. You can't always “dialogue” with people. It might be that we need a fundamentally different structure for how we deal with these kinds of differences, and that's enormously difficult.

It hasn't been intense in Canada in the same way but a more cosmopolitan project could start to come apart here as well.

From a sociological perspective, what compels someone to drive their car into a crowd of protestors?

One possibility is that when people act like this they perceive a threat to themselves. Even though an objective bystander would say it's not self defence, the person who's in that mindset in that moment may feel like they're acting in a kind of self defence. If your identity and day-to-day, taken-for-granted reality are constructed in terms of privilege and status dominance, what that can mean is that when your dominance is threatened, your identity is threatened. Your sense of self is threatened. A person could experience that on an emotional level as a threat to themselves, even as a kind of survival threat, even though that's not rational in a detached, objective sense.

Further, there's been unsteady economic growth for a very long time now. There's been deindustrialization and people who are experiencing loss of their livelihoods. How many people lost their houses and homes in that [2008 recession] fiasco? Home ownership is a major symbol of personhood in American culture. To be a successful human being you have to be economically successful, and home ownership is one of the most tangible symbols of that. And I think even more than in Canada there's a very strong culture where esteem and shame are attached to class position. So if you're poor you're supposed to be ashamed of that and blame yourself for it.

One of the things that people do when they're faced with some kind of humiliation is they try to compensate for it. This might be an experience we can all relate to, you get into a confrontation with somebody that you think is completely in the wrong and you expect them to see the error of their ways. You expect to come out of the confrontation victorious, but that doesn't happen. They refuse to be ashamed, and so then you come out humiliated. We'll probably all experience that at some point, and I can imagine that being part of the emotional landscape of a white supremacist, but in a deeper way.

A lot of your research revolves around how we deal with differences in society while also trying to improve society. What do you think the next steps should be?

People need decent education, they need decent conditions of living, they need decent employment, wages, and social and cultural inclusion. If you give that to everybody you drain away a lot of the anger, shame and pain that fuels this kind of violence. But how to achieve that is the difficult question because our economy is so unsteady.

What's happening, in a larger global sense, is that people are finding it difficult to be generous. Progressive politics, as I understand it, is oriented toward generosity, and generosity relies on the idea that what's good for everybody is good for me too. And when things are really uncertain, and when things are bad and hard and stressful, people are more easily drawn to more ungenerous modes where they’re willing to do things at others’ expense to get by. It's been a long time building, this angrier, more zero-sum orientation.

For me, ultimately resolving these forms of violence requires a systemic transformation, and that includes a change in our economic system, and how we produce and distribute wealth. But how we change the system is going to be part of what new system we create. So I'm encouraged by movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Idle No More — movements that try to operate in a very inclusive, egalitarian, non-hierarchical sort of fashion. But, we need to get better at forging those kind of horizontal connections.

 I think people need to go on trying to change the system even though in the short to medium term we're going to keep meeting roadblocks, and keep seeing things not work out, because trying and failing is a learning process. What we need most is to learn alternative ways of organizing our relationships with each other. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.