Sept. 25, 2017

While much of the coverage of this month’s visits by right-wing provocateurs to the UC Berkeley campus, where we are located, focuses on the line between hate speech and free speech, another question remains: Why are they coming? Research leads us to believe that their actions fit into a broader effort by opportunistic political operatives to activate and exploit white racial anxiety and animosity to preserve and expand political power. The events are organized as spectacles used to further a narrative that helps activate and grow a base of largely socially isolated white men, and legitimize a politics built on dehumanizing the "other."

An important backdrop to these actions is the growing diversity in the country. Nationally, the population has shifted from 80 percent white in 1980, to around 60 percent white today, with a high likelihood that no single racial or ethnic group will be a majority by 2045. In some regions of the country, this change has occurred more quickly than others -- and the more intense the local demographic change, the more likely there is a perceived racial threat. White people can sense that their identity is being undermined, because as Amanda Taub notes, “Whiteness means being part of the group whose appearance, traditions, religion and even food are the default norm.” With the new racial plurality that demographic change is bringing comes a wider range of voices and traditions, potentially making whiteness less the default norm.

Hate groups channel this sense of lost identity into a politics of scapegoating the "other" -- drawing a line between "we" and "they" based on sexuality, gender, race, disability, or other perceived differences. These groups have grown precipitously since 1999, and intensified after the 2008 election of President Obama, reaching a 30-year high nationally in 2011.

Often the organizing by these hate groups is thought of as a political fringe movement, separate from viable efforts to win political power over government, but the last year has shown this distinction to be false. In fact, what Ian Haney-Lopez and others have termed "strategic racism" -- calculated attempts to provoke racial animosity to win political power -- has been part of American politics for generations. But for the last several decades, the variety of strategic racism deployed by operatives of mainstream political parties was dog whistle politics -- using coded language that stokes racial animosity while appearing on the surface to be race neutral. From "welfare queens" to "thugs" to "illegals," the attacks stirred racial resentment while claiming to be colorblind. The Trump presidential campaign made racism great again, shifting to a bull-horn version of strategic racism that explicitly promotes whiteness and attacks the racialized "other," and won the White House.

White supremacists and other hate groups have seen their chance to legitimize their causes and expand their power. They have rebranded their movement in an attempt to distance it from the brutal violence that has accompanied their ideas throughout US history. The more they can make the politics of white male resentment and dominance acceptable, the greater a base of politically active support they can create, and the more leverage they have to preserve and expand their privilege and power. Occupying UC Berkeley is one tactic to pursue this goal.

By setting up confrontations with UC Berkeley, the forces of othering can increase their visibility and push into the headlines their public narrative that they are the heroes of a set of noble victims -- a disenfranchised class of white people and straight Christian men - and the villains are an elite class of liberals betraying national interests by siding with an undeserving class of misfits and morally unacceptable people. This perpetuates and activates the "deep story" that sociologist Arlie Hochschild documented among Tea Party supporters in Louisiana.

Bringing their incendiary and harmful messages to UC Berkeley, and framing the confrontation as one about free speech, the provocateurs are attempting to retell the story that they are the excluded, truth-telling victims. By provoking attacks on transgender students and others, Milo Yiannopoulos creates an unsafe environment on campus. Yet when students and faculty advocate for limiting this type of hate speech, Milo points to it as proof that "liberals can't handle hearing the truth."

Forty or so years of color-blind politics being mainstream has left many leaders across the political spectrum ill-prepared to speak directly to the explicit brand of strategic racism of today. We may be more comfortable talking about complex questions of free speech, but we will fall short of advancing a more fair and inclusive society if we do not fully understand, name, and respond to the true reasons of why they keep coming.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.