Racism comes in many forms. Some strains mask themselves in institutional legitimacy and free speech. Others advance claims of victimhood, loss of religious freedom, or champion assertions that they are defenders of local custom and tradition. Regardless of its shape, however, racism is always the product of two forces: ignorance and malevolence. Racism is perpetually ignorant because it relies on ahistorical constructions of difference to advance universal assertions of racial, cultural, social, or national superiority. In this manner, racism is also always malevolent because it seeks to impose hierarchical configurations of ‘race’ in an otherwise multicultural, multiethnic world.
Where racism exists, violence follows. Whether in the form of physical altercation, civic dispute, subtle euphemism, public harassment, or state-sponsored campaigns of political disenfranchisement, violence is an inherent outcome of racial prejudice. Racists seek to defame, intimidate, or physically attack those they deem inferior both as a means to avow their own superiority and to defend the biological, cultural, and national ‘purities’ that make them a preeminent people. The problem for racists, however, is that a ‘race’ does not exist and never has—at least in a primordial sense. Indeed, a ‘race’ is nothing more than a construction, a product of cultural practices that is built on linguistic commonalities, shared historical teleologies, and national myths. “The fact of the matter is that nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies,” writes the international studies scholar, Benedict Anderson, “while racism dreams of eternal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time through an endless sequence of loathsome copulations.” In this manner, racists can justify domestic repression and domination within national boundaries more easily than across them because ‘the Other’ is already here.
The history of race and the origins of racism is long and violent, which brings me to Nathan Damigo and the association formally known as “Identity Evropa.” This group is a neo-Nazi white-supremacist student organization crafted in the same mold as Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute. Identity Evropa’s website claims that they speak for “a generation of awakened Europeans who have discovered that [they] are part of the great peoples, history, and civilization that flowed from the European continent.” The group rejects “the idea that our identities are mere abstractions to be deconstructed.” In essence, Identity Evropa is a movement characterized by racism, but whose message relies on a veneer of legitimacy in the shape of a provocative mission statement, sleek website, and “hipster haircuts.” The group recently began a nation-wide campaign to spread its racial prejudice on university campuses known as “Project Siege.” Last week, Identity Evropa made its presence known at my home institution of Black Hills State University as part of this national effort.
As someone who has dedicated his professional life to the study of humanity’s darkest chapters, specifically European colonialism in Africa and the Holocaust, I am not surprised that white supremacist groups continue to advocate messages of hate and ignorance in the world today. What does astonish me, however, is that Nathan Damigo and his supporters are so willing to admit—even celebrate—their lack of historical knowledge. In a recent interview with The Tab, an online news site launched by Cambridge University, Damigo expressed his indifference toward history in response to a question about Holocaust denial:
I’m just not really interested in history or any of this stuff. We’re focused on the here and now and the issues that we’re facing. Other than that, I believe in free speech, I believe in the First Amendment, I think people have a right to say whatever they want, question whatever they want. With things like [the Holocaust], I’m neither here nor there. I’m not a history buff. . . . We’re an identitarian [sic] organization. We’re not interested in historical revisionism or anything like that. We’re concerned with identity and race and how it affects us as people of European heritage.
Damigo expresses total apathy for the very history that he and his supporters seek to defend. Identity Evropa’s poster campaign attempts to inspire like-minded citizens to “Support Your People,” “Reclaim Our Future,” and “Make Europe Great Again,” but behind the façade of token generalizations and catch-all phrases, the group only offers sanctuary for chauvinism and racial bigotry.
When I arrived on campus last week, I was dismayed to find a “Project Siege” poster on the walls of the History Department. Though troubled, I knew that the posters’ intended audience was not me, but students from minority backgrounds and of color, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Jews, and non-Christian religions in general, and anyone else who Identity Evropa professes has no part in “white America.” Identity Evropa hides behind a guise of ‘whiteness’ only so it can publicly vindicate its true purpose: violence against communities who it deems adverse and foreign. When recently asked about how Jews “fit into America,” Damigo stated that “some aspects of that history get focused on so much that you miss the other aspects of it. One of the other aspects that’s been really missed is Jewish power, Jewish influence.” At first glance, people might assume that such an answer came from someone living in Weimar Germany in 1931, not the United States in 2017. But the fact remains that racism is not—and never has been—the exclusive property of the Nazi Party or Ku Klux Klan. Racism lies at the heart of every group that masks nativist fantasies with pejorative generalizations and blanket promises. History cautions us to be wary of such parties and organizations. “What comes next can be very frightening,” says Weimar historian, Eric Weitz, “even worse than imaginable.”
Dr. Adam A. Blackler is an Assistant Professor of History at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota. His current book project explores how Germans fashioned an imperial image of the Heimat ideal in response to colonial encounters in Southwest Africa. He is also completing chapters in two forthcoming edited volumes on the German colonial empire and a cultural history of genocide in the long nineteenth century.