A Study Says That 24 Million Americans Have Alt-Right Beliefs. What Does that Number Mean?

A lot of Americans who may not identify with the twisted ideologies of the alt-right rioters of Charlottesville do nonetheless fit the textbook definition of white racism.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In conjunction with the first anniversary of the infamous (and lethal) white riot in Charlottesville, a study has been released by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Family Studies about mass subscription to the racist tenets of the so-called “alt-right.” Based on very solid data from the 2016 American National Election Survey, the study suggests that people who answer three questions positively in the survey probably shared the basic outlook of the alt-right:

Respondents were asked how important their race was to their identity on a five-point scale ranging from “not at all important” to “extremely important.” They were also asked a question measuring their feelings of white solidarity: “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?” This followed the same five-point scale. Finally, we can assess survey respondents’ feelings of white victimization from their answers to the question of how much discrimination whites face in the U.S., also on a five-point scale, ranging from “none at all” to a “great deal.”

Those who were at the higher end of the spectrum in positive reactions to all three questions are described as being “likely to find such movements [i.e., the alt-right] appealing.” And that seems plausible: maybe a relatively large number of white people think they are being picked on or discriminated against for their honkitude. But stressing one’s “white identity” and expressing “solidarity” with other white people to redress allegedly anti-white laws are a bit more exotic. So yes, someone whose feelings are strong on all those questions is probably not a good candidate for a racial harmony award.

But here’s where things get a bit more subjective: The study concludes that about 12 percent of respondents fit the proto-alt-right profile. Given a total non-Hispanic white population of 198 million, that means 24 million people are at least objectively white racists, or so calculated Zack Beauchamp in his take on the study.

Granted, that includes a lot of small children who probably haven’t formed strong impressions on racial issues, and might transcend their elders’ racism in any event. But while the Institute for Family Studies reassures us that its findings indicate “the Alt-Right and related movements have a low ceiling of possible support,” the idea that tens of millions of Americans are willing to confide racist attitudes to a surveyor is a bit alarming to me. Yes, 2016 was a year when under the tutelage of Donald Trump and other conservative opinion-leaders white folks were encouraged to throw off the shackles of “political correctness” and let their freak flags fly, so to speak. But still, from my experience as a white southerner I’d say the ratio of covert to open racists remains pretty high.

It’s another question as to whether the racial attitudes discovered in this study mean that the alt-right as we understand it has a pretty deep pool of popular support. Beauchamp thinks it might:

Large numbers of people think the way that they do, and shape their political identity around a sense of white grievance and identity. They may not march around the streets yelling, “Jews will not replace us!” but they are extremely receptive to a politics that positions whites as victims and a growing minority population as an existential threat.

The reference to Jews is a reminder that the alt-right (and obviously the racist ideologies of earlier centuries to which the alt-right often looks for inspiration) typically expresses an elaborate belief system that goes beyond standard-brand hostility to black or brown or yellow people. In my years of growing up in the Jim Crow South I’ve know a lot of racists, but only a few that cared anything about Jews, or for that matter, the Nordic/Aryan nonsense that makes up so much a part of the mental and emotional world of the neo-Nazis and their like. That does sort of matter. One of the alt-right’s gray eminences, David Duke, nearly got himself elected governor of Louisiana despite his unapologetic background as a Ku Klux Klan leader —until a photo of him wearing a swastika and giving the Nazi salute got around. Garden-variety white racists are unlikely to find much in common with the Richard Spencers of the world.

In any event, as Beauchamp notes, these millions of racists have the opportunity to vote, along with even more millions of racists who may not share all three indices of white identity politics, but might vibrate to one or two of them. What makes the IFS study valuable, though, is that it offers more direct evidence of bad racial attitudes. Perhaps people are rightly angry when liberals call them “racist” for being a Trump supporter or an opponent of voting rights or a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key fan of mass incarceration. But when you are expressing solidarity with people of your dominant race for the terrible indignities being placed upon them by the dispossessed of the world, it’s harder to claim your motives are pure as snow.