During the week in between the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville and last weekend’s massive resistance rally in Boston, I stumbled on a surprising piece of information that affect me more than I expected it to. I had gone to high school with Mike “Enoch” Peinovich, someone whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “one of the most recognizable white nationalist voices.” I didn’t necessarily know him, but I’d been friends with his older sister in elementary school, and slept over at their house. I did know a number of people who had known him—their collective horror was what brought it to my attention. I don’t bring this up because I think my personal moment of revulsion at this fact is important to anyone. I bring it up because I think it’s really important to take a moment to pay attention to the environment he came from—literally one of the most diverse school districts in the country. In 2000, when The New York Times wanted to write about interracial friendships in a racially diverse district where there wasn’t a noticeable class division that lined up with race, they had a hard time finding one. The one they wrote about was mine.
Being in Northern New Jersey, it was also a district with a very large population of Jewish families. “In his site biography, Peinovich describes himself as raised in an upper middle-class, white, liberal protestant household in the northeast,” says SPLC’s site, which goes on to quote him saying he “became attracted to right-wing politics initially as a rebellion against my ‘more progressive than thou’ WASP upbringing.” I am not, of course, actually giving credence to the idea that a progressive upbringing was to blame for the anti-Semitism and racism Peinovich devolved into. Nor am I suggesting that a diverse school system is somehow a bad thing, or more likely to generate racist assholes. In fact, there’s lots of evidence out that overall, diverse settings are good for everyone and do tend to increase understanding. Here’s thing though—they’re not enough. As Po Bronson reported on regarding talking to children about race, being exposed to “multiculturalism” without an education in the historical and political realities of systemic racism doesn’t work. And yet the research on this hit a few snags because it was so damn hard to get any white parents to talk about— even when they were instructed to as part of a study they’d signed up to participate in. As we muddle our way through the bizarre and scary Trump era, I see so many people who persist on clinging to the notion that Trump supporters and/or white supremacists are all uneducated rural hicks who can be identified by their poor dental hygiene and confederate flag tattoos. I was hoping that after we got a good look at a murderous torchbearing mob full of polo-shirt-wearing college boys that we might let this comforting, but clearly false illusion to rest, but it seems that it’s very hard for people to put down.
It was nice to imagine that changing demographics were going to put this ugliness to rest for us, that Trump’s election was a dying thrash of an crusty old cohort clinging to bygone days of glory. But it’s becoming clearer by the day that as a culture we have within our midst a group of young white people who feel threatened by our increasing diversity, instead of, as was hoped, at home in it. I don’t want to overstate their numbers or power—certainly the 40–45,000 of us who showed up in Boston on the 19th for the Fight Supremacy Resistance Rally compared to the hundreds for the planned right-wing rally, sent a very powerful message, and appears to have put a temporary dent in plans for a bunch more Unite the Right rallies. The overall culture has not yet shifted to acceptance of racism on quite this blatant a level. It’s not too late. On the other hand, even if multiple murders isn’t scary enough, this terrifying linguistic analysis of Reddit shows the self-identified “alt-right” growing stronger and more cohesive.
That’s reason to be worried: “Over the last year and a half, these trolls have formed a central identity around Trumpism and have started to coalesce. Bored teenagers and gamers are becoming indoctrinated into hard-line anti-globalism, conspiracy theories, and Islamophobia, and it’s happening right before our eyes, on a publicly accessible forum.” Ignoring these people is not going to work. Merely mocking them isn’t going to work either. They have too much of their own echo chamber to reinforce their beliefs in. Pretending that they come only from some narrow backwater slice of society and that niceness will inoculate the rest of us against them will not work. Too many of us were surprised by Trump’s election. We can’t afford to be surprised again.