Not at any time in the past quarter-century have issues of race been as visible and divisive in our politics as they are today.
Last fall, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David R. Duke, now a Louisiana state representative, won a stunning 44% of the overall vote--and roughly 60% of the white vote--in a bid for a U.S. Senate seat. North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse A. Helms turned back a surprisingly stubborn black challenger only with late ads that inflamed racial animosities. Another confrontation is impending between Congress and President Bush over civil-rights legislation that Bush last year vetoed as a "quota bill." A national poll released in January found that whites--as well as Latino and other racial minorities--believe that blacks are less intelligent and hard-working than other Americans.
All these developments offer depressing reminders that the American dilemma remains very much with us, that race remains the great divide in a society that likes to imagine itself beyond bias. In his new study of the radical right, "Blood in the Face," veteran liberal journalist James Ridgeway sees the developments as something more: evidence that the passions and hatreds of the white-supremacist underground are leaching into the mainstream of acceptable political debate, like so much toxic waste slowly poisoning a river.
"Increasingly," Ridgeway writes, "race seems to lie just below the surface of nearly every political debate, and the opinions of the extreme right have been voiced by mainstream figures on both the political and cultural scenes. . . . Since the early 1980s, especially, the parameters of acceptable discourse and behavior have broadened, making room for more and more openly racialist viewpoints."
Ridgeway (as well as his collaborators, Anne Bohlen and Kevin Rafferty, who are producing a documentary film of the same title), has done his homework, fashioning a book that is compelling, remarkably even-handed and yet ultimately chilling.
Ridgeway is a skilled guide through the bewildering and amorphous network of racists, radical tax resisters, skinheads, Nazis and Klansmen that composes what he terms "an organized and, at times, violent, new far-right movement." He traces the modern radical right back to Gerald L. K. Smith, a onetime aide to populist Lousiana Sen. Huey P. Long, who drifted to the racist fringe and inspired a network of followers whose own disciples built such shadowy groups as the Aryan Nations, the Order and Posse Comitatus. Today, Ridgeway writes, the radical right is in its "Fifth Era," aggressively combining a political movement symbolized by Duke and an armed underground responsible for robbery, intimidation and even murder.
Though Ridgeway can provide only vague estimates of its size, Duke's remarkable success at raising money in last fall's campaign suggests a movement of some magnitude--if one whose boundaries are understandably difficult to map. Tom Metzger, the leader of California's White Aryan Resistance, may offer the best definition when he describes the far right as a movement with "no center. It's all around but it's nowhere. It's like associations or networking. No fancy headquarters, or store fronts, or even book stores. Yet it's all over the place."
As striking as Ridgeway's history itself are the photos and reprints of far-right leaflets and pamphlets collected in the book; together they compose a grimly fascinating documentary record of racism and anti-Semitism in 20th-Century America. This may be an entirely new genre in publishing: a coffee-table book for conspiracy theorists.
Among the most bizarre specimens: a two-page map published in the newsletter of Duke's National Assn. for the Advancement of White People that proposed partitioning the United States into nine new racially segregated regions--from New Africa for blacks in the Southeast to Alta California for Mexican-Americans--with most of the country reserved for the Christian "white majority." According to the plan, Ridgeway writes, "Anyone straying across the borders of their new countries would be shot on sight."
Ridgeway treats this eerie material with restraint, allowing the leaders of the radical right ample space to explain their strange theories and lurid fantasies. By laying bare this movement calmly and accessibly, he has done a great service.
But I believe he overstates the movement's impact by suggesting that the growing prominence of race in our public debate is largely the result of "the influx of far-right thinking into mainstream politics." Ridgeway accuses former President Reagan and President Bush of profiting from the subtle use of racist, nativist and xenophobic imagery. To Ridgeway, Bush's attacks on Democrat Michael Dukakis over the Pledge of Allegiance and the furlough of black convict Willie Horton represented a triumph for the radical right. In the 1988 campaign, he writes, "The far right . . . exercised an extraordinary role in creating the symbolism of modern American life."