The piece, titled “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland” and written by the Times’ Richard Fausset, strives to paint Nazi sympathizer Tony Hovater and his wife, Maria, as terrifyingly normal. Readers roundly rejected that portrait—criticizing the piece for “normalizing” white nationalist and neo-Nazi beliefs.
The Times says that wasn’t its intention.
“The point of the story was not to normalize anything,” the Times’ Marc Lacey wrote, “but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”
But this explanation raises the question: Who, exactly, is the “us” the paper is referring to? Black people and people of color have long been aware of the reach and prevalence of American hatred.
Here is one typical description of Hovater from the Times:
Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show Twin Peaks. He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big Seinfeld fan.
The “but” implies that the latter somehow contradicts the former: that Americans will be surprised that a virulent, unrepentant racist would watch popular TV shows and eat pie. The article also lauds Hovater’s Midwestern manners.
This is the sort of construct, the sort of paragraph, the sort of article written primarily for white Americans, from a distinctly white American perspective.
Hovater is allowed the space to claim that he is not racist, without Fausset once acknowledging that many avowed white nationalists and white supremacists reject being called racist (rendering their views on their own racism effectively meaningless).
Hovater’s “political evolution,” originating from “vaguely leftist rock musician to ardent libertarian to fascist activist,” is similarly unaddressed. Fausset doesn’t push back at all.
Nor does Fausset mention that white nationalists’ foundational views—that white people are under attack in the U.S., for instance—were held by more than a third of respondents in a recent University of Virginia poll (the proportion is closer to 50 percent when you look at just white respondents). If Americans reject white nationalists by label, they don’t necessarily reject white nationalist ideas.
These are among the New York Times piece’s many failures—the greatest of which is its very premise: that white supremacy is adhered to by a fringe element of American society.
White supremacy is foundational to the U.S., just as it is foundational to Hovater’s neo-Nazi beliefs (a section about Hovater’s reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death and his staunch support of Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, is telling).
It’s as American as the pie tattooed on Hovater’s arm. Any serious analysis of white supremacists or white nationalists that fails to acknowledge this at the outset is doomed to fail. And this failure is evident in Fausset’s tone and reporting: treating Hovater and his ilk as if they—the polite racist, the mild-mannered Nazi—are some novel phenomenon. The title could well have been “Nazis! They Are Just Like Us!” (The “us” is, of course, white, as the “us” so often is with the Times.)
Black and brown people can ill afford that sort of naïveté about mild-mannered white people. Mother Jones’ Shane Bauer, cited in the Times’ response to its readers, misses this point when he defends the piece.
“People mad about this article want to believe that Nazis are monsters we cannot relate to. White supremacists are normal ass white people and it’s been that way in America since 1776. We will continue to be in trouble till we understand that,” Bauer tweeted.
Black people and people of color know most intimately the monsters that lie in “normal ass white people.” It’s something I think about every time I look at the photos of white people, their faces contorted in anger, screaming insults and slurs at little black children going to school during the first wave of school integration. Those white people sat in church on Sundays and prepared their kids’ lunches on Mondays. Ask their white neighbors, their nieces and nephews, about them, and you’d likely hear stories about how kind and polite they were. How they volunteered. How they loved cherry pie and could always be relied on for a favor.
White America has no difficulty seeing the deep-down goodness of racists—white supremacy could not exist without an insistence on white virtue and white innocence. The Times, for its stature and its platform, should know better.
Of course, the monster looks like you—it has always been you.