COLLEGE STATION, Texas — White nationalists are not just using divisive language, but they're also using incorrect terms. The latest one is "alt-right" leader Richard Spencer's use of "European" as a substitute for white.
On Dec. 6 I attended Spencer's controversial talk at Texas A&M University, where I teach political theory and ethics. Most of my colleagues joined the boycott of his visit and were part of the large protest group that rejected his hate speech.
As a political theorist, I wanted to hear what Spencer had to say, knowing that he had been a graduate student in intellectual history at the University of Chicago and Duke University, well-respected institutions in my field of study.
Since I teach “Immigration Ethics” and “Latin American Political Thought,” I told my students to attend either the talk or the protests, including the well-organized “Aggies United” event at the football stadium to counter Spencer's divisive speech.
Race is a central topic of discussion in my classes, so most of the students found it amazing that white nationalist ideas were going to be discussed at major national university, especially one at a majority-minority state.
Before Spencer's talk even started, crowds waited in long lines. We could hear a growing number of protesters, megaphones, and chanting against the public voicing of ideas that seem straight out of a rally at Nuremberg in 1938.
The protesters swelled to a huge crowd of hundreds, while riot police attempted to control them, sometimes with excessive force, at the entrance to the student center, where the speech was going to take place.
Inside the ballroom full of hundreds of people, Spencer proceeded to speak. He said America "belonged to white men," and kept repeating that he was a “European,” equating “Europeans” with the “white race.”
After he said this about four times, I could not hold back and yelled out, “Europeans are not a race.” He heard me clearly, since I was sitting to his left, in the front row. He responded by saying “Europe is also a place.” With this non sequitur, it was obvious to me now that he is an intellectual lightweight.
Teaching Latin American theories of race has made me realize that most of these white nationalist types do not understand that race is a fluid, permeable category that is made through political and social processes. Spencer has attached himself to an outmoded concept of racial identity that sees it as fixed and immutable and possessing hard boundaries.
That hierarchy of race that he adheres to begs the question: If other, non-white races are inferior to so-called ‘whites,’ then is there an internal hierarchy within this putative ‘white’ race? Are some ‘white’ groups superior to others that seem ‘less-white’?
For instance, are all Finns superior to all Iberians, who tend to be of a darker skin tone? Is a low-education Swede automatically “better” than an intelligent, highly-educated tan-colored Greek? Alternatively, didn’t a ‘darker’ Latin peoples, the Romans, conquer and civilize less-developed barbarian tribes of Britons?
Britain itself is made up of highly-intermixed peoples, the product of encounters with Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Danes, Gaelic Celts, Jutes, Frisians, etc. We also see this in countries such as Spain, where Moors, Jews, Roma, Celts, Basques, Catalans, African Guanches, and others coexisted and undoubtedly intermixed for centuries. As the early twentieth-century Venezuelan sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz said in 1919, there is no purity of race in Spain.
This idea was grounded in the prescient words of Cuba’s founder, Jose Martí, when he uttered the words “there are no races” in 1891. These Latin American perspectives on race lay bare the absurd claims of alt-right demagogues. For Martí, Cubans were an amalgam of racial and ethnic origins.
Similarly, we could say that Americans (in the U.S.) are not simply “Europeans.” In the U.S., Anglo-Saxons mixed with the Irish, Germans and Scandinavians, groups that used to be considered separate “races” within Europe in earlier times, as the historian Nell Irvin Painter tells us in her 2011 work The History of White People.
All this goes to show that the best defense against incendiary racial rhetoric is education. The more we know about the fluidity and synthetic nature of racial identities, the more we will see the empty shell that is the language of the "alt-right" or white nationalism.
Students throughout the country ought to learn about not just racial mixing in the U.S., but also about fluid racial lines throughout the world. And Latino immigrants coming to the U.S. should not lose the more malleable conceptions of race that are present in thinkers such as Bartolomé de las Casas and José Vasconcelos.
To be sure, racism and hierarchy exist in Latin America and some of its history of ideas. But some traditions from Latin America that see race as always changing and as the product of inter-mixed ethnic origins are a good starting point to disarticulate the longstanding idea that races are rigid categories, what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “color line."
Texas A&M’s presidentMichael Young must be lauded for his immediate response to the Spencer affront. The Aggies United event, a celebration of Texas A&M’s diversity and growing awareness that race matters, was an excellent idea.
Going forward, major national universities ought to also be more proactive. Many of the students in my class said that we must be ready before these inflammatory events occur.
The best way to do this is to invest in enhancing diversity at the faculty, student, staff, and administrative levels. We need to choose heads of departments who value cultural pluralism and promote the best professors to the highest levels of the university, especially those of minority groups that have shown academic excellence.
As students in my immigration ethics class voiced this week, these changes ought to occur now, not only after provocateurs like Spencer tarnish our public sphere with divisive, and simply incorrect, ideas.
Diego Von Vacano is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.