Several political parties and governments around the world have centered their commitment to countering the radical right on tackling hate and racism. The most recent example was the announcement by the German cabinet in late 2020 to spend €1 billion ($1.2 billion) for a four-year program on combating “right-wing extremism, racism and antisemitism.”
There is no doubt that such political agendas are well intended, and most citizens would agree that racism is not consistent with their society’s democratic values. As US President Joe Biden put it in his inaugural speech, two weeks after the deadly storming of the US Capitol Building on January 6: “Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial.”
How the Left and the Right Radicalize Each Other
Tackling racism deserves firm political commitment in its own right, and it certainly has a place within a multi-pronged strategy to countering violent extremism (CVE) on the radical right. But is there a tendency to overestimate the efficacy of anti-racism initiatives at the expense of other prevention and intervention measures within the CVE space?
Related to this, what role does racism play within the radical right? While it is widely acknowledged that there is no unanimously agreed definition of right-wing extremism or radicalism, most experts in the field consider racism to be a very common feature or, at the very least, one of the “accompanying characteristics” of right-wing extremism. This centrality of racism seems to have led many into thinking that tackling racist hate is a particularly effective way of countering right-wing extremism.
What Kind of Racism?
Decades of extensive scholarship — and the lived experiences of those affected — have emphasized that racism is systemic and interpersonal; it is attitudinal, behavioral and structural; and it can draw on biological social constructs and on cultural or religious markers, actual or perceived. At least one (or many) manifestation of racism is present across all radical–right groups. But what kind of racism?
The diversity of radical–right movements and groups is well understood in academia, and there have been numerous attempts to develop typologies that capture divergent groups under the umbrella of right-wing extremism. Exclusivist and anti-egalitarian beliefs are a common denominator, but articulations of racism differ across various radical right groups, movements and ideologies. These nuances are important but often overlooked in public and political debates.
Some elements of the radical right, for example, mobilize in particular against Islam, expressing primarily anti-Muslim racism. This applies to what is often referred to as “counter-jihad” movements (a self-attributed and ideologized misnomer in many ways) and the anti-Islam protests that swept across Europe and Australia in the second half of 2010s. Non-white people are usually welcome there as long as they share anti-Islam sentiments. For example, in Australia, where most of my research has taken place, it was also not uncommon to see radical-right protesters at these rallies displaying Aboriginal flags and insisting they were reclaiming Australia from Islam also on behalf of indigenous Australians.
These anti-Islam groups and movements differ from white supremacy organizations. For example, one Australian white supremacy group expressed its disagreement with those prominent anti-Islam movements as thus: “We do not believe in multiculturalism minus Islam.” Of course, these boundaries are blurry. There have been personal overlaps, and some radical–right groups with explicitly neo-Nazi convictions have strategically used the anti-Muslim movements to recruit more people to their white supremacy and antisemitic agenda.
Another example that illustrates the complex, fluid and sometimes contested role that different forms of racism play within the radical right are the Proud Boys in the United States. Founded as a self-described Western chauvinistic boys club by Gavin McInnes in 2016 with an explicit, culturally racist and misogynistic profile, the group quickly adopted the markers of a white supremacist network, despite its chairman, Enrique Tarrio, being himself of Afro-Cuban descent. Infighting between Tarrio and another openly antisemitic and white supremacist leading figure (who reportedly referred to Tarrio as a “token negro”) in late 2020 revealed the internal fractions — all racist, yes, but racist in different ways.
Racism as an Indicator of Radical-Right Ideology
While people associated with or sympathetic to radical–right movements generally seem to hold racist views, the majority of those with such exclusionary or prejudiced attitudes toward certain ethnic, racial, cultural or religious minorities are not affiliated with right-wing extremism or radicalism. Attitude surveys across the Western world — from North America, the UK and Europe to Australia — have shown high rates of anti-Muslim sentiments and prejudice, expressed sometimes (depending on the country and the nature of the survey questions) by a majority of the surveyed population. Some surveys revealed that a substantial proportion of respondents also express biological racist views. According to the results of the European Social Survey a few years ago, 18% in the British sample agreed that “some races or ethnic groups are born less intelligent.” Considering the possibility of social desirability effects, we can only speculate as to whether this figure underestimates the true prevalence of biological racism.
It is impossible to determine how many of those who hold anti-Muslim or other racist views are affiliated or identify with the radical right — certainly not all of them and probably only a small portion. This is not to disregard the higher susceptibility among these segments of society to mobilization and recruitment efforts of radical–right groups. The path into the radical right is slippery. A former radical–right activist, Ivan Humble, recalled how he became a member of the English Defence League: “I didn’t identify as racist at the time, but I began to zero in on Muslim people in the belief that they were attacking the country I lived in, and that our society was being torn apart as a result. In hindsight, this was such a blinkered view but I couldn’t see it.”
In our recent research in Australia, we identified several factors that may help analyze the questions as to where and when racism becomes an indicator for radical–right ideologies. We conducted in-depth interviews with people who were invited to speak with us about the concerns they had about diversity and immigration in Australia. We found that most of those we interviewed expressed anti-Muslim racism and other forms of cultural racism, but our analysis concluded that only some of them were affiliated with the radical right. In what way did their articulation of racism differ?
1. Racism as Part of a Larger Meta-Narrative
Our analysis suggests that it is important to understand if, and how, racism is functionally embedded in a larger meta-narrative. Among those on the radical right, racism was not “only” an exclusivist personal attitude but part of an ideological system, built on conspiratorial thinking about a secretive global elite seeking to destroy Australian society and culture. They agitated against ethnic or religious minorities, but they often did so with a bigger enemy in mind, which they accused of pushing immigration and multiculturalism to pursue an evil agenda.
This is also illustrated in a speech by a central figure of Australia’s radical right addressing a public demonstration in early 2019, where he insisted that immigrants and blacks were not the main problem. The real enemies were, according to him, “those who bring these people into our country.”
Another soon-to-be-published CRIS study by Victoria University and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that the radical right in Australia extensively used the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests for their online mobilization, but, notwithstanding prevalent expressions of racism, a salient argument was that black BLM activists both in the US and Australia were only “useful idiots,” controlled by an alleged communist or Jewish (or both) cabal for their sinister goals.
2. Racism and Political Activism
The second factor that can help identify how racism spills over into radical–right ideologies is related to individuals’ willingness to act upon their attitudes. This addresses important aspects of the behavioral dimension of racism (and of radical–right movements).
Some in our fieldwork who have displayed racist attitudes expressed no desire to make these feelings public or try to convince others. Rather the opposite was the case: They deliberately avoid conversations about these issues — at least with those they expect may disagree with — and they explicitly denied being politically active. In contrast, those we considered to be associated with the radical right stated they were on a mission to “educate” others — for example, on social media — and they had been actively involved in a range of public rallies. They proudly accepted the label of being a “political activist.”
3. Language and “Collective Identity”
The third factor that may help assess to what extent someone’s racist expressions may be an indicator for a radical–right affiliation relates to the language and symbols used. Certain expressions such as “race traitor” or “white genocide,” and symbols such as 1488 or the use of (((triple brackets))) to indicate alleged Jewishness, are popular within segments of far-right discourses and point to what researchers Pete Simi and Steven Windisch call “identity talk”: “a discursive practice to demonstrate that an individual’s identity is consistent with the perceived collective identity of the movement.”
The meaning and political message of symbols and terms can change over time: On the one hand, previously neutral symbols are coopted by parts of the radical right (e.g., Pepe the Frog or the “OK” hand signal reappropriated to represent white power), and on the other hand, terms that used to be characteristic for the radical right (e.g., New World Order, Social Justice Warrior) have become mainstream and lost their distinctiveness.
Countering the Radical Right by Tackling Racism
What does all this mean for countering the radical right? As mentioned above, measures aimed at tackling racism are important tools for promoting community cohesion, belonging and safety, and they can also play a role in reducing the pool of people who may be more susceptible to far-right mobilization. As such, anti-racism strategies form a vital part of what has come to be known as preventing violent extremism (PVE).
As an intervention tool within countering violent extremism (CVE) strategies, however, the potential efficacy of anti-racism approaches seems overrated. Racism may be a salient or “accompanying characteristic” of radical–right movements. While it may contribute to someone’s pathway toward becoming actively involved in the radical–right milieu, the relationship between racism and engagement with the radical right is often better described in terms of correlation than causation.
If CVE programs intend to address the root causes of why people sympathize and engage with the radical right, they need to look further and beyond racism. Primarily focusing on ideological factors and trying to convince people that racism is “bad” is insufficient, even if complemented by legislative, security and law enforcement intervention. This is because such “corrections” can often lead to further negative backfire effects.
It is therefore widely acknowledged among CVE scholars and practitioners that countering the radical right requires multifaceted and targeted programs tackling psychological, social and, ultimately, societal questions around personal grievances and people’s desire for purpose, respect and connectedness. When designing CVE interventions with the radical right in mind, it often requires holding back with moral judgments and showing empathy to those who have dehumanized others in order to further stem the harms posed by such activism.