Field guides first became popular at the end of the 19th century as Americans began to categorize the plants and birds that surrounded them — their coloring, their mating habits. The category has since grown. One can now purchase field guides to houses, colors, lucid dreams. Most field guides are designed to help us identify things we see when out in the world. But this year’s A Field Guide to White Supremacy, edited by the historians Kathleen Belew and Ramón A. Gutiérrez, serves a different purpose: as a resource for decoding what we may have seen but misidentified or oversimplified. Belew and Gutiérrez have curated a collection of 19 essays by academics, activists, and journalists, who guide us not in identifying creatures found in their natural habitat but in understanding manufactured systems of oppression and the actors who have created and weaponized them.

The text is broken into four sections: Building, Protecting and Profiting from Whiteness; Iterations of White Supremacy; Anti-Immigrant Nation; and White Supremacy from Fringe to Mainstream. The first section opens with Doug Kiel’s “Nation v Municipality,” which explores a legal conflict between the Oneida Nation and its non-Native Wisconsin neighbors over land and autonomy. Behind a legal battle over small town development is an organized anti-sovereignty movement intent on undermining Indigenous rights. This movement, led by groups like Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), has a specific worldview: giving Native people rights takes them away from non-Native citizens, and Indigneous governments are a drain on the US government. Elaine Willman, CERA’s former chair, argues that tribal rights “have gone too far, and they’ve been abused…almost like a parent that just gives their child absolutely everything…and the child says ‘more, more, more’ and never knows how to say enough or thank you.” To CERA and other anti-sovereignty activists, the Oneida Nation’s attempt to reclaim its land is wrong because sovereignty is a handout. As Kiel writes, Willman sees “Indigenous sovereignty as a privilege, even a gift, that can and ought to be revoked by the settler state when tribal self-governance comes too close to actually existing.”

This opening essay, like the others in the section, is incredibly instructive: here is a popular frame — a conflict over land rights — that misses something. And behind the frame stands an organized and resourced set of individuals advancing a white supremacist agenda made to seem as natural or benign as a bird or a tree. I write from Minnesota, where a battle over the Line 3 pipeline has waged for years. This is a conflict that has often been reported on as an issue of “jobs versus the environment,” a narrative that pits the economic boost of replacing the pipeline against its negative environmental impacts. Recently, coverage has also focused on Native-led organizing and resistance to the pipeline and its threat to the resources of tribal communities, which face disproportionate disparities in health and economic outcomes. But this frame still focuses on the question of whether the pipeline is good or bad rather than whether the use of this land should be up for public debate. I asked my friend, State Representative Jamie Becker-Finn, who is also a lawyer and a descendant of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (which has opposed pipeline expansion) about this. She told me, “The question never should have been about whether the pipeline itself was a good idea but about whether or not we understand and abide by the sovereignty of tribal nations.”

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “A Culture of Racism” continues on this theme: often, the frame we use to talk about inequality has itself been built to obscure structural oppression. We fight for and about laws or land while more powerful forces continue to exclude and extract. Excerpted from her 2016 book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, the chapter reflects on the historical development of narratives that “connect the badges of inequality, including poverty and rates of incarceration, to culture, family structure, and the internal lives of Black Americans.” These narratives — that youth violence is about a lack of role models, that “police violence and higher rates of unemployment among Black youth exist because Black kids don’t respect authority” — intentionally frame poverty and inequality as symptoms of an inferior culture rather than the deliberate and violent cultivation of free and cheap labor in service of racial capitalism. In doing so, they don’t just perpetuate racial inequality — they also obscure the system that requires it and the mythology on which it rests. Taylor writes, “By the twentieth century, shifting concepts of race were applied not only to justify labor relations but more generally to explain the curious way in which the experiences of the vast majority of African Americans confound the central narrative of the United States as a place of unbounded opportunity, freedom, and democracy.” In other words, it’s not us; it must be you. Taylor’s chapter ends on a note of hope. In the1930s, the public perception of poverty shifted “when it became clear that the actions of bankers had sent the economy into a tailspin — not the personal character of workers.” She reminds us that political ideas are fluid; we can challenge and even change them. 

I found hope elsewhere in this chapter too. I read Field Guide almost a year and a half after my city erupted in protest after the Minneapolis Police killed George Floyd and just a few months after officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of his murder. Yes4Minneapolis, the campaign to transform public safety in Minneapolis (I was on the steering committee), had been met with incredibly well-resourced and organized opposition, which worked in partnership with the local paper of record to blanket our city with cries for even more policing; indeed, we came up short at the ballot box. Taylor cites an editorial published in the New York Times: “The riots, rather than developing a clamor for great social progress to wipe out poverty, to a large extent have had the reverse effect and have increased the cries for police use of force and criminal law.” This could have been written by any of my local organizer colleagues — or our opposition — last fall, but it was actually written about Detroit in 1967. I realized that if our opponents have been running the same plays for decades or even centuries, anticipating their moves and calling on our own imaginations to push past their frames could make us more effective next time. 

The third section, Anti-Immigrant Nation, charts the ways immigration became a hot-button issue for Washington policymakers and right-wing populists alike, culminating in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential primary campaign. In Unmaking the Nation of Immigrants, Carly Goodman introduces us to John Tanton, an American ophthalmologist and the man the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.” Tanton built a network of organizations — beginning with Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 1979 and the benignly-named Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in 1985 — focused on moving anti-immigrant discourse from the fringe right to the center of national politics. He accomplished this through a grass-tops campaign to shift our national identity away from “a nation of immigrants'' and toward a people besieged by invaders and caravans. 

In the 1980s, decades before Donald Trump portrayed Mexicans as rapists, the Federation for American Immigration Reform led a media campaign focused on undocumented immigration, demonizing people who for decades had traveled back and forth across our southern border and, ultimately, convincing policymakers that Americans need stronger solutions to a manufactured problem. This was not new in the 1980s; it drew heavily on the white replacement theory popular 65 years earlier. What was new was the organized effort to lobby Congress and influence public discourse through a media campaign — an effort that redefined the political center on immigration. This chapter reminded me that issues are often pushed to prominence by a small minority who knows how to use the media to influence policymakers and the public narrative. We can get so focused on a local campaign goal that we might miss the networks of organizations running parallel campaigns in other states, limiting us to defensive moves. Our opponents often have much longer-term goals than the battles we’re currently fighting; it’s important to understand their strategies as we build ours.

The book closes with Belew’s “There Are No Lone Wolves.” The essay opens with a reflection on the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — “the largest delierate mass casualty on Amerian soil between Pearl Harbor and 9/11.” The government failed to respond to Oklahoma City as an attack on the nation, Belew aruges, because of the persistent narrative that the bombing was “the work of a lone wolf or a few bad apples.” Some who study the white power movement know the truth: Timothy McVeigh was connected to an extremist militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen and had been a member of the KKK. Yet time and again, the media and government miss the connections among the different players of the white power movement. This is no accident. In the 1980s, the movement decentralized to avoid prosecution, allowing multiple groups to network and organize large-scale, violent mobilizations — from Unite the Right to Tree of Life. These groups have managed to cloak their coordination and shared politics, and the government, media, and progressive organizations have not built a real understanding of the threat or how to fight it. It’s here that I recall the book’s opening essay on the Associated Press Stylebook, the field standard for journalists, which contains entries for multiple Muslim terrorist gropus but no information at all on white power groups. Journalists lack the framework to describe the groups responsible for a majority of domestic terror attacks in recent years as terrorism. “Understanding these acts of violence as politically motivated,” Belew writes, “connected, and purposeful would fundamentally change the way we understand, speak, and write about such attacks—a crucial first step toward a different response.”

I sat down to edit my first draft of this review shortly after learning that a rabbi and several of his congregants were being held hostage at gunpoint in Texas. The ordeal lasted 11 hours, the gunman eventually killed by law enforcement. The next day, the FBI put out a statement that the incident was “not motivated by antisemitism,” echoing the way the political motivation was removed from the Oklahoma City narrative. The Associated Press picked up this language, and the idea quickly spread across social media. This was shocking to Jews. How could a man who held a rabbi and his congregation hostage on Shabbat, our holiest day, not be motivated by antisemitism? What they meant is that the man did not display any overt hatred towards Jews. He had a demand — the release of a federal prisoner who neither he nor the rabbi were personally connected to. But there, clear in his demand, is the implication that this progressive rabbi from Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, had the power and influence to get that done for him. I recognize in this a classical antisemitic trope — the myth of Jewish political power and influence.

Over 350 pages, A Field Guide to White Supremacy identifies and categorizes immense violence against groups that comprise almost everyone I’ve ever worked with or cared about, including my own family. Still, reading it filled me with hope. As Belew writes, “connecting these stories together could make possible a new coalition politics between the many communities impacted by exclusion, hate, and violence—that in our moment we might see a knitting together of people that could create different possibilities of response and action.” A Field Guide is an important resource as we work toward that goal, a gift to movements for justice and journalists willing to dig past a familiar frame for a clearer analysis.


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