IOWA CITY — Sitting in “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer’s gun-filled apartment, with protesters outside, Kirkwood Community College assistant professor of sociology Serena Tarr tried to blend into the furniture.
It wasn’t easy. In the week she spent observing Spencer and his entourage, she said she heard so much vile, racist and misogynistic language she burst into tears in an Uber one day on her way to the apartment.
She was there conducting research on the alt-right and its members, hoping to learn about their beliefs and motivations.
After the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, people such as Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” in 2008, declared victory, announcing their movement, which consisted of white nationalism and related racist and xenophobic ideologies, was part of the mainstream.
Tarr wanted to know if that was true, and if so, what was driving these movements. To learn more, she spent a year going to alt-right conferences and meeting and interviewing followers. She gave a talk about her experiences, “Among the Bogeymen: A Year with the Alt-Right,” at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Saturday as part of the Witching Hour Festival.
“I started questioning whether liberal assumptions were well- founded. Did the arc of the universe really bend toward justice?” she said. “I wanted to know who they really were, what they really believed in, how they arrived at those beliefs … I wanted to know what threat they posed to a modern, tolerant democracy.”
Over the past year, she attended multiple conferences, some little more than gatherings at houses after official venues kicked the groups out. At those meetings, she made contacts with people who later agreed to be interviewed, usually only after signing nondisclosure agreements, in which she agreed not to reveal their identities and they agreed not to harass her online.
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What she found were groups that often were unorganized and extremely paranoid. For the first conference she attended, she was emailed a secret pickup location the morning of the event, then told to get in a white van and put her phone in a bag.
The groups she interacted with were mostly male — of the 30 people she interviewed, only four were women, with two of those being spouses of male members who said they did not fully support the movement’s ideologies.
Tarr said race was the central issue for all the groups under the alt-right umbrella, and that misogyny was very entwined in that ideology.
Many of the men saw controlling white women as vital to their goals of “saving” white culture. Part of the reason she was able to gain the trust of group members was that, as a married white woman, they did not see her as a threat. She was considered another man’s property.
She was startled by how young many of the people she met were — some just 18 and 19 years old. She met members of white nationalist organization Identity Evropa, a group that has targeted college campuses for recruitment, and said she learned the University of Iowa has a robust membership.
Although the mainstream often views members of alt-right groups as fringe, uneducated “bogeymen,” she said the people she interviewed were all college-educated, most from stable, middle-class backgrounds. Many came from liberal, tolerant families. They were well-traveled, and several had lived abroad.
She said one of her largest takeways from her research was that this “extremist” movement was, in fact, well- rooted in American culture and society.
“They are not a threat to the larger social order. They are a symptom. They are the canaries in the coal mine,” Tarr said.
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She said it is easy to focus on a handful of screaming men with tiki torches, such as at the white nationalist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, which led to the death of protester Heather Heyer.
But Tarr said while their violence is real, focusing on those blatantly racist individuals, whose numbers were relatively small and disorganized, allows people to absolve themselves of complicity in the more common racism that pervades American society — things such as housing and school segregation, disproportionate incarceration of black people, the prevalence of police shootings and other issues.
“They allow us to scapegoat, and to confuse bigotry for structural racism,” Tarr said. “We need to look in the mirror and see the bogeymen in ourselves.”
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