Historian Kathleen Belew unpacks white power movement at assembly


Maeve Goldman, Staff Writer

“We have to recognize [the event of January 6] not as one intended to produce a major mass casualty event, but rather as a demonstration of power,” Dr. Kathleen Belew said to the Upper Division (UD) this Tuesday at an assembly on the white power movement. “Understanding the history of this movement is essential in understanding its role in political violence past, present, and future.” 

Belew studies the “history of the present” at Northwestern University where she is an Associate Professor of History. She is the author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” a history of the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City.

The History Department invited Belew to reflect on the increase of white extremism and violence in the media, history teacher Dr. Emily Straus ’91 said. “We knew her through her scholarship, but many of us in the history department had also seen her through other outlets such as news programs or Twitter, so we knew she could speak to a wider audience.”

The assembly marks the first installment of an updated version of the Race and Ethnicity Speaker Series, history teacher Melissa Morales said. Over the past two years, the department has invited historians to unpack issues around race and ethnicity over optional online lectures. This year, the history department wanted to ensure that everyone, not only history students, could attend these lectures, Morales said. “What the speaker series is doing is helping us understand something that is happening in our moment,“ she said. “We are less interested in making the assembly mandatory, and more interested in thinking that this is now something that the community as a whole can and should experience.”

From the January 6 insurrection to politicians such as Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green, white power rhetoric and ideologies have risen exponentially in mainstream discourse, Straus said. “It is important as a community to understand where this came from and the historical roots of that hatred and violence.”

At the assembly, Belew characterized the post-Vietnam white power movement as a “substantial and ongoing threat to democratic systems.” She specifically pointed to the Oklahoma City bombing which, despite being the largest mass terror attack between Pearl Harbor and 9/11, has flown under the radar because common narratives that blame white extremist violence on “lone wolves” and “bad apples” allow the movement to disappear from public consciousness. “[White power] is a movement that has largely gone unopposed and unprosecuted from the 1970s to the present,” she said. 

“We may think of the white power movement as incredibly diverse in every way but race,” Belew said. Rather than a narrow set of racists, the white power movement is a flexible, opportunistic coalition of Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, militiamen, skinheads, and even tokenized people of color. These disparate groups are united by a common goal to preserve the white birth rate against threats like immigration, abortion, and homosexuality.

Belew’s outline of the white power movement’s timeline was especially useful to Christine Tao’s (11) understanding of the movement in the Vietnam War, she said. “By dehumanizing people of color and creating the fear of communism, veterans came home with a distrust of the government that contributed to domestic racism and white power.”

Belew’s focus on a more contemporary history than students usually learn in class is refreshing, Avi Rao (12), an assembly moderator, said. “The purpose of studying history is to learn and connect with the present, and I think Belew does a really good job of using history to examine the present,” Rao said. “Because we, as the HM community, are growing up in a political climate where white power ideology has been mainstreamed, it’s important for us to understand both the history and present status of such ideologies.”

The assembly helped students conceptualize white power as a part of a larger historical pattern, rather than a new occurrence, Rao said. “It is easy to think of Buffalo and white power as a more recent thing, but a lot of it is a continuation of older hate movements,” he said. Modern day white power believes in a network of global elites, usually Jewish, that work to eradicate the white race. The fear of white extinction is not new; it dates back to the 1920s with the white power group Elders of Zion, and further.

Morales’s history classes were interested in how the complexities of the white power movement allow it to conceal itself inside of other movements and political positions, she said. “There is something much more challenging of thinking of how this movement has expanded beyond the radicals that are directly connected to these organizations, and how the language of the White Power Movement has made its way towards the mainstream,” Morales said. “People who are picking up these ideas in the mainstream may not realize their origins, so I hope we walk away with an awareness of the kinds of things we are engaging with on social media and other news.”

Before the assembly, students read Belew’s New York Times Opinion about the Buffalo shooting in advisory, Straus said. A committee of history teachers — Barry Bienstock, Dr. Lauren Meyer, Melissa Morales, Dr. Peter Reed, and Straus — chose the piece as a precursor to Belew’s assembly so students could preview a distilled version of her main ideas, she said. “Not all students take a history class, so it was important that all students were prepared and ready to engage with Belew’s work.”

Advisors met on September 28 to prepare for the advisory sessions, science teacher Dr. Jane Wesely said. They read Belew’s work and watched other supplementary sources, such as an Oprah segment, to guide conversations about how best to approach the white power movement with students, she said. “I felt a whole lot better prepared after the meeting,” Wesely said. “It’s easy to be in your own world and have your own thoughts, but it really helps to hear the thoughts of other teachers, who are just able to say things with the perfect choice of words.”

At the meeting, advisors got a loose outline of how they could structure the discussions to be most conducive to productive learning, Wesely said. Advisors were urged to center discussions around Belew’s specific Op-ed and arguments, so that students could separate previous experience and biases from their understanding of Belew’s work, she said. 

The advisory sessions were integral to open up discussions of the white power movement, Lily Wender (11) said. “There were a lot of very diverse opinions in my advisory, so it was interesting to hear different perspectives about the origin of the movement,” she said. Students used Belew’s arguments to debate whether the white power movement is solely a Republican movement, Wender said. 

The advisory sessions ultimately led to more productive questions during the Q&A portion of the assembly, Wender said. “It’s hard to ask questions if you don’t know the whole field a speaker is informed about, but because we read the op-ed, we could ask questions targeted to her research.”

Incorporating advisors in the history series process equips the greater community to participate in difficult conversations, Dean of Faculty Dr. Andrew Fippinger said. “Including advisories shows students that these issues matter beyond just our History classrooms.”

After the assembly, history teacher Barry Bienstock hosted a talkback for students to ask Belew questions. “The talkback opened up space for more in-depth questions about the future,” Wender said. Wender asked a question about the newer white power groups that include people of color; Belew answered that the movement has grown more flexible to appeal to a broader base.

The assembly highlighted the pertinence of bringing current issues such as white power to the school. For Belew, the battle against white power takes place on all fronts, she said. “There are places at every level of society that need attention and work,” she said. “Something as simple as paying attention is one of the things you can do.”