This weekend’s white supremacist rally lifted the veil on what the face of racism really looks like, and this is perhaps why Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, were so quick to denounce it. We tend to think of racism as explicit acts of hatred, usually clothed in white robes or resembling the many convenient images we are inundated with in popular media of rednecks, hillbillies, or whatever stereotypes you can think of about poor whites in the Ozarks, Appalachian Mountains, or some impoverished Southern town.
To be sure, many of these areas are extremely hostile to minorities, or outsiders, but while there may be a culture manifested in isolation and poverty among poor whites, racist institutions cannot exist on their power alone. They have neither the money nor the means to fight for oppressive voter registration laws, gerrymandered voting districts, or corporate-friendly tax loopholes that enrich board members who in turn use that money to lobby Congress for even more corporate welfare.
Poor whites, no more than poor blacks or Latinos, are not more likely to find Iraq on a map than they are any number of countries to which we send our soldier youngsters to secure access to whatever resource Congress has deemed a national interest; sugar, bananas, oil, whatever.
Poor whites probably couldn’t tell you that the United States spends almost as much money on military power than the rest of the world does combined. The words “United Fruit Company” are not likely to ring a bell, nor the name Mohammad Mosaddegh, a democratically elected leader in Iran whom our CIA helped to overthrow in order to ensure access to oil.
And yet, when we think of “white supremacy” we think of these poor whites. We do not think of our history and the fact that institutions like the police have been infiltrated by white supremacists; we still see how minorities are treated as the enemy. You are as likely to find illegal drugs in wealthy Scottsdale, Arizona or in a fraternity than you are to find it in Compton or East Los Angeles. And yet we see an armada of helicopters flying over the latter and not the former. Poor whites don’t make that policy.
We do not think of Richard Spencer, the son of a doctor who attended some of the most prestigious schools in America; the University of Virginia, Duke University, and University of Chicago, where tuition, room and board is upwards of $65,000 dollars a year. We do not think of President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller, who grew up in the prestigious west side of Los Angeles and who attended Duke with Spencer. We certainly don't think of Tucker Carlson, who also attended elite schools and is a favorite of the alt-right.
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We do not think of Peter Cvjetanovic, a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, who is seen posing with Senator Dean Heller of Nevada. Cvjetanovic’s face went viral after last Friday’s white supremacist rally, and if you look closely, you probably couldn’t tell the difference demographically between their racist rally or a fraternity party.
Indeed, Cvjetanovic is our future loan officer, or firefighter. A supposed student of history, he may be our kids' high school teacher.
I don't know this person & condemn the outrageous racism, hatred and violence. It's unacceptable & shameful. No room for it in this country. https://t.co/6yQqKZRowb
And this is perhaps why the GOP was so quick to condemn these people, not because of who they are, but because of what they reveal about us as a country. Their sin was not to be racist, but to be visible. Promoting obscure policies that have the effect of oppressing minorities is an acceptable American pastime, one can do so while still pretending to advocate for American principles, like liberty, equality, or fairness.
But the GOP's reaction to white supremacy is nothing but a shell game. They created Trump with decades of vilifying immigrants, attacking the black community through coded language about "welfare queens" and being "tough on crime".
They indulged Trump's assault on President Barack Obama's legitimacy as a citizen through his birther sham, a project he took up with former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a convicted criminal who made a living off making life miserable for Latinos in Maricopa County. From anti-immigrant bills like Prop 187 in California to SB 1070 in Arizona, Republicans have led white supremacists to the promised land, a president who refuses to condemn them by name.
Trump ran on not being "politically correct" and vowed to proclaim "Islamic terrorism" by its name, yet he is a coward when asked to confront Nazis or Vladimir Putin. The GOP is led by this very small man. Tweeting their disapproval when a person was killed and dozens injured in a neo-Nazi rally is not nearly enough.
Writing the training manual for the police which allows them to shoot minorities and almost never face any consequences is racism. The GOP should address that. Who sits on these commissions is often an obscure mystery to poor white folks who could care less, but it matters greatly to the Richard Spencers and Stephen Millers.
If you don't stand with the white supremacists, stand for changing these facts.
Cvjetanovic and his funny foreign-sounding name, which white supremacists of the past would not have distinguished from Nuño or Chen or Weinstein, is a misguided tool, but like the tools he marched with, he was certainly not oppressed and would not know oppression if he saw it. Indeed, he will be a part of our system of oppression before long, and had he not showed his face, his participation in our racist system would have gone largely unnoticed or unchallenged.
Racism is the laws, the institutions, and the policies which oppress minorities, women, and sexual minorities and gives privileged status to people like Tucker Carlson. They want to keep it that way, so they use their influence, education, and resources to buttress a system of rules that maintain their power. This weekend's rally finally put an accurate face on these institutions.
The question now is whether the GOP will be politically incorrect and call out our racist system.
Stephen Nuño-Pérez is an NBC News contributor and political scientist. Stephen is an Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University.