The Elite Roots of Richard Spencer’s Racism
Alt-right racist Richard Spencer personifies a common, if overlooked, phenomenon: the well-educated and well-off bigot.
If Richard B. Spencer craved attention, he certainly received it in abundance in 2016.
Spencer, a white nationalist widely credited with coining the term “alt-right,” rocketed to perverse national stardom after delivering a November 19 speech in Washington DC before a likeminded audience of two hundred. At the end of the speech, Spencer proclaimed, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” as those in attendance raised their right arms in Nazi salutes. Video of the speech and the Nuremberg rally–style response it provoked went viral, airing repeatedly on social media, NBC, MSNBC, and CNN. The speech also received extensive coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
For many, it was their introduction to Spencer’s marginal-but-toxic brand of politics, which he conceives of as a repudiation of mainstream conservatism. Convinced that leftists have seized control of the culture and are determined to wipe out “white racial identity” with “an undifferentiated global population, [a] raceless, genderless, identity-less, meaningless population consuming sugar, consuming drugs, while watching porn,” the head of the blandly named National Policy Institute seeks to carve out a whites-only homeland within the present-day United States.
“We conquered this continent,” he told a mostly hostile audience at Texas A&M University on December 6. “Whether it’s nice to say or not, we won and we got to define what America means and we got to define what this continent means. America, at the end of the day, belongs to white men.”
Spencer’s goal is to create a white ethno-state through what he vaguely calls “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Openly opposed to democracy, he supports rule by “racially pure” elites. “I believe in elites,” he said at A&M. “I believe that culture and society, to a very large degree, not totally, but to a very large degree . . . come from the top down. I believe that elites set a tone for the country.”
Spencer wants all to believe that his brand of American white nationalism is something entirely original — “a new beginning, a new starting point for conservatism in America.”
And too often mainstream news outlets have taken the bait, effusing at Spencer’s supposed cultural polish and unwittingly aiding the thirty-eight-year-old’s quest to give white supremacy a fresh veneer.
A recent Mother Jones feature describes him as “dapper,” noting how, during an interview, he “uses chopsticks to deftly pluck slivers of togarashi-crusted ahi from a rectangular plate” at a “Continental-style lounge . . . near his home in the upscale resort town” of Whitefish, Montana. A 2013 portrait in Salon depicts him “sipping his chai latte at the Red Caboose, a train-themed coffee shop” and notes that he’s “clean-cut and restrained” and has a “tidy appearance.”
Bourgeois reporters seem shocked to meet a racist who is apparently one of them, not some cartoonish working-class stereotype, drinking a Budweiser in a t-shirt and mangling English like Archie Bunker.
But while Spencer may startle the press, he represents a common and longstanding (if overlooked) phenomenon: the well-educated and financially comfortable bigot.
In fact, his blend of racism and elitism represents only an extreme version of a worldview that has long prevailed among the affluent in Spencer’s hometown — and that has long marked Texas mythology.
Richard Spencer’s Dallas
Spencer was born in Boston, but spent much of his childhood in Texas. He grew up in the 1980s and ’90s in the tiny Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas, which is significantly whiter than the city as a whole and boasts a median household income of more than $120,000. Today, George W. Bush and billionaires like Mark Cuban, Ross Perot, and T. Boone Pickens all call Spencer’s old neighborhood home.
Spencer attended a pricey boys’ prep school in the city, St Mark’s School of Texas. Former classmates, when asked by Mother Jones, told conflicting stories about Spencer’s attitudes towards race in his high school days. Spencer befriended John Lewis, one of the few African Americans at St Mark’s at the time. Lewis said he never perceived Spencer as a racist. Another former St Mark’s classmate said, however, that he heard Spencer making “a bunch of conservative, racially laced comments.”
Whatever Spencer’s political persuasions as a teenager, it’s safe to say that Texas culture, particularly the milieu of elite Dallas, served as an incubator for the fascist-aping racial separatist Spencer became as an adult.
For generations, Dallas has produced quieter Richard Spencers. Most haven’t made Nazi salutes, but for a century and a half, the city’s upper class mocked black and brown people, promoted their own version of racial separatism called Jim Crow, and sneered at democracy no less than Spencer.
White supremacy stamps the Dallas landscape. Dallas schools still sport the names of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and John B. Hood; Confederate postmaster and local politician John H. Reagan; General (and later Dallas mayor) William Cabell; and local banker and Confederate officer William Henry Gaston. A Confederate war memorial featuring statues of Lee, Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnston (another general), and Jefferson Davis forms the centerpiece of Pioneer Park Cemetery. The Confederate coat of arms and other references to the slave past are embedded in the architecture of Dallas’s Fair Park, which hosts the Texas State Fair every year. Robert E. Lee Park, which contains an enormous equestrian sculpture of the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, takes up more than fourteen acres of city land.
One would scarcely know that the Confederacy comprised just four years of the city’s history, that there was considerable opposition to secession in East Texas, and that no decisive Civil War battles unfolded in Texas.
For most of the twentieth century, the decisions about who and what to honor in the city’s past came, as Spencer would say, from the top down. And Dallas has often chosen to honor human bondage and anti-black oppression.
R. L. Thornton Freeway bears the name of a businessman who served as mayor of Dallas from 1953 to 1961 and once belonged to the Klan. In the 1920s, Thornton owned Dallas County State Bank, which proudly advertised itself as a “KKK Business Firm 100%.”
If slaveowners founded and ran Dallas before the Civil War, the city’s wealthiest and most powerful remained largely unashamed of their racism for the hundred years that followed.
The Dallas Herald hysterically warned of plots to “impose negro supremacy” during Reconstruction. Prominent Dallasites during that era protected an English immigrant, W. R. A. Vivion, who terrorized freedmen by forcing them at gunpoint to graze like cattle. Elites may have been involved in the assassination of an army officer newly appointed to run the Freedmen’s Bureau, George F. Eben, before he could even reach the town.
The city’s ruling class engineered the 1913 election to Congress of Hatton W. Sumners, who became a defender of lynching on the national stage. In 1922, Sumners blamed mob murders of African-American men on “this preaching of social equality” between blacks and whites, which he said only incited black men to rape white women.
In the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan became a national power, Dallas claimed the largest chapter in the United States with thirteen thousand members. Among its ranks were Police Chief Elmo Strait, future police chief Jesse Curry, executives of the Dallas Power & Light Co., the superintendent of the local Ford Motor plant, the chair of the Democratic Party, the county tax assessor, and local journalists. Hiram Wesley Evans, a Dallas dentist who practiced in a prime downtown office just across the street from the city’s elegant Neiman Marcus department store, served as “exalted cyclops” (head) of the Dallas Klan and later led a palace coup that made him national leader of the group, the “imperial wizard.”
Meanwhile, elites turned Dallas schools into conveyor belts of white supremacy, as racism joined “readin’” and “’ritin’” as part of the “Three Rs.”
In the 1920s, the school board provided a textbook for immigrant children that used jokes about a fictional stereotypical African American named “Rastus” to teach “new Americans” English. Biology textbooks from the 1920s to the 1940s promoted eugenics. History texts taught students that Africa was a land of “cannibals and strange wild beasts of the forests” and that, before extensive contact with Europeans via slavery and colonization, Africans themselves were “dark of skin . . . [and] even darker of mind, for the light of civilization had not yet reached them.”
The racist environment of Dallas-area schools did not vanish after the civil rights era. The first desegregation order aimed at the Dallas Independent School District was issued in 1955. Yet a court did not declare that “segregation . . . no longer exists in the DISD” until 2003, long after legions of white parents had fled the ever-blacker and browner Dallas school system to settle farther and farther north, first to suburbs, and then to even whiter exurbs.
Like Spencer, Dallas’s “respectable” elites sneered at democracy over the decades. Justin Kimball, a Dallas school superintendent from 1914–1924, argued in a 1927 book that it was dangerous to grant the vote to the lower classes. “Ignorant or corruptible citizens can always be counted on to vote, although they usually vote wrong,” he complained.
The same decade, Dallas intellectual Lewis Dabney warned of the dangers of politically enfranchising the masses. “The trouble about a democracy,” he griped, “is that things are settled by voting and ninety-five percent of the voters, not having the sense of an ant or squirrel in the summer, but having the vote, will ravage the stores of those who have laid up a few nuts when they could . . . they will tear the whole fabric of civilization to pieces.”
A 1924 world history textbook used in Dallas schools even praised Benito Mussolini for crushing labor unions, restoring law and order, and creating social stability.
The Origin Myth
Dallas’s elite racism alone did not nourish Spencer’s worldview.
Spencer’s ideas, such as they were, formed more fully after prep school, when he enrolled at the University of Virginia, and later in the master’s program in humanities at the University of Chicago.
According to Mother Jones, it was in college that Spencer first encountered the works of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, an anti-egalitarian who saw history as shaped by “great men” who mold events to their will, often in defiance of the masses. In graduate school, he came across the racist pseudo-academic Jared Taylor, whose works introduced Spencer to the concept of white nationalism. Spencer later edited the American Conservative, only to be dismissed for his extreme views, and then migrated to the fringes of the libertarian movement, serving as executive editor of Taki’s Magazine. It was only in 2010 that Spencer started using the term “alt-right” to describe himself and his racist movement.
But Spencer’s Lone Star roots also shouldn’t be overlooked. He undoubtedly absorbed Texas’s Origin Myth, the legend of Texas as a frontier where brave white pioneers rolled back a red and brown human wave, planting a purportedly superior Anglo civilization in a supposed wilderness. Spencer fears that immigrants will reverse this conquest.
The Texas myth is captured perfectly in The Searchers, a 1956 John Wayne cowboy epic that Spencer has described as “perhaps my favorite movie.” Set in West Texas in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the film, directed by John Ford, offers viewers a grab bag of Native American stereotypes. The Indian warriors, played by white actors bedecked in feathers and war paint, scalp their captives, and rape and murder white women. The film’s white characters dismiss indigenous people as “childish savages.” Wayne plays the hero of the film, a Native-hating Confederate veteran named Ethan. Ethan spends the movie in search of a niece who has been captured by a bloodthirsty chief named “Scar.”
Spencer told the audience at his Texas A&M talk that he loves one scene in particular from The Searchers. It involves an exchange between a former teacher, Mrs. Jorgensen, and her Swedish immigrant husband, Lars. The Jorgensens lost a son to the Indians. Lars laments relocating to the violent Texas landscape. “It’s this country killed my boy!” Lars cries out. Mrs. Jorgensen will have none of it. “Now Lars! . . . It so happens we be Texicans,” she declares. “A Texican’s nothin’ but a human man out on a limb . . . This year an’ next and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country will be a fine good place to be . . . Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”
Spencer believes that the era and place he grew up — late twentieth-century Texas — represented another frontier, this one overtaken by Mexicans and other immigrants who will make the state no longer a “good place to be.” He sees Mrs. Jorgenson’s speech as a clarion call for whites today to defend their allegedly embattled heritage. “Texas is a wonderful place to live,” he told the contentious crowd at College Station. “And there are a lot of the white man’s bones in the ground to make that happen. White people did it . . . Our bones are in the ground. We own it. In the end America can’t exist without us. We defined it. This country belongs to white people culturally, politically, socially, everything. We define what America is.”
Spencer is a neo-Nazi in all but name. But his views, while on the fringe, are not entirely disconnected from what the state’s popular culture, and even what the state’s schools throughout the twentieth century, taught Texans about their past. T. R. Fehrenbach, a non-academic, wrote the all-time most popular narrative history of Texas, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. First published in 1968 and reprinted numerous times since, Lone Star reads like a longer version of The Searchers script that Spencer found so compelling.
In Lone Star, Fehrenbach dismisses Indians as warlike and “sadistic,” and says that the Native American man “seldom soiled his hand with labor.” Of African Americans, Fehrenbach commented, “The Negro was never a prime mover, but always a dangerous catalyst in American life.” Tejanos accomplished little, he wrote, because they embraced a culture that belittled hard labor.
In short, the most successful popularizer of the state’s history held that Texas “belongs to white people.”
Who Are The Deplorables?
The man leading the Hitler salutes last month in DC is not sui generis. His elitism, racism, and anti-pluralistic, antidemocratic politics took roots in the toxic soil of Dallas history. Most of his mentors were not open white nationalists, but generations of “respectable” conservative civic leaders who differed from Spencer mostly in tone, but not in core assumptions.
Unfortunately, Dallas is also not sui generis. Across the land, elite children have been fed a steady diet of white supremacist thinking. Education alone has never cured racism. In fact, higher education has often promoted it. Prominent American racists, from early twentieth-century eugenicist Madison Grant to President Woodrow Wilson to Charles Murray — the right-wing polemicist and author of the infamous 1994 book The Bell Curve, which argued that black and brown people were congenitally less intelligent than whites — all brandished advanced degrees. The Social Darwinist economy that elites have constructed depends on segmentation by color. Segregation and imperialism sprang from elite minds.
Trump’s rise, however, has unleashed a cascade of contempt for white working-class voters. In the aftermath of the election, Kali Holloway, a senior writer at AlterNet, treated racism as a disease pandemic among the white proletariat, asking in one column that people “Stop asking me to empathize with the white working class.”
Writers like Holloway spent 2016 depicting Trump’s electoral successes as symptoms of white working-class dysfunction, ignoring that Trump voters earned a higher-than-average median income (about $70,000), that Trump won a plurality of voters earning $100,000 and above, and that Trump carried the votes of more white college graduates than Hillary Clinton.
Demonizing the white working class as disproportionately prone to white supremacist thinking serves a reactionary political agenda. It delegitimizes the economic pain suffered by the white working class in an age of mounting debt, downward mobility, decreasing life expectancy, and shrinking opportunity. (“Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They’re getting exactly what they voted for,” Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas proclaimed in one recent post.) It makes it easier to dismiss the grievances of white workers as racial backlash, mere tribal scapegoating.
Too many imagine that the occupants of what Clinton called “a basket of deplorables” toil in vanishing Rust Belt factories, auto plants, or Christ-haunted and gun-toting farming communities.
Richard Spencer, the product of elite Dallas circles, calls this entire narrative into question. Many of the deplorables sit comfortably in board rooms, enjoy the view from their penthouses or, like Spencer, bask in sunsets at ski resort towns like Whitefish, Montana as they plot how to dam the rising tide of color.