by Walter B. Reeves
One thing I learned from spending the better part of a decade of infiltrating, analyzing, and organizing against racist hate-groups: appearances are deceiving.
Most folks I met through this work imagined that these people were the ignorant, toothless characters who wore hoods, burned crosses, and appeared on Jerry Springer. This cartoon vision passed for fact in the popular imagination even as the efforts of David Duke and others signaled that attempts at a major makeover were underway.
That stereotypical image was actually a positive asset for the white supremacist/nationalist movement. Why does a suit and a tie and an education blind folks to the true character behind their rhetoric?
For too many, it seems racism is a matter of style rather than substance. This is completely wrong-headed.
Racism, more precisely white supremacy/nationalism, isn’t a list of bad words or bad behaviors. It’s a political ideology. Its purpose is the pursuit and exercise of power. Like any other ideology it adjusts to changing conditions, reframing itself to achieve its goals. Those dedicated to “mainstreaming” white supremacy/nationalism spent the last twenty years doing precisely that.
John Tanton’s career of immigrant-baiting is illustrative of this “mainstreaming”—it’s the flip side of white supremacy’s traditional tactics of terror and intimidation. White nationalism in the US has historically relied on presenting racism with a “respectable” face in order to disguise its terroristic essence.
Practically all of the tropes and rhetorical stratagems deployed by Tanton and his cronies were pioneered decades ago by Klan and Nazi outfits.
We had firsthand experience of this in Georgia in the 1980’s.
In 1981 a Klan styling itself as the New Order Knights began agitating against immigrant Latino labor at a packaging plant in Cedartown, GA. They employed novel tactics, organizing an “independent union” and throwing up a picket line at the plant gate targeting the company for using “illegal Mexican workers.” They even managed to get African-American workers to participate. Events culminated in the still unsolved murder of a Mexican worker.
And these events in Georgia are more than tangential to John Tanton’s Network of anti-immigrant groups.
In 2008 researcher Heidi Beirich discovered correspondence between Tanton and various white nationalist, anti-Semitic, and/or Nativist activists in his personal papers at the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan. Among them, an individual familiar to Georgia’s white supremacists: Attorney Sam Dickson.
For example, n a 1996 letter to Dickson, Tanton wrote, “Next time I’m in Atlanta, I hope to take one of your ‘politically incorrect’ tours.”
With a history of right wing activism spanning from the Young Americans for Freedom to Stormfront.org, Dickson exhibits what hides behind the mask of respectability. Educated, articulate, and a capable attorney, Dickson successfully defended Klansmen in court on a number of occasions. Over the years he developed extensive contacts on the racist right, both domestic and international. Dickson supported David Duke’s 1992 Presidential bid before switching to Pat Buchannan.
Yet another example of a will to edge into the mainstream.
He also sponsored speaking engagements by the now discredited British writer and Holocaust denier David Irving. Most telling, he was responsible for bringing the late John Tyndal, then head of the jackbooted British National Party, to the US for a speaking tour. Joining Tyndal was a second speaker: long time Georgia neo-Nazi Edward R. Fields.
It was Fields who as a Klanleader organized the New Order Knights and was the architect of the anti-immigrant drive in Cedartown, Ga. Clearly, anyone collaborating with Dickson could have access to these contacts. The network of connections linking the so-called “respectable” right and overt white supremacy/nationalism functions through just such relationships.
Considering that this is only one instance out of many documented in the Bentley Library papers, John Tanton’s denials of racial animus are hardly credible.
The battle over immigration and the larger fight against white supremacy isn’t simply a struggle against bigoted ignorance—what we face is organized malice, manipulated by shrewd, duplicitous leaders in pursuit of privilege and power.
We must recognize this if we hope to defeat them.
Walter B. Reeves is a native Georgian, researcher, writer, activist and trade unionist. Beginning in 1986 he joined the fight against the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, first as a volunteer for the Center for Democratic Renewal and later as co-Chair of Education and Outreach for Neighbors Network, a local community organization combating hate crime and hate group activity.