State & Local Politics

White supremacy isn’t just for old white men

White nationalist at Charlottesville
Getty Images
White nationalist at Charlottesville

Many people in America were shocked and confused by the faces they saw on television in Charlottesville, Virginia last week, but such bewilderment suggests only a partial understanding of our last election.

To some pundits, the election of Donald Trump signaled the “last gasp of the white conservative baby boomer.” Trump emerged, the story went, as a desperate attempt by out-of-touch boomers unsure how to adapt to a future guided by the progressive politics of 18- to 34-year-olds, America’s largest and most diverse generation.

{mosads}In the days following the election, electoral maps showcasing millennial support for Hillary Clinton went viral as a symbol of hope for progressive politics. But the data shows a different reality — one that doesn’t neatly fit in 2016 narratives, and is much more important.


This reality was on full display in Charlottesville, where angry white men and women marched, terrorized and killed in the name of white nationalism. The “Unite the Right” riot was organized by Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer — both UVA graduates in their 30s and well-known racists — and led by other young racists in their 20s and 30s, many of whom traveled from states as far as California, and have been identified as college students. James Alex Fields Jr., who is accused of driving into a crowd, killing one person and injuring nineteen others, is twenty years old.

White millennials, with their undercuts and tiki torches, were the face of hate in Charlottesville. Millennials have supposedly ruined everything boomers know and love — except white supremacy.

It’s well known by now that Trump voters are predominately white men and women and that feelings of racial resentment were the best predictors of his support. What is talked about less often, however, is that whites of all ages voted for Trump, including a plurality of young white voters.

This is surprising only if we forget that “white millennials vote a lot more like whites than millennials,” as the Washington Post noted, and fail to sympathize with the progressive tendencies of millennials as a group that are largely driven by greater numbers of people of color. Millennials are not progressive because they are millennials, they are progressive because they are diverse.

The diversity that defines millennials, however, is often flattened in favor of sweeping generational narratives. This is understandable, given that few research efforts to investigate beyond that generational label exist, which is why the GenForward Survey was created. Based at the University of Chicago, the GenForward Survey is a bi-monthly, nationally representative survey that pays special attention to how racial and ethnic identity shapes how millennials experience the world.

Data from GenForward confirms the Washington Post’s assertion: white identity matters.

According to an October survey, 46 percent of white millennials agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, and 62 percent feel that what happens to other whites in the country personally affects them. This could explain why 69 percent of white millennials believe it is important white people work together to improve the position of their racial group, despite the fact that over 84 percent rank themselves as having the most economic and political power in the country.

These numbers show a population that, much like their parents and grandparents, are growing anxious about their place in an increasingly diverse world. White millennials recognize the precariousness of their position atop the nation’s racial hierarchy and perceive their status as threatened

The young white nationalists marching through Virginia literally admitted as much when chanting, “you will not replace us.” This perceived vulnerability is pushing whites to adopt more conservative views — many of them extremist and dangerous.

When placed in this context, the young white faces that terrorized Charlottesville come as no surprise at all. They agree with the president when he says racial violence can be blamed “on many sides.” They agree with Fox News hosts who equate neo-Nazis and KKK members with Black Lives Matter activists. And they agree that the Confederacy is about preserving Southern heritage. The attitudes and behaviors of white millennials make more sense when we stop thinking about them only as millennials.

Of course, not all white millennials are white nationalists. A majority of them now disapprove of Donald Trump and they do hold progressive beliefs on issues like same-sex marriage. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old white woman, lost her life protesting white nationalism.

But the events in Charlottesville are not atypical, and data shows that the feelings that motivated those events are not anomalous. It is young whites, like James Alex Fields Jr. in Virginia and Dylan Roof in South Carolina — not old, decrepit KKK members — who are the prime perpetrators of racially motivated violence in the United States.

While it may be easy to believe that our social ills will be resolved with the passage of time, the truth is that progress requires sustained effort. Youth does not guarantee progress. We still have a lot of work to do.

Vladimir Enrique Medenica is a postdoctoral scholar for the GenForward Survey at the University of Chicago. He received his Ph.D. in Politics and Social Policy from Princeton University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.
Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Millenial voters Vladimir Enrique Medenica
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