Washington, D.C., Is the Next Front for the Alt-Right

The city’s fraught racial history is a perfect parallel for the ways that white supremacy actually shapes spaces and could change the country.


When the white supremacists come to town Sunday, will they take the Green Line? Will they spend time on the mass-transit route that connects the pieces of a marginalized past in Washington, D.C.? Will they ride through Anacostia in the Southeast quadrant or to the historic Shaw neighborhood? Maybe their journeys will take them near Howard University, the Mecca, where a fresh wave of promising new students will be unpacking their bags and embarking upon their own academic journey. Perhaps their travels might even extend out to Prince George’s County, the suburban last stop in a grand exodus full of descendants from Great Migrations past, where sometimes folks still fix grits the way Grandma and Grandpa in North Carolina used to.

Perhaps they won’t. The participants in the Unite the Right rally, like many other visitors to the nation’s capital, won’t necessarily find that route convenient for getting to some of the most venerable areas in the city, or to their destination of Lafayette Square. Even so, as the acolytes of the prominent white-nationalist activist Jason Kessler trample the grass in what was recently known as “Chocolate City,” the historical resonance will fill the August air. Here, in a city shaped by slavery, abolition, desperate escapes from the clutches of Jim Crow, riots, and waves of white backlash and demographic threat, alt-righters and Klansmen and neo-Nazis will find a narrative deeply connected to their own.

The Chocolate City era in Washington began almost exactly 50 years ago, when, in April 1968, the city’s segregated enclaves of blackness became ground zero in the Holy Week Uprising that swept over a hundred cities across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As was the case in many other cities, the sheer sense of possibility embodied in him and the rolling civil-rights movement kept desperation in the ghettos from boiling over, even as school, housing, and police systems conspired to restrict and control black citizens. Then, that possibility was gone. Stokely Carmichael was here, trying and failing to marshal the rage and sorrow of a downtrodden urban class into organized protest. The ghettos and business district went up in flames—and the city soon felt a backdraft as the white citizens who’d once dominated it left at accelerating rates.

The ensuing era became a study in contrasts. Granted home rule in the 1970s, a city that had become a thoroughly black polity elected an unbroken string of black mayors. Chuck Brown and the progenitors of go-go music built the sound from funk and gospel in music halls and dance clubs across the city. Black power brokers and titans from the civil-rights movement built new organizing structures and accumulated real capital and a national visibility that reached its zenith with the 1995 Million Man March.

But at the same time, the seeds of instability were sown. The other government in town, the national one, helped promote a developing urban paradigm of mass incarceration and an ongoing, disastrous War on Drugs, allegedly inspired by the very conditions outside the doorstep of an American president. The crack epidemic and its purported carceral policy cures—encouraged by both the federal government and several prominent members of black communities—depleted urban centers that had already been hollowed out by the riots decades before. And decades of disinvestment and population loss, along with the influence of white enclaves within the city and in its satellite municipalities, made it clear that Chocolate City was an unsteady state, one at the whim of developers and gentrification.

This is a history that might seem almost alien to recent transplants—or weekend visitors—to Washington. The city is now a developer’s playground, one that might not ever be a majority-black metropolis again. Aggressive gentrification and displacement have changed the spaces and demographics of even the anchor black communities along the Green Line corridor at an alarming pace. It has been reshaped to fit the whims of a whiter group of residents pouring in from the suburbs and other states, and much of the contemporary shape of the city is still built on a foundation of racial and class turbulence. The failure of the 1968 Fair Housing Act to protect black communities against the will of developers is extraordinarily evident in Washington. And now, at the center of it all, a scion of the very developer class that has exerted its will over the fates of two generations of people of color sits in the White House. Donald Trump is a temporal bridge in a history of white backlash that has shaped the contours of every city in the country.

The valences of that history may not be of obvious importance to the organizers of the Unite the Right rally, but the collective of groups under its banner seems to have an affinity for symbols and spaces with deep significance to America’s racial story. Like moths to a flame, a year ago they were drawn to Charlottesville, Virginia, a storied home and resting place for both patriots and Confederates, by a dispute involving the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. As a venerable bastion of public academia—one with its own endemic racial disparities, and one built by the enslaved—suddenly faced with a violent, out-of-control, demagogic inferno led by one of its own children, Charlottesville doubled as a metaphor for the rapid advance of white nationalism in elite spaces.

But now, the story has changed. The stakes are different. As my colleague Adam Serwer writes, despite what appears to be a series of losses for the movement since last August, “the alt-right fulfilled its own purpose in pulling the Republican Party in its direction.” Demographic threat has been activated, the majority of white Americans see themselves as aggrieved parties in a culture war, and the White House has become increasingly comfortable with issuing outright anti-immigrant directives. Ironically, what projects by all accounts to be a smaller and more timid rally this year actually doubles as a coronation, an indication that fringe provocateurs and firebrands may no longer be necessary, because the fringe is now the center.

D.C. is a new symbolic place for this phase of the alt-right. A city built and maintained by slavery, but one also where the founding documents of a liberal order are kept, this is a place that captures the rhetorical promise of white nationalism: Herrenvolk democracy, and a birthright power won by blood. But the more recent history better parallels how white nationalism will actually influence the country’s discourse. The racial panics that shaped the city weren’t led by charismatic demagoguery, but by group threat—by white flight and state violence and the sheer irresistibility of capital. And as much as a group of poorly outfitted angry white men with swastika tattoos and tiki torches may seem to exist outside of those formal structures, history says the goals can and will converge.

If the protesters do take the Green Line, they will encounter an old power that hasn’t yet been driven out of the city in its entirety. They’ll find people riding the A4 bus who’ve seen their kind before; mothers and grandmothers who fled sundown towns and arrived in D.C. from back roads with only Green Book directories to guide them. They’ll see a D.C. that isn’t in the papers anymore, with neighborhoods full of tough and proud people who came to be that way in part because of the very racial terrors that the predecessors of the alt-right endorsed and fomented. But even if those routes are inconvenient for their purposes, perhaps the journalists and tourists who come to report or just gawk at white boys with bad haircuts will take a detour, and understand. Because it can never be forgotten that what’s at stake here isn’t an abstract thing, but could very well mean annihilation for some people.