A “Few Bad Apples”: A Historiographical Review of the White Power Movement

By Aidan Goldberg

On the morning of April 19th, 1995, a Ryder truck containing close to 5000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel mixture detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, leading to the catastrophic collapse of the northern half of the building, severely damaging all structures within a 4-block radius, and killing 168 people, including various federal employees and, particularly disturbingly, 19 children in a day care center directly adjacent to the blast. The bombing was perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two disaffected Army veterans, radicalized both by antigovernment literature and the perceived brutality of federal law enforcement at Ruby Ridge, Idaho–where a standoff between survivalist Randy Weaver and the United States Marshal Service resulted in the death of Weaver’s wife and son–and Waco, Texas, where an ATF/FBI siege of a fringe religious sect’s compound in Waco, Texas ended in the immolation of the compound and the deaths of 76 people.  

The attack on the Murrah Building remains the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in American history, effectively forcing the federal government to dedicate new attention and commit greater resources to investigating and prosecuting white supremacist groups. While the intensity and efficacy of these investigative efforts has varied greatly depending on the ideological priorities of political leadership—consider, for example, the contrast between the Obama administration’s investment in anti-domestic terrorism efforts and the Trump administration’s legitimization of white supremacist rhetoric for political gain—white supremacy is now generally regarded as one of the most pressing national security concerns facing the United States. Racist, right-wing attacks have been occurring with increasing regularity; Black churchgoers gunned down in Charleston, Latinx individuals murdered at a Walmart in El Paso, elderly Jews shot at a congregation in Pittsburgh. Taken with other, overseas incidents of racialized political violence—Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attacks on the Norwegian Prime Minsters’ office in Oslo and a Labor Party-run children’s summer camp, and the 2017 murder of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, to cite but two examples—these domestic attacks seem part of an increasingly globalized pattern of white supremacist revolutionary activity, in many ways inextricably tied to the development of a shared discourse between right-wing ideologues in Europe and the United States. Testifying to the urgency of the present moment, both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) affirmed during 2021 congressional hearings that the greatest domestic threat facing the United States comes from “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” specifically white supremacists [1].

Given the post-Oklahoma City governmental focus on the security risks posed by right-wing domestic terrorism, and, more recently, the heightened public awareness about the dangers of white supremacy with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Trumpism, it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been a proliferation in the past two decades of literature focusing on white supremacist violence. In this review, I have analyzed three popular readings which exemplify this body of work. The readings— The Terrorist Next Door, written by Daniel Levitas in 2004; Blood and Politics, written by Leonard Zeskind in 2009; and Bring the War Home, by Katherine Belew in 2019—are illustrative of the varying approaches academics, popular writers, and journalists have taken in their treatment of the white supremacist movement, and of the ways in which these historiographical methods have shifted over time. While it is difficult to extrapolate anything definitive from such a small sample size, it appears that authors writing about the white supremacist movement have adopted an increasingly holistic analytical lens, one emphasizing the tactical flexibility, social cohesion, and political influence of white power groups.

The Terrorist Next Door by Daniel Levitas is fairly narrow in scope, focusing specifically on the figure of “Reverend” William Potter Gale, and his establishment of a paramilitary group known as the Posse Comitatus in the early 1970s. Levitas delineates the origins and maturation of the Posse, outlining its birth out of opposition to the Civil Rights movement, its broadening connections to other factions in the white supremacist and anti-tax movements through the 1970s and 1980s, and its eventual metamorphosis into the “Christian Patriot” and militia movements which dominated the late 1980s and 1990s [2]. While Levitas clearly establishes the nexus between the Posse and other white supremacist groups, which, he contends, have been profoundly influenced by the Posse’s ideological framework, his book is primarily focused on the Posse, with any broader analysis of the modern paramilitary right filtered through that lens. 

As befits a semi-biographical study, Levitas begins the book with the immigration of William Gale’s family–ironically Jews fleeing from Russian pogroms in the late 19th century–to South Dakota. This background, while seemingly anecdotal, effectively forces the reader to consider the ways that religious and ethnic minorities might, in their effort to assimilate into existing sociopolitical and economic power structures, internalize and adopt white supremacist attitudes [3]. After discussing Gale’s family background and important experiences in his early life, Levitas describes how, following his discharge from the Army in 1950, Gale became increasingly engaged with anticommunist and, intertwined as they tended to be, antisemitic political causes, effectively embracing the Christian Identity movement by 1953. 

Gale’s political efforts which predated his founding of the Posse Comitatus were largely reliant on harnessing the bigotry of both conservative opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and Christian Identity theology, a fringe ideology which dictated that white people constituted the true Israelites, and which regarded the extermination of nonwhite peoples as necessary for the fulfillment of eschatological prophecy. Levitas is less interested in these early efforts to mobilize opposition to racial integration and to infuse Christianity with white supremacy–two tactics which were hardly novel–than he is with the ways in which Gale was able to take radical, right-wing rhetoric and effectively cloak it in “pseudoreligious legalisms” which lent it a semblance of credibility [4]. Through synthesizing anticommunist and white supremacist talking points, historical allusions to the principles of common law, and the idea of radical popular sovereignty into a single rhetorical toolbox, the Posse was able to provide a range of white nationalist activists and sympathizers with a useful (if inane) legal framework–one which affirmed the unconstitutionality of both federal civil rights legislation and the income tax [5].  Levitas suggests that the relative success of the movement can be attributed to both the usefulness of this quasi-legalistic framework and the movement’s effective use of dog whistles, rather than explicit appeals to notions of racial purity, to recruit a broader segment of the American public [6]. 

Professing this “American-sounding” ideology, Posse groups expanded rapidly from California, Gale’s home state, up the West Coast and to the Midwest, where they effectively leveraged contemporary economic challenges facing farmers—high interest rates, rising inflation, and low farm prices—to expand their recruitment efforts and political activities in rural areas. By the 1980s, the Posse had expanded its political base to encompass a wide range of economic classes and political demographics. While increasing confrontation with the federal government—including, notably, the murder of two federal marshals in 1983 by Gordon Kahl, a Posse member—forced the movement to reconfigure itself under the new label of “Christian Patriotism,” its ideas were effectively incorporated by the militia movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Levitas concludes that the Posse’s success lay in its ability to articulate a new anti-government legal framework, and, critically, in its ability to unite the underlying conspiracy theories and bigotries of its ideology with more mainstream political issues like gun control, land use, and regional planning [7]. While Levitas’ study of the white supremacist movement vis a vis Gale and the Posse is narrowly focused, and his discussion of broader historiographical issues and events somewhat minimal, Levitas provides an excellent overview of a critically important faction within the larger movement. 

By contrast, Zeskind’s Blood and Politics, written five years after Levitas’ account, takes a significantly more expansive view of white supremacy, providing a survey of the white nationalist movement more broadly and describing critical developments from the 1950s through the immediate aftermath of September 11th. While Zeskind, like Levitas, is sure to situate the subject of his investigation, white nationalism, in the context of other white supremacist movements, his engagement with the latter is relegated to what he sees as pertinent to telling the story of the former. Like Levitas, Zeskind clearly emphasizes the importance of the Civil Rights Movement in mobilizing political actors on the radical right.  Zeskind contends that white supremacist organizations in the post-Jim Crow era, responding to the inability of their predecessors to prevent widespread racial integration, opted to “build a movement around the idea of white dispossession.” The rhetoric of white dispossession—that the economic and political dominance of whites was being threatened by political reform and demographic change—motivated racist groups to coalesce around the need to create a white ethnostate [8].

Zeskind has chosen to center his narrative around individuals, focusing on two prominent white nationalists,Willis Allison Carto and William Pierce,whom he believes epitomize a key strategic divide in the movement between a more reformist “mainstreaming” represented by Carto and a more revolutionary “vanguardism” represented by Pierce. As Zeskind describes it, Carto’s “mainstreaming” approach was heavily preoccupied with cultivating political respectability. Zeskind notes that Carto attempted to win people over to the white nationalist cause by working within existing political institutions to affect policy change. Pierce’s “vanguardism” approach, by contrast, was rooted in the premise that gradual reform is an impossibility, and that any attempts to recruit white people en masse through respectability politics is misguided, instead suggesting that the movement should rely on small, highly organized cells of dedicated cadres to take revolutionary action [9].

Zeskind’s narrative, which describes the political activism and criminal activities of numerous factions within the white supremacist movement—David Duke’s neo-confederates, pseudo-constitutional groups like the Posse Comitatus, and myriad paramilitary survivalist groups—is framed around this ideological and strategic debate between Willis Carto and William Pierce. Zeskind suggests that the viability of each strategy shifted depending on contemporary political conditions. For instance, when describing white supremacist activities in the 1980s, Zeskind notes how the bank robberies and assassinations carried out by vanguardist factions like the Order prompted federal prosecution of key figures in the white supremacist movement, leading the vanguardist approach to fall out of favor. This is not to say that acts of political violence were not perpetrated by organizations within the movement—the OKC bombing testifies to that—but that vanguardism ceased to be the dominant strategic approach as the 1980s drew to a close. Indeed, Zeskind suggests that by the 1990s, those on the right had begun to develop a form of ethnic nationalism which found its way to the margins of political respectability, attributing this development, in part, to the ways in which the end of the Cold War and effective collapse of communism catalyzed a reckoning within conservative circles about the meaning of American identity [10]. He argues that the relative political success of figures like David Duke, who was elected to the Louisiana state legislature, and Pat Buchanan, who enjoyed considerable support in national presidential primaries, exemplified this new form of white nationalism and illustrated the extent to which white nationalist rhetoric has been assimilated into the political mainstream. 

Zeskind’s study is, broadly speaking, more all-encompassing than Levitas’, and he provides the reader with greater insight into both the methods of his historiographical approach and the challenges associated with studying white supremacist groups. He describes how, in researching hate groups, he would rely on a wide range of printed sources, including racist and antisemitic booklets and periodicals, numerous newspaper clippings, and a variety of courtroom documents, including federal affidavits, criminal indictments, and depositions. Additionally, Zeskind details how he relied on the stories of people who were part of the movement, both current members that he met while attending white supremacist rallies, and those individuals who sought him out when they were trying to leave the movement. Zeskind also addresses what is one of the most obvious historiographical challenges associated with studying fringe, racist groups—their tendency to lie to outsiders—noting that  to work around this, he enlisted several volunteers to attend racist meetings and gather information covertly [11].

In Bring the War Home, Katherine Belew seeks to provide a more extensive narrative of the white supremacist movement. The author departs from the traditional historiographical approach to the post-Vietnam white power movement—one which characterizes the movement as a simple resurgence of Klan activity–seeking instead to understand white power as something more ideologically all-encompassing and tactically flexible than had been previously understood [12]. Indeed, Belew is quite deliberate in her use of the term “white power” rather than “white nationalist” or “white separatist,” arguing that the former better encompasses the range of ideologies and practices aimed at affirming the political and economic control of white people, and suggesting that the latter terms minimize the violence of the movement while implying that white supremacists were seeking to defend the American state [13]. Taking a comprehensive approach to the archive, Belew begins her study in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, arguing that the historical memory of American defeat in Vietnam played a central role in the efforts of the white power movement to construct a common group identity [14]. The centrality of Vietnam in her narrative represents a particularly interesting contribution to the historiography of the movement, forcing the reader to reckon with the ways in which militarism, imperialism, and racialized violence abroad might, and frequently do, have profound repercussions domestically. Her historical study goes on to discuss the intensification of white supremacist criminal activities in the 1980s and the effective climax of the movement’s violence in Oklahoma City.  While Belew’s work is more limited in time frame when compared to the chronological scope of Zeskind and Levitas, the depth and comprehensive nature of Belew’s research enables her to effectively reframe our understanding of the white power movement. 

Moreover, Belew argues quite compellingly that prevailing scholarship has failed to recognize both the extent to which white power constituted a full-fledged social movement and the movement’s remarkable influence on mainstream politics [15]. Whereas Levitas and Zeskind orient their narrative around particular individuals and their respective organizations, Belew’s study examines the ways in which more macro-level political developments, namely the Vietnam War, allowed the white power movement to construct a common political identity. Belew argues that, after the military defeat in Southeast Asia, there was a concerted effort by the white power movement to construct a common narrative about the war: that American soldiers had been betrayed by cowardly military and political leadership, and that their sacrifice had been trivialized by an ungrateful public. This narrative helped the movement both to create a common political identity, effectively unifying a disparate array of white supremacist congregations, neo-confederates, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis, and to attract more military veterans, a development which she sees as instrumental in the development of the movement’s paramilitary culture and infrastructure and, consequently, of its capacity for revolutionary violence [16].

Belew divides her study into three constituent parts. Part I focuses on the 1970s, establishing the role of violence within the movement, including the centrality of the Vietnam narrative, the development of paramilitary training camps, and the nexus between the white power movement and various transnational mercenary groups. In Part II, Belew focuses on the 1980s, illuminating how the movement became more and more violently antistatist, discussing the movement’s 1983 declaration of war on the federal government, its use of early computer networks and cell-style organizing, and its attempts to steal military-grade weaponry from the state. Part III looks to the apex of the white power movement’s revolutionary violence, describing its confrontations with the federal government at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, and the effective culmination of antigovernment violence with the Oklahoma City bombing. Belew concludes her study with a meditation on the ways in which the bombing has obfuscated and distorted historical memory, arguing that it cemented public perceptions of white supremacist violence as merely the acts of a few men rather than the manifestation of a broader movement. Belew argues that the inability of the American public to understand the broader implications of OKC and the white supremacist violence that fueled it, in part, set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump, a political development that seemingly took mainstream and left-wing America by surprise. 

Perhaps because she is writing as an academic historian, Belew deals at great length with the historiographical issues inherent to writing about white supremacist groups. She notes, for instance, the difficulties associated with incorporating images from the white power movement into the book, saying that using any photographs owned by racist organizations risks making a financial contribution to their cause. Like Zeskind, she also points out that white supremacists tend to hide their activities, legal or illegal, to mitigate the risk of government infiltration of their cells. Belew also emphasizes the many ways that the archive itself is limited. She suggests that FBI, ATF, Marshall Service, and DOJ records, used widely in research of the white power movement, vary enormously in the accuracy of their accounts, the motivations of their authors, and the degree to which they have been redacted. She further asserts that white supremacist activity in prisons—a key part of the movement—has been poorly documented, and that legal documents from the height of the movement in the 1980s and 1990s are rarely digitized, making them difficult to access. Belew also notes, quite shrewdly, that records from extremist watchdogs like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, while extremely useful, ought to be read in light of these organizations’ reliance on donations; that is to say, they might have a financial incentive to overestimate the movement’s influence and organizational sophistication [17].

Taken together, these readings support several broad statements about contemporary trends in the historiography of the white power movement. First, the recent proliferation of literature focusing on the white power movement and racialized violence illustrate the extent to which both popular and academic interest in these groups has increased as right-wing domestic terrorism is increasingly seen as one the most pressing critical threats to national security. Second, the books I selected suggest an evolution in who is writing about the movement. Whereas Daniel Levitas and Leonard Zeskind have worked primarily as experts on the origins and activities of white supremacist and neo-Nazi group (Zeskind, for a time, also worked as a community activist), Katherine Belew is a professor at the University of Chicago, suggesting the ways in which the white power movement has increasingly become an important subject of inquiry for academic researchers. Finally, the differences between the three books indicate a fundamental shift in the historiography towards more all-encompassing studies of the white power movement as a whole, exemplified by Bring the War Home, rather than more specific examinations of particular groups, as shown by Blood and Politics and The Terrorist Next Door. All three books, however, are thoroughly researched and cogently written, significantly contributing to our understanding of the history of various factions within the white power movement. Future scholarship should look to answer more developed questions, building off of the work of Levitas, Zeskind, and Belew. For instance, is it even possible to identify common root causes of white supremacist violence that can be applied across disparate demographic groups; disaffected workers in the rust belt, Christian extremists, anti-immigration vigilantes at the border, corporate CEOs reliant on GOP support? Furthermore, what does our lack of understanding about these issues mean about our ability to address white supremacist violence in a cohesive, policy-driven manner? There is an urgent need for continued scholarship in this area—scholarship that broadens our understanding of white supremacy beyond the focus on a few isolated groups, a few bad apples.


[1] Eileen Sullivan, Katie Benner, “Top law enforcement officials say the biggest domestic terror threat comes from white supremacists,” New York Times, June 15th, 2021.

[2] Daniel Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002): 3.

[3] Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door, 11.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 9-10.

[8] Ibid., 22.

[9] Ibid., 26-27.

[10] Ibid., 29-30.

[11] Ibid., 16-18.

[12] Katherine Belew, Bring the War Home (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019): 25.

[13] Belew, Bring the War Home, 12.

[14] Ibid., 12-14.

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 15.

[17] Ibid., 30-34.


Belew, Katherine. Bring the War Home. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Levitas, Daniel. The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002. 

Sullivan, Eileen, Benner, Katie. “Top law enforcement officials say the biggest domestic terror threat comes from white supremacists.” New York Times, June 15th, 2021. 

Zeskind, Leonard. Blood and Politics. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009. 

Fall 2022 History 101 Roundtable

In Professor Wurtzel’s Fall 2022 History 101: Medieval and Early Modern Writing class, students were asked to respond to prompts about race in medieval Europe based on readings by Carol Symes and Geraldine Heng. What follows is an excerpt from the conversation between Professor Wurtzel and the students in her class on Blackboard. Interested parties can find the readings in question linked here and here.

Rosemary Avila: 

Director of medieval studies, associate professor of English and Comparative Studies Geraldine Heng, and medieval historian Carol Symes both use the word “urgent” in their essays concerning race in the medieval era and its critical legacy today (Symes, 1; Heng, 323). These secondary documents stress the pressing nature of the historical analysis around race or lack thereof. For instance, Heng argues in her 2011 essay, The Invention of Race in European Middle Ages I, “the past is never completely past, but inhabits the present, and haunts modernity and contemporary time in ways that estrange our present from itself” (Heng, 321). 

On the first day of our class, we discussed our tendency to view the medieval age as both the antithesis of the modern and as a fantasy landscape. Heng and Symes point to these myths as the root of our current tensions surrounding the discussion of race. For example, Symes’ 2017 article, Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft, argues white supremacy uses medievalism to support its claims and ideology. She defines this connection as a “projection” built on the “toxic nostalgia for nonexistent eras of ethnic homogeneity” (Symes, 1). Symes exposes our myths of medievalism, arguing it was a modern construction, “co-created in tandem with white supremacism” (Symes, 2). It is impossible to separate the medieval age from its constructed context. In her article, Symes galvanizes her fellow medieval historians to critically engage with race — a responsibility that medievalists do not often take on. 

Heng engages with this historical research that Symes references. At the beginning of her essay, she discusses the “emergence of homo europaeus,” particularly in context with Jewish persecution and exclusion in the 13th century. We similarly studied the solidification of a European identity by defining the Jewish community as a “vile race” in the aftermath of the crusades. Heng also argues the church characterized those inside and outside of these groups. They defined who was good, bad, damned, saved, holy, and demonic (Heng, 316). Next, Heng turns to the pedagogy and study of race in the historical community and beyond. She argues that canonical race theory does not connect the medieval age to an era consumed with race and racial ideology despite evidence that claims otherwise, such as her above discussion (Heng, 318). Instead, we ascribe race to the Enlightenment, which only validates racial theory connected to biology. Furthermore, historians have difficulty locating race in pre-modern history as it is often intertwined with other “hierarchical systems” (Heng, 319).

Our inability to see race in a medieval context is compounded by our tendency to view history as a linear temporality. Therefore, we distance the medieval age from the modern, and because we define race through modernity, we separate race and medievalism. By refusing to link race and modernity, we absolve the medieval age of “the errors and atrocities of the modern, while its own errors and atrocities are shunted aside as essentially non-significative” (Heng, 320). Through this ignorance, we deny vital, consequential history and underestimate racial practices and institutions’ ability to persevere and mold to our present. These two factors feed into each other. Discounting race and its historical consequence in the medieval era cultivates the destructive white utopian fantasy Symes references (Heng, 319). 

  To counter this erasure, Heng advocates for a new view of race as a “structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences rather than a substantive content” (Heng, 325). This new lens allows historians to avoid the snares of particular evidence Heng comprehensively discussed in her essay. Furthermore, Heng argues that studying how the past interacts with our present “only recalibrate[s] the urgencies of the present with greater precision” (Heng, 323). As difficult as race is to define and acknowledge in our past narratives, its historical presence and our modern lens have immense contemporary consequences. These consequences are urgent. 

Both Syme and Heng’s essays have a broader argument for studying history. They illuminate its power to shape our contemporary social and political landscape. Similarly, both authors challenge the role of the historian, asking them to engage critically with race. I wonder about the role and responsibility of classes like ours. What about a 101 Medieval History class at a liberal arts college? What role do the students, professors, and syllabi hold in this conversation? Are we exempt from this work, or do we hold some sense of responsibility? What does our response look like if we have established that it is “urgent”? 

Professor Wurtzel:

I love the question you end with Rosemary, and with your incisive account of both Heng’s and Syme’s work. It is an important step to establish the validity of race as a concept applying to medieval Europe, and unpack why it has been so hard to do so, since medieval history has been constructed to uphold modern myths of (white) nationhood and community. And then, as you ask, what should change in how this history gets discussed? I believe that the role of the historian is not to dismiss or judge people in the past for their views that we hold to be abhorrent or just strange, but to recognize, as these historians are doing, how perceived difference upholds structures of power, and communicate how it does to others. What can sometimes get lost in that exercise, however, is the sense of personal agency-what individuals do to resist or change these larger categories they’ve inherited. 

Susanna Weiss:

Despite medieval Europe’s lack of modernity, racist prejudices existed. For example, there was a belief that white people were braver (and, since medieval European culture valued skilled warriors, superior) since they had allegedly ventured north while people of color, scared of venturing abroad, remained near the equator. Additionally, there was an association between the color black and the devil, those that worshiped unjust gods, and impurity. This association was further strengthened through a poem titled “Cursor Mundi” in which a group of Saracens, Muslims who were therefore pagan, converted to Christianity; upon doing so, the Saracens changed races from black to white (Heng). As opposed to blackness, whiteness during the middle ages was associated with purity, nobility, and morality. However, the concept of race throughout the middle ages was not solely categorized by skin color as it is today. It was a wider-reaching term that encompassed further aspects about a person such as their religion and culture; prejudice existed based on these characteristics as well. For example, in England during the twelfth century, Jews were required by law to wear badges on their chests to denote their religion. Since it was believed that anyone who was Jewish was sinful, the general English population discriminated against the Jews, concocting stories that described the Jewish people as having monstrous body parts such as a tail and horns, and enacted laws that quashed the rights of the Jewish people. Finally, in 1290 and after decades of enduring discrimination, the Jewish communities in England were expelled by the government (Heng). The treatment of Jews in this instance greatly parallels that of Jews in the Holocaust, demonstrating the similarities among the modes of racism between medieval and modern Europe. However, today’s definition of what constitutes “racism” no longer encompasses discrimination based on religion in its definition. 

The way racist ideas exist today comes from a scientific point of view. After the dawn of the scientific revolution, racists sought to support their bigoted notions of white superiority with scientific evidence. Therefore, they created biological data proving the alleged fundamental inferiority and animalistic nature of non-white individuals. These studies supported and later popularized countless racist notions, such as that people of color are not as intelligent or as skilled as white people. 

To further cement their argument that a homogenous society is the ideal, racists also painted medieval European society as being void of racial intermixing. This was done in the face of numerous such examples, including the multiracial nature of the Roman Empire and the intermixing of Arabs and Anglo Saxons and the cultures thereof during the Umayyad Caliphate. Instead, today’s racists portray medieval Europe as mundane, with the only real tension occurring within the scope of the church. The exclusion from racists’ iteration of medieval European history of examples of racial intermixing and its resulting disputes was an intentional move done to convince people today public that a homogeneous society is one of widespread peace and, as a result of the growth of the church, of population, and of cities, prosperity. Racists idolize this concocted image of a homogenous medieval Europe to try to create an association between whiteness and utopian society to try to convince others that a society made up of only white individuals will produce the same high quality of life as in their fantasy. 

In other words, racists use the rhetoric of this false Middle Ages to promote the alleged positives of an all-white society and spread hatred from white supremacy. In doing so, white supremacists further normalize the messages of the submission of people of color, which incites even more hatred of non-white people, creating an endless cycle. Therefore, it is crucial that people today acknowledge the importance of race in medieval European society to end the association between homogenetic whiteness and prosperity. This will, in turn, end the idealization of an all-white society and, with it, diminish some of the racist ideas that are so pervasive in modern society.

Professor Wurtzel:

Susanna- incisive post about these readings. You point out very clearly not only the way that medieval texts include descriptions of racialized others, particularly Jews and people with dark skin, in ways that are not often acknowledged, but also that there is a direct link between their invisibility in many histories written about medieval Europe and the pretense of an all-white Middle Ages that persists in popular culture and even with some scholars. And though biological race and medieval ideas of race are not interchangeable, as you note, the importance of acknowledging the existence of this way of thinking in the middle ages is key to understanding the past and the power it has to shape the present.

Kiran Williams:

The idea of race as inapposite, as modern scholarship on racial theory or theories of “difference” in medieval studies has begun to refute, is both comforting – that medieval people of colour could exist without self-discriminatory preconceptions seems to offer a hopeful outlook for those of us in the midst of burgeoning white supremacist resistance to necessary and long overdue diversifications in academia – and invalidating, suggesting a model of disinterest that seems to facilely brush away raciality as a modern concept, a modern pursuit, a temporally-situated phenomenon disparate from historical social structures in a way that makes the two incomparable and at times oppositional. Often easier to ignore for the sake of convenience, race theory’s applications to the study of representations of difference have in recent years established a space for itself, one of contention wherein “race” is often either oversimplified in terms of mutual acceptance and coexistence or decried as irrelevantly anachronous (conveniently allowing foundations of white imperium to stand). 

Geraldine Heng’s Invention of Race seems to offer a distinctly contrary narrative, asserting not only the presence of what we may (but should perhaps be cautious towards doing so) view as “race” in the lives of medieval people and their corresponding institutional entities, and an examination of the jargon modern literary scholars, historians, and race theorists (among others) use to articulate these instances of “race-making” (322). Through her work, Heng makes a fundamental anthropological claim: that it is no longer possible to think about race or otherness or difference as inert, but as active systems of visual and rhetorical constructions, superimposed and created rather than natural and endemic (319). And it is ultimately impossible to deny that they are, within the doctrinal spaces of the discipline itself, a representative lived experience. Heng does not deny that race theorists and using race theory carry their own assumptive loads, but that the added weight is not so much a burden as it is an expansion, a useful lens through which premodern scholarship can dissect constructed systems of difference. 

  To take just one (perhaps familiar) example of Heng’s application of her closest definition of “race,” the “repeating tendency, of the gravest import, to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups”, we can consider a category of difference-generation: colour (324). The paradigm of symbolic value (good and evil, chivalric and disloyal, holiness and sin) mercurially applied to darker-skinned figures that Heng describes position the black/white binary as a way to create/assign meaning through oppositional, so that whiteness and blackness are both defined relationally and imply one another when attributed with positive and negative value (318). Blackness is thus a constructed response to whiteness, whiteness a constructed response to blackness – a reciprocal feedback loop of constructed racialities. Heng thus suggests that a modern preoccupation with studying medieval race exclusively through the lens of blackness essentializes “color” as the operative characteristic used in race-making rather than just one signifier assigned variable values, in the same way that the “biological referent” has become to dominate understanding of the function of difference-making practices today (319). This theme comes up most prominently in relation to ethnogeographic (and somewhat “phenotyp[ic]” (323)) difference-making strategies in the Song of Roland, where the ranks of the forces of Balignant, Emir of Babylon, are described as both distinct and one. First, each rank is listed (“the first is made up of men from Butentrot / And the next of the large-headed Milceni… / The sixth of Armenians and Moors…” (Song of Roland, lines 3220-3221, 3227) which appears to assign distinctiveness to the forces by geopolitical alliance. And yet the placement of the last descriptor, which could be applied to the “tenth of men from Balide the Strong” (Song of Roland, l. 2320), could suggest a synchretisation of the distinct categories into one, singular evil, “a people to whom good deeds are unknown” (3231).

  So what Symes aligns these systems of sign-making, labelling, and assigning power in the modern day with is an idea of raciality, in the premodern world or modern world, in scholastic or colloquial settings, that has eminently inextricable personal stakes on disproportionate levels to different people for different reasons. Even more interesting is the fulgently obvious divide that these interactions have inspired, akin to political debates lobbied across public forums. To scholars like Symes and Heng, the discussion of race is explicitly posited as an innately personal investment for them to decenter the tools of a traditionally white field in favour of modern methodologies that address exclusions of globalism and boldly reassert the presence of diverse voices and tools in the field as scholastically legitimate and necessary. Invoking St. Maurice or Ethiopian Christianity is no longer a valid excuse for passivity towards forming a globalised, holistic impression of a “Middle Ages” (if we choose to use that term). Geraldine Heng’s response to backlash about her book by senior scholars, “Why the Hate? The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, and Race, Racism, and Premodern Critical Race Studies Today” demonstrates the debate within the field about “privileged position[s] and powerful allies… derid[ing] bully[ing], and persecut[ing]” (Symes) in an implicitly similar sense to acts of violence attributed to assigned power dynamics in medieval Europe. It also serves as an excellent bridge between the two articles. The link is as follows: https://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2020/12/why-hate-invention-of-race-in-european.html

  I think one of the key ideas that Symes misses (or chooses to omit from) in her article – but which no doubt was discussed in the conference – is the disproportionate degree to which dealing with underrepresentation in the field, studying race-making practices in the Middle Ages, and defraying/resisting historical and modern use of medievalism in racist jargon falls on the shoulders of medievalists of colour. For a bit of Oberlin history, Fanny Jackson Coppin – the third Black woman to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree from the College – said, “I never rose to recite in my classes at Oberlin but I felt that I had the honor of the whole African race upon my shoulders. I felt that, should I fail, it would be ascribed to the fact that I was colored” (see Jackson Coppin, Fanny. Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching (Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Concern, 1913): 15)). While Jackson Coppin was a student studying Classics (Greek & Latin Literature) in 1865, her sentiment still resonates with the experiences of BIPOC undergraduate students in underrepresented and potentially “misuse[d]” fields, like “ancient Rome and medieval Europe” (Symes). This is in some part embodied by the rhetorical methods that feature in monographs written by some medievalists of colour, which Heng employs as a counterpoint to traditions of white escapism that avoid the idea of “race” altogether and situate the Middle Ages as a period before race; with these rhetorical methods, childhood recollections prefigure their respective approaches to the temporal paradigms that they tackle (see particularly: Whitaker, Cord J. “Race-ing the dragon: the Middle Ages, race and trippin’ into the future.” Postmedieval 63–11 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/pmed.2014.40, for a particularly effective use of this device, which he uses to demonstrate a living link between the premodern and the modern that is woven throughout his discussion of Black knights). 

Professor Wurtzel:

This is truly superlative, Kiran. This is evidently a topic you have engaged with previously and which you describe here in terms of its salience for the study of history from an anthropological lens as well as the pitfalls it creates for those who want to discuss it in a way that challenges the foundations of medieval history making. Both Symes and Heng establish the validity of race as a concept applying to medieval Europe, and unpack why it has been so hard to do so, since medieval European history has been constructed to uphold modern myths of (white) nationhood and community. Symes does not, as you note, acknowledge that the difficulties lie not only in the myth of nationhood these ideas uphold but also the absence of medieval historians of color and the disproportionate burden those few in dealing with it. Finally, I think you should pursue more this idea that power is created and maintained by differentiating and judging difference, as is noted in these pieces, but also by homogenizing, erasing differences among people, to create a group that individuals must then interact with. It’s making me think about individual agency in a new way.

Sam Hart:

While contemporaneous depictions of the medieval period in Europe often see little deviation from casting white actors and having them don decrepit Cockney accents, texts this week from Carol Synes and Geraldine Heng urge us to challenge the shallow perception and portrayal of medieval European culture in the modern era, insisting that the rich tapestry of racial experience in pre-modern Europe only appears obfuscated when looking from where we stand in the 21st century, and especially with being in the United States.

Symes’ piece “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft” clarifies the obstacles that come up when analyzing a medieval culture and environment from where (American) society stands today. For one, the profusion of popular culture depicting the more fantastical elements of the medieval European period, such as knighthood or engaging in the Crusades, has proliferated a narrative of white European conquest and success that subsequently has provided ammunition for the “renewal of white nationalist ideologies base on long-discredited versions of ancient and medieval history” (Symes 1). The upkeep of medieval European stories and themes in western culture throughout the modern era, says Symes, has occurred concurrently (not coincidentally) alongside the development of “white supremacism, the ‘scientific’ racialization of slavery, and modern European imperialism” (Symes 3). As such, perceptions of the medieval European period are rife with fallacy about cultural and racial homogeneity on the continent and within the culture, as though western Europe was entirely insular and already developing into contemporary nation-states. Symes unequivocally advocates for having more conversations about how historical pedagogy might affect the public understanding of the medieval period, but what approaches or tools should historians utilize to begin deepening the perception of race in medieval studies?

In her article “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages”, Geraldine Heng argues that medieval European populations are seen as being ubiquitous and conjoined with their incredibly complex and multifaceted culture, likely a side effect of the public presuming that the compartmentalization of peoples into nations transcends modern humankind and existed in some form in medieval Europe. Conceptually, the understanding of race per race theory scholars discredits racial interaction as having to do with “substantive content” and rather involving a “structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences” definitely can be applied to individuals in medieval Europe (Heng 315). While race was definitely understood in part as a “body-centered phenomenon”, the perceived “race” of a person in that period certainly could have connotations about their cultural background, social relations with other people, and even their religious affiliation, and the variety of factors that collectively determine race were just as particular and individual for people then as it is now (Heng 324). The complicated fabric that constitutes a person’s racial identity in the medieval period, then and now, concerns what experience exists in the intersections of “practices, institutions, fictions, and laws” enacted upon the “bodies and lives of individuals and groups” (Heng 325).

All this being said, I feel like the development of a definition for “race” as it pertains to culture – and specifically that of the United States – deserves its own detour. While the medieval period was preceded by much cultural diffusion and evolution prior to the birth of the nation-state and the subsequent descent into the Industrial Revolution, the United States as its known now was birthed entirely out of colonial expansion, and the existing perception of race amongst Americans is undoubtedly framed in part by the foundation of enslavement and racial subjugation of Black individuals and communities by the United States, then and now. If racialized, othering depictions such as that of Saracen warriors in The Song of Roland can be argued as underpinning present-day perspectives of race across cultures in medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, then it can assuredly be stated that the othering of enslaved Africans and Black individuals in the United States obviously persists into modern perspectives of race. Sociologist Joseph Feagin describes these baked-in mannerism that come of interacting with race and systematic upholding of whiteness in the U.S. as the white racial frame, where the ideas of thinking, interacting, and even being in society are mitigated by one’s proximity to the white ideal and, subsequently, their distance from that which is othered. This is all to say that the perception of race for individuals and communities in the United States is predicated on a staunchly colonial background and one that, while spurred on by European powers, resembles little of Europe’s sociocultural development and perception of race.

Professor Wurtzel:

This is really interesting Sam. What I think you’re saying is that racial constructions of the medieval Europeans did not depend on economic structures of colonialism and empire in the same way it has for modern Americans—the history, socio-economic imperatives, etc. are different, and therefore race then and now do not have the same framing. If that is what you’re thinking, I would agree that it makes a difference that a medieval peasant in England would not have thought of herself as white, and all that entails in a world shaped by chattel slavery, but rather Christian (not Jewish or Muslim), and perhaps free or bound depending on the status of her land tenure. White and black are some of the characteristics that designate good and evil, insiders and outsiders, but those people were imagining different histories and associations for their categorizations.

Overall, you have provided a clear and deftly-summarized synopsis of the readings and expanded upon their implications in relevant ways, particularly in the way that these concerns over medieval racial categories are reflections of our current American present.

Zahra Stevick:
I really appreciated Symes’ point about the importance of a continuing conversation about race and the Middle Ages, despite how far removed that time is from us now. The truth is that claiming we have nothing to learn from ancient history is ludicrous, especially when we still consume media, speak languages, adopt symbols, and perhaps most importantly, reinforce traditions that have roots in that time period. Neglecting to engage with the issue of race and racism in the medieval age is, by extension, the neglection of an important facet in the discussion around modern race and racism. The understanding of any sort of modern issue is bolstered by an understanding of how humans have dealt with that issue over time, in what ways that has changed, and in what ways it is still being upheld. As Symes states, the Middle Ages cannot and should not be exempt from that conversation.

Professor Wurtzel:

I agree, Zahra, that it absolutely matters what we imagine the classical or medieval past to be-it is not dead! And what’s also really interesting from Symes is the point that medieval history is often seen as exempt from race precisely because those 19th century historians helping to construct modern notions of political identity used the middle ages to bolster their image of community. So in other words, what we know of medieval history was picked out to support a white identity, not just because it was there. Now that historians are working in these areas, what was seen as strange or unimportant becomes relevant to revealing the heterogeneity of medieval people. 

Lily Hessekiel:

Carol Symes’ “Medievalism, White Supremacy, and the Historian’s Craft” argues that the modern understanding of medieval times is bound to 19th and 20th century historians’ nationalist beliefs and projections onto medieval history. This statement of political narratives conflicting with our ideas of a period’s beliefs and realities is not unique; it has occurred throughout history as historians overlay the politics of their present day over the facts of the past. Symes specifically calls out American history as a perpetrator of this problematic action. While we expect history to stay concrete and consistent, only changing as we uncover new details, the reality is that history is defined by historians as much as it is by the discovery of ‘solid’ facts. 

As much as we as historians would hope to believe in the academic integrity and unfailing dedication to the definitive truths of the past, the reality of history seems to be social and constructed out of the politics and zeitgeist of the times we are in. The study of race throughout history is a perfect example of that concept. Our modern-day understanding of race, at least in America, stems from the foundations of 17th century chattel slavery: the racist justifications dependent upon the existence of scientific racism, physiognomy, and genetically suggested social hierarchies. We cannot apply this, our definition of race, to medieval Europe, because whatever form of race might have existed there certainly does not and cannot match up with our understanding of race now. Symes acknowledges this in her third paragraph, writing that “in fact, ‘medieval’ Europe was co-created in tandem with white supremacism, the ‘scientific’ racialization of slavery, and modern European imperialism” (Symes 1). The discussion of race in medieval times is necessary because race is important now. Heng suggests the meaning of ‘race’ in medieval Europe in terms of what was on the forefront of societal consciousness then – trade – when she says, “the sheer diversity of the world is thus filtered into lists of what industry, agriculture, or trade is practiced in each place Marco [Polo] visits, and what goods and services are consequently derived” (Heng 331). A trade-based definition of race was relevant to Marco Polo’s 13th century – trade is not considered the foundation of race to historians in discussion now. 

Along with trade, Christianity was especially important to the construct of race that existed in the Middle Ages. This is obvious in Song of Roland, as the author describes the Muslim Saracens consistently as Pagans. The author describes the Saracen soldier Abisme as a “felon… a man of evil character and many crimes; he does not believe in God the son of holy Mary. He is as black as molten pitch, and he loves treason and murder” (Song of Roland v. 113). Skin color, which is of foremost importance in our modern interpretation of race, comes after the author labels Abisme as inferior and innately felonious due to his idolatry and religion. The prioritization of mentioning religion over color shows the ways race was formed in the era of Song of Roland. Adversely, color is first in modern definitions of race, while in recent years, crime has become a dog-whistle term for race.

Symes’ point is consistently supported by both her contemporary, Heng, and the author of Song of Roland. Like Syme says in the article, it is truly not that history is “hermetically sealed” (Syme 1) and constant. Historians play an active role in the documentation, understanding, and teaching of history. In a feedback loop, history receives contemporary issues and interests before re-engaging social discussion of what those concepts were in the past. In other words, as much as the past shapes the present, the opposite is true. As race increasingly becomes a topic of discussion in medieval history, this must be acknowledged and accounted for. 

Professor Wurtzel:

Really nicely done, Lily. As you note, historians, like the history they write, are never hermetically sealed, but thinking with the lenses of the present and the problems that matter to them and their contemporaries. As such, our conceptions-and as Symes says, what has been collected in archives to provide evidence of the past-tell us less about the past than that they needed to create a homogenous middle ages to support their imagined national community. It’s useful to put your comments in conversation with Sam’s (also posting for this week). He argues that racial constructions of the medieval Europeans did not depend on economic structures of colonialism and empire in the same way it has for modern Americans—the history, socio-economic imperatives, etc. are different, and therefore race then and now do not have the same framing. This reminded me of what you wrote about economic measures of racial difference, through trade vs. chattel slavery as well. I would also argue that it makes a difference that a medieval peasant in England would not have thought of herself as white, and all that entails in a world shaped by chattel slavery, but rather Christian (not Jewish or Muslim), and perhaps free or bound depending on the status of her land tenure. White and black are some of the characteristics that designate good and evil, insiders and outsiders, as you note in Song of Roland, but those people were imagining different histories and associations for their categorizations.

Leela Miller, responding directly to Lily:

Lily, I think you make an interesting point by explaining that modern understandings of race — particularly in America — are both shaped and limited by our fairly recent history of chattel slavery, scientific racism and physiognomy. As Heng puts it, there is now often an assumption that “Properly racial logic and behavior must invoke biology and the body” (319). However, this belief constricts our understanding of what race actually is: a “structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content” (325). Race is, ultimately, a tool for assigning and essentializing power; it has “no singular or stable referent” (319). Therefore, racial categorization and racism can be traced back into the pre-modern era if we are willing to be flexible with our understanding of what race can look like, as racial logic is constantly in flux and is able to “stalk and merge with other hierarchical systems” (319). Because religion was the “paramount source of authority in the Middle Ages,” it makes sense that, as Heng describes, “nature and the sociocultural are … not bifurcated spheres in medieval race-formation: they often crisscross in the practices, institutions, fictions, and laws of a political — and biopolitical — theology” (325). Religion can function as the referent for race; physiology doesn’t necessarily have to fill that role. And, as you show in your discussion post, the characterizations of the Franks and Saracens in Song of Roland give weight to Heng’s assertion that religion — rather than skin color — has determined racial groupings at certain points in history. 

Professor Wurtzel:

Excellent, Leela — in your characterization of Lily’s post and your picking out of useful sections of Heng’s article. You point to the tensions in these articles as well-that racial logic changes over time, settling on religious difference or physiological or other, but at heart is about defining power through hierarchizing of difference, which is seen in many different guises and periods. It is also, I think as Kiran pointed out, defined by grouping lots of people under one category-so homogenizing into one while differentiating from another group. I will be interested to see what you think when we read about Jews and heretics in a couple of weeks — because now you can question both the sources we have as well as the histories that have been told about these groups.