Carol M. Swain, a professor of both political science and law at Vanderbilt University, has studied racial attitudes for more than a decade. Her latest book, "The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration" (Cambridge University Press, 2002), argues that white nationalism is on the rise. To defuse its appeal, she counsels African-Americans to stop supporting affirmative action and reparations. Felicia R. Lee spoke with her.
Q: You argue that an energized white separatist movement exists, despite polls that show more racial tolerance and an increasingly diverse popular culture. Why?
A lot of white people feel that diversity is being forced on them and it comes at their expense.
For example, in one of my focus groups with whites from the New York area — men and women of different ages — they were very angry. One person said employers will not take white males when they have to take blacks, Hispanics and Chinese; that there were quotas; that blacks could go to schools like Yale before whites; that blacks were lazy.
Blacks saw quotas as a ceiling and were angry about affirmative action, too. They said affirmative action was the receptionist out front and the guy who fixes the copy machine.
Q: Racial extremists have a long history in this country. Why sound alarm bells now?
A constellation of forces are coming together at this point in time that we've never had before. There is the projection that non-Hispanic whites will be the minority around the year 2050. There's economic uncertainty, with a recession and globalization and loss of jobs. An immigration policy that means that some immigrants do compete with Americans for jobs. Racial preferences, a policy never accepted by the majority of whites. Continued white fear of black crime. And the ability of the Internet to reach people who want information about white nationalism.
Historically, rapid demographic changes and economic uncertainty put people on a collision course and lead to social ills.
Q: Senator Trent Lott is under fire for saying that the United States would be better off if Strom Thurmond had won the presidency on the segregationist platform in 1948. Should he resign?
I think Trent Lott should lead the national debate on race. If we're going to have a serious discussion, we need people to say what's on their minds. I don't think he should step down. If we attack these people when they put their feet in their mouths, we can never get to the root of the problem.
Q: Is the specter of whites as a minority the biggest race card the racists play?
Yes. They say that your children and grandchildren will be submerged in these teeming masses of people that don't share your values, don't share your culture. It's very dangerous that white nationalists are the only ones talking in open forums about what it might mean for white people being a minority in America.
Q: You yourself overcame the disadvantages of being black, poor, a high-school dropout. And now you advocate restrictions on immigration and the end of race-based affirmative action as big steps toward creating a better racial climate.
We can neutralize white nationalists by taking away two of their best issues. One is affirmative action as racial preferences and another is liberal immigration policies. One of the concerns that many people have about immigration is that new immigrants, who don't have a shared history of discrimination in the same way as African-Americans, can be eligible for racial preferences; it works against the interests of African-Americans and other people who have a history in this country. Some of them are illegal immigrants, who tend to depress the wages of native workers.
We need to move toward race-neutral affirmative-action policies and guarantee people a working wage. I believe that affirmative action never reached down to the people who were most disadvantaged.
Q: What do you think of the current national black leadership?
The house is on fire for African-Americans, but the black leadership is more focused on the easier, symbolic issues. Some of those issues that the black leaders champion push some white people into the neo-conservative movement as a reaction. Like the focus on slave reparations at this time in history — the timing could not be worse. If whites don't support affirmative action, why would they support reparations? I think it comes at an enormous cost of resentments being stirred.
Black leadership needs to focus still on issues like black crime. Even though crime has dropped nationwide, it's still a pattern that separates African-Americans from other groups. There are cultural things that need to be addressed, like the high rate of illegitimacy. Close to 70 percent of black children are born illegitimate. AIDS is the leading cause of death of African-Americans under the age of 55, and that is not really being discussed by the leading black spokespeople.
B: Liberals, you say, are not any better in turning back white nationalists because they have no new ideas about race, immigration, poverty.
I think the left is very much focused on maintaining and defending the status quo of things put into place 30 years ago. They're not strategic at all.
B: How in the world is the average white person, who maybe doesn't like affirmative action, turned into a white nationalist?
To reach the mainstream white population, the group they'd like to politicize, white nationalists have very skillfully adopted the language of multiculturalism and the language of civil rights. The language of multiculturalism says it's O.K. for groups to organize for self-determination and self-pride. The white nationalists say if it's O.K. for blacks and Hispanics, then why not whites? And they say that white Americans are the group that is most discriminated against in America and that there's no one protecting their interests. They are talking about racial preferences, immigration, job loss. The K.K.K. is a dying organization, not because its views and hatred are not out there, but because people have other avenues, and white intellectuals, people who are well educated, are not going to be in any of those organizations.