Over the weekend, members of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in United States history, gathered for a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. They marched alongside Nazis, the self-proclaimed heirs of murderous racists who killed many millions, to express shared regard for Robert E. Lee, who led a traitorous army under the Confederate battle flag in defense of a slave state. In the days since, some of the men who participated openly have been outed by anti-racist activists.
My colleague Gillian B. White gave a cogent overview of the issues surrounding a campaign to cost them their jobs in her piece “Is Being a White Supremacist Grounds for Firing?”
As she summarized the stakes:
All of these cases indicate that there is real pushback against the trend that my colleague Matt Thompson described over the weekend: that white supremacists feel increasingly comfortable expressing their views in public fora. This is certainly true, but apparently they can't do so with impunity: The hoods may be off, but the torchbearers may not have jobs to come back to on Monday. The efforts to push employers to fire the offending employees are an example of how the public—but, importantly, not the government—can strengthen the norms against these ideas, attach a stigma to them, and try to move society away from them.
Of course, the consequence of this dynamic is that taboo political ideas of all stripes can lead to workplace sanctions. While many on the political left are now lauding firings as a way to hold white supremacists accountable, it’s also worth remembering that pressuring employers to sever ties based on political activities, or social and racial beliefs, has historically been targeted in the other direction. McCarthyism involved reporting Communists and Communist sympathizers and pushing them out of the workforce, and Hollywood in particular. And as Walter Greason, a historian and professor at Monmouth University said in an interview, “Historically it's more dangerous as an employee to be associated with racial justice and the NAACP, than it was to be affiliated with the KKK.”
Two desirable norms seem to be in tension: The vast majority of Americans sensibly want Nazis, the KKK, and other white-supremacist organizations to be condemned, denounced, and stigmatized, so that they remain powerless and ostracized at society’s fringes. And many of the very same people are wary of a society where factions vie to deprive one another’s members of their livelihoods over politics.