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Understanding the troubling origins, beliefs and language of white nationalism

An array of specific words, codes and phrases are used by American white nationalists.

At the very core of white nationalism and white supremacy lies ethnocentrism that advocates for a white nation through the exclusion of people of color. That objective is carried along on revolutionary, anti-government themes.

“Eugenics is at the heart of white nationalism because you have to believe that white people are genetically superior to justify these beliefs, and that Black people or brown people are genetically inferior,” said Heidi Beirich, an expert on right-wing extremism and the co-editor and co-author of “Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction.”

Stemming from this belief is the “replacement theory,” or the fear that white people will be replaced by a non-white majority. That theory argues that there is a plot, often blamed on Jews, to purposefully replace white people with Black and brown immigrants.

One of the main tenets of white nationalism and all of its intertwined ideologies: “That we’re under the control of hidden, mysterious powers that exercise real control over the system,” says Russ Bellant, a researcher and author based in Detroit.

By espousing conspiracy theories that play to the fears of white people, white nationalists aim to harness resentment and anger into a broader movement of right-wing extremism.

There are a number of shared themes fundamental to their message.

Anti-Semitism

Hostility, prejudice and/or discrimination toward Jewish people, known as anti-Semitism, is common. A pervasive trope is that Jews are secretly pulling the strings in government, mainstream media and more.

“It’s amazing how people in white nationalist circles can find things to blame the Jews for,” Beirich said.

In Michigan and elsewhere, that extends to rhetoric distastefully referencing the Holocaust in relation to COVID-19 health measures.

For example, state Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield) compared COVID-19 vaccination cards to the yellow Star of David, which Jews had to wear during the Holocaust.

Nazi imagery like swastikas on flags have also been spotted at many right-wing rallies protesting COVID lockdowns.

Pro-Confederacy, anti-LGBTQ+, xenophobia

Also prevalent in white nationalist rhetoric are themes that glorify the Confederacy, take anti-LGBTQ+ stances and promote misogyny.

“People who have those extreme conspiracist views often have other extreme views,” said Melissa Ryan, who runs the “Ctrl Alt-Right Delete” newsletter detailing the rise of far-right extremism.

Many of the subcultures of far-right hate groups emerged in the 1980s, while groups of similar aims largely became part of a common network. A variety exists in Michigan.

“You have misogyny, you have racism, you often have antisemitism, other forms of bigotry against immigrants, Muslims, whatever the case may be, Beirich said. “All those things are there in white nationalist thinking.”

Coded language

While white nationalism is associated with overt displays of racism like burning crosses, white hoods and other epithets, not all signals are as easy to spot.

“There are an untold number of memes online associated with white nationalism that are kind of a ‘wink wink, nod nod.’ If you know about it, you know what somebody’s talking about,” Beirich said.

Examples include numerical figures, symbols and other images:

  • “Fourteen Words,” “14 Words” or just the number “14” is a reference for “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
  • 88 is the code for “Heil Hitler,” with H being the eighth letter of the alphabet.
  • “Blut und Ehre” translates into “Blood and Honor” and was popularized by the Nazi Party.
  • The Celtic cross is often used as a white supremacist symbol.
  • The mathematical sign “?” (not equal or not equal to) is used to imply that the white “race” is superior.

Coded white nationalist language can be found easily in social media forums like Facebook groups, Telegram and more.

“With the rise of social media and the internet, you don’t have to be some card carrying member of a group to ascribe to extremist ideas about race. You can just be involved in online networks,” Beirich said.

Laina G. Stebbins is a reporter at the Michigan Advance, which first published this report.

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UNC panel discusses challenges within and importance of American journalism

What is the purpose of journalism in the 21st century? What is its future? As the legacy publications that exemplified journalism shrink or even die off, where do we look for news?

This week UNC-Chapel Hill’s Abbey Speaker Series brought together a panel of journalists to answer those and other thorny journalism questions.

The Monday evening panel, moderated by journalist and UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Molly Worthen, was presented by the UNC Program for Public Discourse, General Alumni Association, and Duke University’s Polis: Center for Politics. It featured McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic; columnist and John William Pope Foundation president John Hood; and Nafari Vanaski, a veteran newspaper reporter who has, since leaving the industry, written about how traditional concepts of ‘objectivity’ in journalism perpetuate racism.

Vanaski spoke to that from personal experience, having worked in newsrooms that were overwhelmingly white and male and seen how it impacted news decisions.

She told the personal story of covering the story of a police shooting in downtown Pittsburgh. Through interviews with sources and video of the incident, Vanaski wrote a piece that went beyond the standard first-day crime story.

“Those people trusted me with their story and my goal was to tell it,” Vanaski said.

Her editors disagreed about how her piece should be shaped and played in the paper. Ultimately the paper’s managing editor said she needed to have more sympathy for the police. They heavily edited the piece, removed photos and ran it as a column rather than a front page news story.

“I just hate even thinking about it,” Vanaski said.

Nafari Vanaski


But unfortunately, she said, that’s what often passes for objectivity or impartiality in American newsrooms where white men expressing sympathy for authority make the decisions.

Coppins, who has written about the health of the journalism industry and the perils it faces, said the diversity of American newsrooms – or lack thereof – often impacts just how impartial or objective its news will be.

“The version of the news that comes out is basically, you weigh the world views of everybody in the newsroom – and then what seems balanced and objective is the middle of that, right?” Coppins said. “If your newsroom is overwhelmingly white, male and college educated, then what’s going to seem balanced and objective is going to be very different than if you have a newsroom that is much more racially diverse, much more economically diverse and much more ideologically diverse.”

UNC-Chapel Hill was an apt setting for the conversation. Controversy over journalism, politics and objectivity has rocked the school and its renowned school of journalism in the last year. At its heart: the interference of Walter Hussman, the UNC alum and mega donor, in the school’s botched attempt to hire Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, herself a prominent alumna of the journalism school.

Hussman’s $25 million pledge to the school led to it being renamed for him. As part of his donor agreement with the school Hussman, a conservative Arkansas media magnate, also insisted a statement of values printed in his company’s newspapers be etched in stone on the wall of the journalism school. When Hussman was given confidential personnel information about Hannah-Jones’s hiring process and used it to lobby against the hire, he questioned whether the George K. Polk and National Magazine Award winning reporter believed in his journalism values and whether she should teach at the school if she did not. He also objected to the views Hannah-Jones expressed in The 1619 Project and an essay on reparations for Black Americans.

Central to Hussman’s professed core values is journalistic impartiality, also commonly called “objectivity” – though there is strong disagreement within journalism as to how that should be defined. Hussman cited the need for impartiality in initially refusing to publicly discuss Hannah-Jones’s hire and his role in it while working behind the scenes to influence school administrators and members of the school’s Board of Trustees on the issue. Hannah-Jones and others called that hypocritical, but Hussman pointed to traditional signifiers of impartiality like avoiding political donations and endorsements as proof he practices what he preaches.

Everyone on Monday’s panel agreed  conversations about objectivity can be complex but often focus on the wrong issues. Read more