On August 11 and 12, hundreds of people affiliated with white nationalist, white supremacist, and “alt-right” groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for what the Southern Poverty Law Center predicted to be the largest such gathering in decades in the United States. Promoted as #UniteTheRight, the conglomerate planned to protest the potential removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a scene that has increasingly played out across the South. However, the group’s title suggests an alternative goal, one that sought to unify disparate “alt-right” groups under a common ideology. On the first day of the gathering, Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, each leaders of the so-called alt-right movement and University of Virginia alumni, led dozens of torch-wielding white nationalist protestors through UVA’s campus to a prominent statue of the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. The following morning, protesters and counter protesters clashed at and around Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, and the site of the Lee statue. On both Friday and Saturday, protesters shouted chants like, “White lives matter,” “Blood and Soil,” “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, disbanding the #UniteTheRight protests shortly before they were officially set to begin; the ensuing struggle between protesters and counter protesters resulted in three deaths and 19 injuries.
The overtly racist and anti-Semitic chants, symbols, torches, and salutes displayed in Charlottesville seemed to come as a surprise to many people across the country, many of whom considered such imagery to be relics of the past; media leapt to explain Charlottesville’s particular relationship with racism in features with titles such as “Why Charlottesville, Liberal College Town, Became Ground Zero for White Supremacy,” “Why White Nationalists Are Drawn to Charlottesville,” and “Why Charlottesville?” Others pointed out that such racism is neither a resurgence nor particular to Charlottesville, but rather the result of centuries of racist policies and attitudes. And many pointed out that it was primarily white people who were surprised by the confident displays of Confederate and Nazi symbolism, as well as the ensuing violence. For those commentators, what happened in Charlottesville reflected centuries of disenfranchisement of communities of color.
As white supremacist groups launch re-branding campaigns geared toward young college-aged students, and as those students, some of whom feel buoyed by President Trump, appear emboldened to give voice to white nationalist views in more and more prominent contexts, it is important to consider the particular forms racism and anti-Semitism can take through images, words, and sounds.
The flagrant white supremacy on display in Charlottesville aligned with the decades-old definition of what a racist looks and sounds like. As historian Carol Anderson explains, racism became associated primarily with overtly racist acts during the Civil Rights movement: “Confronted with civil rights headlines depicting unflattering portrayals of KKK rallies and jackbooted sheriffs, white authority transformed those damning images of white supremacy into the sole definition of racism.” In effect, the whites in power, from journalists to police to politicians, redefined racism, focusing on the Klan. In defining racism in this way, through torches and chanting, other whites, who were rightfully incensed by the violence of the Klan, were able to maintain a sense of their own innocence even while contributing to systemic racial inequality. As Anderson explains, “The focus on the Klan also helped to designate racism as an individual aberration rather than something systemic, institutional, and pervasive.” This vision of racism as based in individual acts committed by hood-wearing Southerners persists today, even if the hoods have largely disappeared.
For those who viewed the events in Charlottesville from afar, the images challenged both historic and present-day notions of what racism looks and sounds like. As white supremacist groups launch re-branding campaigns geared toward young college-aged students, and as those students, some of whom feel buoyed by President Trump, appear emboldened to give voice to white nationalist views in more and more prominent contexts, it is important to consider the particular forms racism and anti-Semitism can take through images, words, and sounds. In analyzing the image and statements of one young man who protested at Charlottesville, and who claimed affiliation with the white nationalist group Identity Evropa (IE), I explore the disjunction between what has been called racism in the past, and what racism can look like in the present.
Peter Cvjetanovic, a white nationalist attending the University of Reno, Nevada, quickly became the face of white supremacy following the Friday night torch-lit protest. In a widely-circulated image, we see Cvjetanovic holding a torch, likely yelling in unison with his fellow white, mostly male marchers. But unlike the other faces within the frame, Cvjetanovic’s face is animated, his mouth wide open, teeth practically bared. His sweat-covered face reveals tense wrinkles spread across his forehead and around his nose as he screams, and his eyes are focused intently on something in the distance, just beyond the camera (Cvjetanovic would later claim in an interview that his attention was focused on the statue of Thomas Jefferson at that moment). Surrounded by flames of tiki torches, this picture of Cvjetanovic aligns with stereotypical images of white supremacy as represented by the Klan, whose gatherings also featured marches in which hooded figures were illuminated by torches and burning crosses. Cvjetanovic and the chorus of protestors surrounding him defy the silence of the photograph,m anaging to visually recreate the sonic intensity of the evening’s shouted slogans.
Cvjetanovic and the chorus of protestors surrounding him defy the silence of the photograph, managing to visually recreate the sonic intensity of the evening’s shouted slogans.
While we cannot hear Cvjetanovic, a video posted by Vice News allows us to hear someone who marched with him. Shortly after the Charlottesville protests, a graduate of Ladue High School, an upper-class suburb of St. Louis, was identified as having participated in Friday evening’s torch-led march to the UVA campus. Like Cvjetanovic, Clark Canepa, who appears approximately 18 seconds into the video, offers an image that aligns with stereotypical racist imagery: in the video, Canepa is tall and muscular, his chin square and cheekbones high. He carries a torch, and as he shouts, his eyebrows are furrowed. His face, particularly when he turns toward the camera, offers a challenge to any who might question him. But it is the pronounced bass of his voice that stands out from those protesting around him: in a sea of men’s voices, Canepa’s resonates clearly. The audience hears him shout, “You will not replace us,” and Canepa emphasizes the word “not,” his jaw clearly dropping lower in a physical manifestation of the accent. While others around him highlight “you,” as if speaking directly to people of color and people of the Jewish faith, Canepa’s own voice—apart from those around him—emphasizes the impossibility that his place in American society could ever be erased. The singularity of Canepa’s voice, and of Cvjetanovic’s voice (heard only in viewers’ imaginations), combined with the totality of the almost entirely male chorus, is yet another familiar sound of racism. This is what viewers expect racism to sound like.
Cvjetanovic’s image and the palpable emotions running across his face position Cvjetanovic squarely in the center of the action and the ideology of the gathering—in other words, it is easy to believe that Cvjetanovic is the visual manifestation of white supremacy. But while Cvjetanovic’s image counters what many would consider to be respectable, in follow-up interviews, his speech mirrors the reasoned ways in which academics formulate arguments. Consider the following:
“I came to this march for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture. It is not perfect; there are flaws to it, of course. However, I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the United States and the people who fought and defended and built their homeland. Robert E. Lee is a great example of that. He wasn’t a perfect man, but I want to honor and respect what he stood for during his time.”
Cvjetanovic begins with a statement that could be, and has been, used to justify the inclusion of non-European texts, musics, films, etc. in academia, and his reasoning uses the language of diversity. He then rationalizes his statement, demonstrating a sense of self-reflexivity, and suggesting a moderate approach. After equivocating his stance somewhat, he asserts that losing one Confederate statue is a slippery slope that will result in a loss of white culture. He implicitly argues that white people built the United States, gesturing toward a historical arc that ignores the displacement of indigenous peoples and claims American land and progress for whites despite centuries of black enslaved labor and racist attitudes toward anyone not considered “white.” Nevertheless, he asserts a historical narrative rooted in the white figures, specifically Confederate general Robert E. Lee, that continue to dominate histories taught in classrooms across the United States. To end his statement, Cvjetanovic once again modifies his previous arguments, admitting that Lee was not “perfect” without specifying what imperfections Lee might represent. Importantly, Cvjetanovic gestures toward the importance of historical context, positioning himself as the enlightened present-day consumer of historical events: “I want to honor and respect what he stood for during his time [emphasis mine].”
In his interviews, Cvjetanovic’s words reflect careful formulation and, content aside, respectful framing suitable to and even stemming from academic contexts—something that was not lost on people who commented on his interview. One commenter wrote, “This new generation of white supremacists are a whole other ball game. These are just regular white guys from the suburbs, with degrees and jobs … This guy comes across as extremely level headed.”
In another interview, Cvjetanovic asserts that he does not identify with white supremacy “in any sense of the word.” Instead, Cvjetnovic wants to work with other nationalist groups, including black nationalists, and “would hope to keep the reservations going” for Native Americans—a comment that calls into question his denials of white supremacy, as it recalls and asserts the legislative dominance of whites over indigenous peoples. The threat, Cvjetanovic explains, is globalism, and the loss of language and culture for all groups of people because of the “free exchange of people.” He asserted that though he did get “caught up in the moment,” because of the “mob mentality” of the Friday protest, he never chanted “Jews do not belong here” or “Blood and soil,” and decried the Nazis that gathered with his group (even if anti-Semitism seems to be an implicit part of his group, as highlighted below). He instead chanted, “One people, one nation, end immigration.” Given his association with IE, and that group’s frequent use of the phrase “You will not replace us,” he likely also chanted that phrase as well. He argued that when the image was taken, he was probably shouting “This is our home” (emphasis his), a short chant that to him, meant “we have the right to stay here like everyone else, we want to defend our heritage.” (“This is our home” has not been reported as being one of the chants used at Friday night’s march.)
In his interviews, Cvjetanovic’s words reflect careful formulation and, content aside, respectful framing suitable to and even stemming from academic contexts—something that was not lost on people who commented on his interview. One commenter wrote, “This new generation of white supremacists are a whole other ball game. These are just regular white guys from the suburbs, with degrees and jobs … This guy comes across as extremely level headed.” Another wrote, “Such an articulate kid. And I am a brown woman.”
In listening to Cvjetanovic, particularly given the reasonable image he portrays outside the now infamous image, it is easy to forget that the same logic he uses to justify the separation of races—that race is a biological distinction, not a social construction—also justified the subjugation of non-whites across centuries. While the content of his text proves incredibly inflammatory to those promoting social justice for people of color, and Jews, for whites with little interest in diversity and inclusion efforts, Cvjetanovic’s logic could seem sound. His words may simply reflect the lack of supposed “political correctness” that continues to ignite Trump supporters.
That is a problem for those committed to diversity, who want to see the march of history as an arc in which inclusion for all groups of people, from Jewish people to African Americans to LGBTQ individuals, is the hard-earned result of progress. But how do you promote inclusivity to people who feel they have lost something—power, privilege, status—and that with every move to invite more people to the table, they lose more? How do you preach diversity to people whose communities are so segregated that they have never loved someone whose life experience has been drastically different from their own?
But the problem with Cvjetanovic for whites who, if not white supremacists themselves, support the lack of political correctness that breeds confident displays of Nazi chants and white nationalist ideology, is Cvjetanovic’s image. His face, visibly contorted in a scream, lacks the calm, dispassionate, and respectable logic his argument attempted to portray. Racists are supposed to look like the image captured of Cvjetanovic; but they are not supposed to sound like him.
According to the state of New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, white supremacist and white nationalist groups have recently attempted to rebrand their organizations to appeal to new audiences, adopting a more “rational” image to counteract centuries of images of silent screams like Cvjetanovic’s. For example, the National Socialist Movement (NSM) announced that it would stop using the swastika, arguing that “The masses believe exactly as we do, but have steered clear of us due to our use of the swastika.” For the NSM, giving up the swastika will yield entrance into “the halls of government”: “Your Party Platform remains the same, your Party remains unchanged, it is a cosmetic overhaul only.” Other white supremacist leaders, including Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor, who call themselves leaders of the “alt-right,” argue that the term alt-right is meaningless, because their politics are clear. For example, Spencer told NPR, “In some ways the alt-right is arbitrary. I mean, the whole point is that this is a movement of consciousness and identity for European people in the 21st century. That’s what it is.”
Identity Evropa has been particularly popular on college campuses. In the rally image above with tiki torches, Cvjetanovic wears a white polo with the dragon’s eye symbol for IE. In an interview, Canepa (who attended Fontbonne University in the 2016-2017 academic year) likewise associated himself with the group. These students’ alignment with IE allows consideration of white nationalists outside their typical stereotype—Southern, uneducated, and rural—and smack dab in what many Republicans and “alt-right” supporters believe to be the liberal’s powerhouse: the college campus. Indeed, Damigo’s initial stage in promoting IE and building its membership involves a fliering tactic he named #ProjectSiege. In addition to posting the dragon’s eye symbol, IE’s posters featured white marble statues of Greek and Roman figures, a sculpture style particularly admired by Adolf Hitler and that, in the Third Reich, would be married with state-sanctioned eugenicist theories as the representation of aesthetic and racial perfection. On the fliers, these images are accompanied by text such as, “Let’s become great again,” “Our destiny is ours,” “Protect your heritage,” “Serve your people,” and “Our future belongs to us.”A 2016 New York Times article highlighted various groups aligned with the so-called alt-right, white supremacy, and white nationalism that viewed Donald Trump’s election to the presidency as a win for their cause. His win, combined with the re-branding of particular white supremacist factions, motivated young white Americans to join the movement—and especially, to be more vocal about their affiliation with such groups. Identity Evropa (IE), the group to which both Cvjetanovic and Canepa belong, is one such group that has been particularly marketed toward young men. The founder of the group is Nathan Damigo, a 30-year-old former marine previously convicted of armed robbery who is now an undergraduate at California State University Stanislaus. Damigo, whose marketing campaign is streamlined, aesthetically appealing in design, and, in his words, “completely mainstream,” explicitly targets college-aged young white men (women are also welcome to join, but thus far seem to be mostly absent in visible leadership roles). Images of young men in pressed suits and sharp, close-cropped hair dominate the IE website. Their separatist mission is clear: “We are a generation of awakened Europeans who have discovered that we are part of the great peoples, history, and civilization that flowed from the European continent … We oppose those who would defame our history and rich cultural heritage.” The Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League have classified IE as a white nationalist and white supremacist group.
When white nationalists set aside their shouting and torches, and take on the image of well-dressed, educated, white people in suits, speaking in modulated language about culture, heritage, and dispossession—is that an image or an argument most white people would call racist or acknowledge as white supremacist? Or would that image too closely align with white peoples’ image of themselves, particularly college-educated whites?
Aside from its separatist mission statement that suggests that “white identity” is at extreme risk for “dispossession,” IE also demonstrates how white supremacist and white nationalist groups are creating new images for white supremacists. Its members, who are selected through applications and interviews, are chosen in part for their ability to promote white nationalism as an attractive and intellectual brand for racially “pure” whites. The application for membership includes this question: “Are you and your spouse/partner of European, non-Semitic heritage?” Such a question highlight’s IE’s implicit anti-Semitism, though most of its posts and articles more explicitly focus on racial distinctions. As Damigo explained to The Daily Beast, the group is meant to “attract high-quality individuals from doctors to lawyers to economists to our fraternity.”
As Carol Anderson argues, many white people can easily point to images like that of Cvjetanovic and call it racist. Many white people can also hear Canepa’s tone and chanting and call it racist. To do so offers white people a layer of protection, allowing them to distinguish between a particularly racist image or action and themselves, thus preserving their own innocence from being called what Damigo once referred to as “the R-word”: racist. However, when white nationalists set aside their shouting and torches, and take on the image of well-dressed, educated, white people in suits, speaking in modulated language about culture, heritage, and dispossession—is that an image or an argument most white people would call racist or acknowledge as white supremacist? Or would that image too closely align with white peoples’ image of themselves, particularly college-educated whites? On the spectrum of racist beliefs, is the idea that people of color are replacing white people in cultural, political, and educational institutions really that far from the belief in “colorblindness,” the misguided notion that all people, regardless of race, have equal opportunities for advancement, despite the historic lack of access to equal opportunities for education, voting rights, housing, and healthcare that continues predominantly to impact communities of color?
Cvjetanovic, along with other Identitarians, is adamant that he is not a racist or a Nazi, though he certainly marched with them. But Cvjetanovic and others who claim a distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy are denying the very historical context they claim to defend when rallying around Confederate monuments erected in the Jim Crow era South. That historical context includes racist policies encompassing schooling, policing, housing, voting, and more, policies implicitly meant to sustain white supremacism, and which continue to disproportionately affect people of color.
The truth of the matter is that racism, like anything else, is a spectrum, and often, white people, no matter how well-meaning or accidental, are racist, whether in thoughts, speech, or actions. Images of racism—the kind dominated by the Klan and burning crosses, or of Nazi salutes—allow white people to define it as only a particular set of horrifyingly visible or sounded actions, behaviors, and speech; these stereotypical images obscure discriminatory actions that are perhaps more subtle, or that can even take on the image of respectability, allowing some white people to dissociate themselves from other forms of racism, particularly in legislative and policy spheres, they may perpetuate.
Identifying racism is an important step in stemming its tide, but we (and I now speak specifically to white people) must be willing and able to consider that racism might look and sound like ourselves. White people have a responsibility to listen to voices that challenge us, reflect on our own actions as well as the actions of others, and learn to do better. The worst thing is not being called racist, but rather not recognizing one’s own contributions to systems of white supremacy, or not acknowledging that such systems exist. As James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”