These hate groups’ names are becoming household terms.
Merriam-Webster’s 2016 word of the year might be fascism. For betting types making early 2017 predictions, “white nationalism” would not be a bad guess. Along with “white supremacy” and the newer phrase “alternative right,” or alt-right, it’s been a post-election fixture of news and accompanying battles over politics, racism, and language.
It started in earnest when it was announced that former Breitbart News editor Steve Bannon would serve as President-elect Donald Trump’s administrative adviser. White nationalists like neo-Nazi writer and publisher Andrew Anglin rejoiced. Ken Reed, the national director of the neo-Nazi group Aryan Renaissance Society, celebrated in a Facebook post that read, “Can you say WINNING boys and girls???” using the hashtags #WhiteLivesMatter and #AltRight.
The self-proclaimed alt-right made even more headlines when the white supremacist National Policy Institute held an alt-right conference in Washington, DC, the weekend after the election. There, the group’s leader, Richard Spencer, delivered remarks calling America “a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity.” In a video shared by the Atlantic, Trump’s victory and Spencer’s statements were cheered by the crowd with Nazi salutes and chants of, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
Yes, actual Nazi salutes. In a DC hotel. By people who felt Trump’s election and appointments were their victory.
Along with the horror over this came complaints that alt-right activists were being referred to in many headlines with their chosen, innocuous-sounding title, rather than something that made their racist agenda plain. Before long, the Associated Press and the New York Times issued strong guidance to their writers regarding the term. In both cases, they said uses of the alt-right’s preferred label must be accompanied by an explanation to readers about what defines the group: the racism, misogyny, and white supremacy that characterize it.
These news organizations’ memos have been clear mandates in a contentious, evolving public debate about how to characterize the groups and individuals who have been emboldened and empowered by Trump’s win and share one scary thing: an obsession with white power, influence, and identity.
At a time when unabashed racists are elated at the possibility that the president-elect will take action to create the “white country” of their fantasies, and people who share their policy views but have no hate group affiliation are being empowered, the current battle of words is an important one. Fueling it is the risk that the wrong language choices could cloud Americans’ understanding of what’s actually happening. Complicating things is the sobering reality that the threats nonwhite people face don’t change depending on what we call the people responsible for them.
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