White-Nationalism as a Culture in the U.S. and its Impact on Immigration Policies

Pro Trump Rallies Washington DC March 2017 scaled 1

2nd Place, High School Essay Contest 2021

On 19 March, 2021, The New York Times told a heartbreaking story of striving, failure,  and despair1. Having paid most of their life savings to cross the US-Mexico border, 149 people – mostly Mexican and Honduran – set out on a precarious trip. Not long before arrival, they’re discovered by border patrols and swiftly detained for deportation. The story ends on a bitter note with hopes and dreams for opportunities in tatters.  

The account sheds light on the broken immigration system in the United States, and the devastating effects of increased enforcement at the borders. The other side of this story is a resurgence of a latent white nationalism, a historical commonplace in American public life. This essay will argue that white nationalism has historically represented a public culture in American life and that recent developments in media and politics have created conditions conducive to its widespread influence on immigration policy.  

White nationalism is an ethnic nationalism which advocates for the cultural and political representation of white ethnic groups.2 Thus, the rise of white nationalist rhetoric during the election of Donald Trump came as a surprise. Since the civil rights movement in the 1960s, major parties had worked to maintain a consensus which made the evocation of white supremacist legacies taboo.3 However, the speed at which white nationalist rhetoric became quickly normalized in American life hints at inconvenient continuities: a latent culture that accepts white nationalism as ‘natural.’  

Shalom H Schwartz says “Culture is the collective programming [and] distinguishing[of] members of one group from another. ”4 The defining characteristics of a culture are three related traits that work together to distinguish group members from outsiders: observable artifacts, values, and underlying assumptions that support and reproduce both these artifacts and values. On this definition, white nationalism easily qualifies a culture: it differentiates group members from outsiders through an implicit agreement which adheres to value claims like “it is unjust that immigrants replace existing white workers. ” 5 These claims are justified by the assumption that America is a nation of, for, and by white ethnic groups. As long as the three factors continue to enjoy support, white nationalism will persist as a culture.  

American white nationalism has persisted as a public culture through its embrace of two contradictory principles.6 On the one hand, white nationalist rhetoric has embraced the widespread self-image that America has achieved its greatness by welcoming immigrants. On the other, it has embraced the less palatable claim that the nation’s success comes from its white origins: an empirically dubious claim given the contributions of non-white citizens in the building of America. Before the rise of civil rights in mainstream politics, a focus on the latter claim played a crucial role in justifying exclusionary policies, such as the ban on Chinese immigration in 1882. Madison Grant, an influential eugencist of the 1910s, framed non-white immigrants as lacking the “Nordic” pioneering spirit and, importantly, disrupting the civilization built by whites.7 Framed as a civilizational agenda, white nationalism persisted as an appealing doctrine in America.  

With the more recent rise in anti-racism, the once explicit racist rhetoric has seen  subtle shifts into one of preservation of ways of life: seemingly neutral among ethnicities. Despite this surface neutrality, this rhetoric often implicitly invokes a contrast between ‘our way of life and ‘non-white’ ways of life: the suburban middle class, white lifestyles, with that of  ‘hordes’ of non-white, working class immigrants crossing the Southern border. Thus, white nationalism in its modern guise denounces non-whites through a seemingly rational way, embracing the immigration-success doctrine, while evading the accusation of racism.    

 More recently, this sanitized white nationalism has seen a resurgence due to media. Social media companies such as Facebook, Reddit, and 8Chan operate with the purpose of monetizing user information.8 Because the main source of profit on these platforms comes from ad revenue, social media algorithms seek to maximize user engagement which also increases engagement with advertisements. This, they achieve by identifying user preferences and exposing users to content they are most likely to enjoy.9 This business model has consolidated interest groups – including users sympathetic to white nationalism – through the repetition of similar content.  Furthermore, due to the increased engagement on these contents, white nationalist outlets are now ‘leaching’ into a general audience which creates new support. With this rise to prominence, white nationalism has gained attention from Fox News and New York Times which led to an even  wider audience. The net effect is the public getting increasingly exposed to white nationalist rhetoric.  

According to Jeremy Waldron, hate speech disrupts public peace by becoming a  “permanent fabric of society ”.10 Mere utterances of hate speech in public builds confidence in those whose opinions converge with those messages – and in the process transforms latent opinions public. While it is disputable whether white nationalism is a form of hate speech, the process of its normalization follows a similar trajectory. As white nationalist rhetoric becomes more public, especially through media mechanisms outlined above, people converse on the matter, and eventually the taboo behind white nationalism breaks down: people no longer feel prevented from discussing it or endorsing it in public.  

This general rise in white nationalism has a profound influence on immigration policy in  America: it influences immigration laws by, for instance, terminating the DACA program, and indirectly, by influencing anti-immigration sentiment.11 According to Bawn et al, candidates for the U.S elections are more extreme than the median consensus.12 Primaries, unlike the general election, see participation by those with stronger political preferences. Thus, neutral candidates are not likely to pass the primaries. It is in this context, the influence of white nationalist played a large role in the eventual election of Trump.  

 In conclusion, white nationalism interacts with immigration governance by shifting the ‘overton window’ of immigration policy.13 Although not everyone agrees, the agenda has inevitably become part of normal political discourse. The worry is that this normalization of  white nationalism may allow for continued legislation in favor of brutal immigration policies. 


1Berehulak, Daniel, and Maria Abi-habib. “Images of Confusion, Then Anguish: Migrant Families Deported by Surprise.” The New York Times. The New York Times, March 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/19/world/americas/mexico-border-deportations.html. 

2Sinnar SLS|Publications, Shirin, and Jayashri Srikantiah. “White Nationalism as Immigration Policy.” Stanford Law School. Stanford Law School, March 31, 2019. https://law.stanford.edu/publications/white-nationalism-as-immigration-policy/.  

While white nationalism is often seen as equivalent to white supremacy, this definition reveals a difference: the latter is simply the position that  white people are superior to others; the former extends to goals of obtaining political and economic leverage. 

3BERBRIER, MITCH. “THE VICTIM IDEOLOGY OF WHITE SUPREMACISTS AND WHITE SEPARATISTS IN THE UNITED STATES.” Sociological Focus 33, no. 2 (2000): 175-91. Accessed March 29th, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20832074. 

4Oatey, Helen Spencer. GlobalPeople. University of Warwick, 2012. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/globalpeople2/knowledgeexchange/ whatisculturehtml/.  

5Kohn, Sally. “Nothing Donald Trump Says on Immigration Holds Up.” Time. Time, June 29, 2016. https://time.com/4386240/donald-trump- immigration-arguments/.  

6Serwer, Story by Adam. “White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, April 7, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/04/adam-serwer-madison-grant-white-nationalism/583258/. 

7Alexander, Charles. “Prophet of American Racism: Madison Grant and the Nordic Myth.” JSTOR. Clark Atlanta University, 1960. https://www.jstor.org/stable/274146?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.  

8Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “From Trump to Fox News to 8chan: the Web of White Supremacist Rhetoric Is Wide | Siva Vaidhyanathan.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, August 6, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/06/trump-seeds-violent-white nationalism.  

9Massanari, Adrienne. “Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s Algorithm, Governance, and Culture Support Toxic Technocultures.” ResearchGate. University of Illinois at Chicago, October 2015. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283848479_Gamergate_and_The_Fappening_How_Reddit’s_algorithm_governance_and_culture_support_toxic_technocultures. 

10Waldron, Jeremy. The Harm in Hate Speech. Cambridge (Massachusetts), Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014.

11The DACA program is a protective immigration policy for younger immigrants  

12Berger, Ben. “Political Theory, Political Science, and the End of Civic Engagement.” Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 2 (2009): 335-50. Accessed April 8, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40406934. 

13Mackinac Center, Mackinac Center. “The Overton Window.” Mackinac Center: Advancing Liberty and Opportunity. Mackinac Center, 2019. https://www.mackinac.org/OvertonWindow.  

The Overton window is the range of policies that are politically feasible for a government, given public opinion at any given moment