The Mantra of White Supremacy

The idea that anti-racist is a code word for “anti-white” is the claim of avowed extremists.

Illustration of Tucker Carlson, the U.S. Capitol and a sign reading "Anti-white mania"
Fox News / Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.

Below a Democratic donkey, the Fox News graphic read ANTI-WHITE MANIA. It flanked Tucker Carlson’s face and overtook it in size. It was unmistakable. Which was the point.

The segment aired on June 25—the height of the manic attack on, and redefinition of, critical race theory, which Carlson has repeatedly cast as “anti-white.” It was one of his most incendiary segments of the year. “The question is, and this is the question we should be meditating on, day in and day out, is how do we get out of this vortex, the cycle, before it’s too late?” Carlson asked. “How do we save this country before we become Rwanda?”

Some white Americans have been led to fear that they could be massacred like the Tutsis of Rwanda. CRT=Marxism, Marxism→Genocide Every time, read a sign at a June 23 Proud Boys demonstration in Miami. Other white Americans have been led to fear America’s teachers—79 percent of whom are white—instructing “kids to identify in racial terms,” as Blake Masters, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, said in May. “You are good or bad, depending on what you look like. At this point it is straight up anti-white racism. I don’t think we’re allowed to say that. But let’s call it what it is.”

Even when GOP politicians and operatives don’t openly “call it what it is,” they end up echoing Masters nonetheless, saying without saying that “critical race theory is explicitly anti-white,” to use the words of Christopher F. Rufo, a travel-documentary filmmaker turned leading critic of CRT. At his final campaign rally, in Loudoun County, Virginia, Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin said, “What we won’t do is teach our children to view everything through a lens of race where we divide them into buckets and one group is an oppressor and the other is a victim and we pit them against each other and we steal their dreams.”

Republicans provoked a backlash against CRT, which they also call anti-racism or wokism. Their backlash won 2021 elections. “But it wasn’t a backlash of parents,” William Saletan found in his close study of polling data. “It was a backlash of white people.”

How many Americans know that the claim that anti-racism is harmful to white people is one of the basic mantras of white-supremacist ideology? Americans are familiar with white-supremacist movements like the Klan, skinheads, neo-Nazis, and the Proud Boys. But they don’t seem to recognize white-supremacist ideology—the most venomous form of racist ideology. I suspect that many Americans don’t know how much white-supremacist ideology shapes their political thought and America’s political discourse, and allows juries to exonerate racism and convict anti-racism.

With his ANTI-WHITE MANIA graphic, Tucker Carlson yet again presented the most dangerous mantra in American politics: Attacks on racism are really attacks on white Americans that lead to white people being harmed. “Anti-racism is anti-white” is the old and explosive mantra of avowed white supremacists. It has been their organizing vehicle, fueling their rage, fueling their backlashes, fueling their delusions.

All year long, this white-supremacist mantra has been fueling what Martin Luther King Jr. once called the “white backlash” against last year’s racial reckoning. It is inciting voter-suppression policies and insurrections (to protect white political supremacy). It is inciting swarms of lies, insults, threats, and simulated killings of anti-racist Americans (who are branded as anti-white). It is inciting the false claim that anti-racist books and education are harmful to white children. It is inciting bans of those books and lessons. It is inciting the second assassination of King to justify those bans.

Some Democrats have predictably made it a bipartisan affair. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “This idea that racial reckoning has gone too far and now white people are the ones suffering is the most predictable thing in the world if you understand American history.”

Centrists told abolitionists that they’d gone too far and provoked the backlash (causing southern secession). Centrists told King and other civil-rights activists that they’d gone too far and provoked the backlash (causing Democrats to lose elections in 1966 and 1968). Some centrist Democrats today say “woke” politics have gone too far and provoked the “wokelash” (causing Democrats to lose elections in 2021). “Some of these people need to go to a ‘woke’ detox center or something,” the Democratic political strategist James Carville said after the 2021 elections. “They’re expressing a language that people just don’t use and there’s backlash and a frustration at that.” Actually, GOP operatives are expressing (or whistling) an anti-white language that anti-racists just don’t use—and there’s a backlash and frustration at that.

“Anti-racism is anti-white” is the mantra dividing the Democratic Party, especially since the 2021 elections. It is the mantra unifying the Republican Party, especially since the 2020 election. There are numerous variations on this mantra. “Wokeism” or anti-racism or critical race theory or the 1619 Project or “cancel culture” or Black Lives Matter or anyone challenging racial inequity is said to be anti-white or racist or an anti-white racist. And variations on this mantra have become so ubiquitous in the American political discourse that people can easily dismiss or deny its origin in white-supremacist thought.

When Robert Whitaker, 76, died in June 2017, white supremacists reflected on his legacy online. “Perhaps his most important, and most lasting, legacy is that his incessant promotion of the term ‘anti-white’ is now slowly but surely going mainstream,” someone named “Bellatrix” said on Stormfront, the prominent white-supremacist website. “A very important corner to turn indeed, as it is the rebuttal of the accusation of racist.”

Whitaker, a former economics professor and Reagan appointee to the Office of Personnel Management, had been radicalized as a young man in opposition to the civil-rights movement. He was a propagandist for more than half a century. But Whitaker’s fame among the most extreme white supremacists came toward the end of his life, when he wrote a screed called “The Mantra.”

“Everybody says there is this race problem. Everybody says this race problem will be solved when the third world pours into every white country and only into white countries,” Whitaker wrote in “The Mantra,” which he first posted on his blog and the websites of a neo-Nazi organization in 2006. “But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.”

“The Mantra” ends with what has become the new mantra in American politics: “They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white. Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.”

Over the next decade, and particularly after Barack Obama’s election, a self-identified “swarm” of online trolls posted quotes and reprinted “The Mantra” online wherever they could, and attacked anti-racists as “racist” whenever they could.

Whitaker’s mantra has been linked to some of the deadliest acts of white-supremacist terror over the past decade. Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011. On the day of his terrorist attack, the leader of the swarm, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as Michigan anti-Semite Timothy Gallaher Murdock, was among some 1,000 people to whom Breivik sent his 1,500-page manifesto. The manifesto raged against “anti-racist witch hunts” and how “the slightest excuse to label whites as ‘racist’ is continually sought”; it railed against the “quasi-religious undercurrent to the anti-racist movement”; it seethed against the “ridiculous pursuit of equality.” And, again and again, Breivik numbered himself among the real victims. “I consider myself to be an anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-Nazi,” he wrote. “That’s the main reason why I oppose Cultural Communism/European multiculturalism. THEY are the Nazis, they are the fascists and they are the racists! I have witnessed much racism in my time but 90% of it has been against Europeans.”

Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine Bible-studying African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, posted his manifesto on a website named The Last Rhodesian. He included photographs of himself wearing a jacket patched with an old flag of Rhodesia, a former white-supremacist colony in southern Africa. Whitaker lived in Roof’s hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, but there’s no evidence Roof and Whitaker had any direct contact. But Roof might have had contact with Whitaker’s ideas.

Many Americans have had contact with Whitaker’s ideas, likely without knowing it. In the days after Roof’s massacre, Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen, the founder and president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, pointed this out. “In recent years, extremists have distilled the notion of white genocide to ‘the mantra,’ parts of which show up on billboards throughout the South, as well as Internet chat rooms,” they wrote in June 2015. “It proclaims ‘Diversity = White Genocide’ and ‘Diversity Means Chasing Down the Last White Person,’ blaming multiculturalism for undermining the ‘white race.’”

White supremacists were quietly organizing elements of what’s now Donald Trump’s base. From the earliest days of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015, his support has been most concentrated among white Americans who think anti-whiteness is ascendant. Trump voters typically considered racism against white people to be a bigger problem than racism against people of color. Among white Americans who don’t think there’s much anti-white racism, support for Republican presidential candidates has actually fallen over the past decade.

Whitaker did not create the mantra. He reproduced it. Since the very first Civil Rights Act, white supremacists have cast anti-racist bills as racist toward white people. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 defined citizenship, granted it to African Americans, and affirmed that all citizens are equally protected by the law. But President Andrew Johnson vetoed it, arguing that “the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race.” In an address to Congress in 1867, Johnson opposed voting rights for Black men, fearing “the dread of Negro supremacy” and the “subjection” of “white people of the South.” In his best-selling 1874 book, the journalist James S. Pike described South Carolina’s interracial legislature as denying “the exercise of the rights of white communities, because they are white.” When an anti-lynching bill came before the U.S. Senate in 1938, Senator and lifelong Klansman Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi said its passage “will open the floodgates of hell in the South.”

When a new civil-rights plank was added to the Democratic Party’s platform, southern segregationists walked out of the Democratic National Convention in 1948. They formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, known popularly as the Dixiecrats, running Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for U.S. president. “We affirm that the effective enforcement of such a [civil-rights] program would be utterly destructive of the social, economic and political life of the Southern people,” their platform stated.

Thomas Abernethy, the Jim Crow segregationist and U.S. representative from Mississippi, feared that the Civil Rights Act of 1957 would create “nothing short of an assemblage of powerful Federal meddlers and spies created for the purpose of tormenting, abusing, and embarrassing southern white people.” During his 24-hour-long filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Thurmond cited a newspaper article that warned of the “persecution” that white people could face under the law.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, opponents of racial equity largely stopped openly claiming that anti-racist measures were harmful to white people. They instead claimed that anti-racist efforts to remedy racial inequality constituted “reverse discrimination” or “reverse racism” (against white people). They weaponized the very Civil Rights Acts they had long opposed against the policies and programs leading to integration, enfranchisement, racial equity, and racial justice. When the medicine is rebranded as the disease, the disease will inevitably persist—and it has.

Allen J. Ellender, the Jim Crow segregationist and senator from Louisiana, framed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as “discrimination ... being practiced to wipe out discrimination.” In a televised presidential-campaign speech in 1976, Ronald Reagan said, “If you happen to belong to an ethnic group not recognized by the federal government as entitled to special treatment, you are a victim of reverse discrimination.” In 1995, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas said, “You cannot give somebody preference over somebody else without discriminating against the person who is not receiving the preference.” Or, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in 2009, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

For five decades since the civil-rights movement, Republicans (and many non-Republicans) have expressed two conflicting racial mantras: (1) racism no longer exists, and (2) racism is spreading against white people. Since Joe Biden’s election, this second mantra has overtaken the first.

White-supremacist ideology lives on what Heather McGhee calls the “zero-sum myth,” the idea that progress for people of color necessarily comes at white folks’ expense. This zero-sum myth erases the past and present of abolitionist and anti-racist movements, which have aided ordinary white people. It fearmongers about the future: If white people are not worshipped in schools, then they will be demonized; if white people don’t reign supreme, then they will be subjugated; if white people don’t hoard resources and opportunities, then they will be starved; if white people cannot kill at will, then they will be killed at will. White violence is presumed to be self-defense. Defending yourself against a white supremacist is presumed to be a criminal act.

Extreme fear perhaps breeds this extreme fear. White supremacists probably fear revenge, retaliation, the tables turning—as they wipe the blood of democracy, of equality, of the dying and dead off their hands. Like the enslavers of old sleeping with guns under their pillows, they know the level of brutality they have leveled against people of color and their white allies. They probably can’t imagine that Indigenous anti-racists just want their land back and aren’t genocidal; that Black anti-racists just want reparations and don’t want to enslave; that Asian anti-racists just want to be visible and don’t want to render white people invisible; that Latino and Middle Eastern anti-racists just want to flee violence and don’t want to invade predominantly white nations. White supremacists are mobilizing against an anti-white army that isn’t mobilizing, that isn’t coming, that isn’t there. Then again, if there is an army that is mobilizing, that is coming, that is here—it is made up of white supremacists. Their carnage is here. Their ideology, too.

In 1956, 19 senators and 77 representatives issued a manifesto. “Parents should not be deprived by Government of the right to direct the lives and education of their own children,” the legislators wrote. They decried “destroying the amicable relations between” the “races” and the planting of “hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.” They feared that “if done, this is certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the states.”

These Jim Crow congressmen expressed “the gravest concern” for this “dangerous condition.” These avowed segregationists cast their ilk as “the victims.” These white supremacists commended all who “have declared the intention to resist” the desegregation of schools. Sixty-five years ago, they did their best to redefine desegregation and racial equality as anti-white mania.

History reproduces itself. But when people don’t know history—or are barred from learning it—how can they ever recognize its reproduction?