What can cities do to fight white nationalism? In this interview, we speak with recent Harvard Kennedy School graduates Brady Roberts and Stefan Norgaard about their work with the City of Eugene, OR to help them more effectively mobilize against white nationalism at the city-level. Specifically, Brady and Stefan crafted a unique implementation framework based on public health response systems, and have developed a set of interventions that are designed to combat white nationalism in Eugene.
Mary: Why don’t you start off by telling me why you chose to work with the city of Eugene, OR?
Brady: In our early study we realized that the city of Eugene is very progressive in some ways but not in others. Eugene Oregon, per the FBI, has more hate crimes in any city per capita in the nation. And overwhelmingly an animating ideology of those hate crimes, those instances of racial biases, is race and ethnicity. And this is in one of the whitest cities in America, a community of color only about two thousand people. So Eugene, Oregon – despite its reputation for being quite liberal – has a really bad problem with hate crimes, and we think tangential to that, a really bad problem with organized white nationalism in the aftermath of the 2016 election, as organized white nationalism has had a watershed moment in the United States, our project sought to examine the sort of moment that we currently live in, and then, ways in which city governments can approach extremist ideologies with an eye towards not only reducing the instances of hate crimes, but also building a more inclusive landscape of democracy that they can use to engage all residents.
Mary: Could you please elaborate a little bit on what’s unique about the situation in Eugene and why is white nationalism so well mobilized relative to other similarly situated cities?
Stefan: To delve into the problem of “why Eugene, why Oregon, why now?” We conducted a problem-driven research methodology and ultimately settled on several different problem deconstructions to try to answer that question. They all deal with some unique factors that Eugene has that other places don’t have. The first one has to do with government failure and in particular this perceived inability of government in Eugene to enforce or embrace elements of racial, gender, ethnic or socioeconomic inclusion. This is a story of inequality over the past 30 or 40 years but it’s especially pronounced in a Eugene context where you have kind of the “Eds and Meds sector” of universities, research and hospital administrations, and then you also have communities that feel left behind by these new inequalities that have been created. That layers onto our second problem deconstruction, which is a pronounced urban rural divide in Eugene with the rest of Lane County. So not only do you have Eugene and neighboring Springfield, Oregon, which has a much lower per capita income and lower rates of educational attainment, you also have large swaths of rural Lane County. Lane County is the size of the state of Connecticut and used to be heavily reliant on timber lumber and wood products industries – extractive monocultures that have struggled over the past 30 or 40 years, both between environmental regulations (that’s the story that we heard a lot in rural Lane County) but also just with the changing economy that’s moved from manufacturing and mass production to knowledge and services. Between the government failure arguments about rising inequality and the lack of government’s ability to effectively deliver public services, and also this urban rural divide, both of which are very real, this brings up another third potential hypothesis, which has to do with an erosion of “white identity”. The idea here is that between the collapsing industry and the educational inequalities that we’ve seen in the last 30 or 40 years, there have been persistent narratives advanced by white nationalist groups around concepts like “white genocide.”
This is this is something that David Duke’s talked about and you hear in Stormfront and it starts with an original conception around white identity as a kind of “chosen people, promised land” mythic narratives around whiteness. And the final component that kind of is the glue that holds a lot of us together is what we call historical amnesia, or erasure. This is the combination of just not telling our our history, and actively erasing the unsavory parts, whether that’s about slavery and the civil war, whether that’s about the genocide of indigenous Americans that underpin the founding of this country, or whether it involves the KKK organizing at Skinner Butte Eugene until the 1990s.
The fact that Eugene in particular hasn’t had a robust set of conversations about its history leaves many residents willing to embrace some of these white identitarian Aryan ideologies.
Brady: Oregon was founded explicitly as a white ethnostate, despite joining the union. People of color were not legally allowed to move into the state until the 20th century, and it was a chief organizing force in ensuring very discriminatory immigration languages and laws be passed in the federal government. Uniquely, Oregon situates itself as sort of standing out in America as a white ethnostate, particularly what we were talking about when it comes to the sort of myth of colonialism and the settler frontier. And then Eugene’s active history in not only the Klan, but also racist politicians, racist leaders and racism at the University of Oregon that’s not really memorialized but is in many ways glossed over or retooled to fit into the current narrative as Eugene and Oregon as very progressive places.
Mary: Issues stemming from historical amnesia and erasure seem like they could be more directly impacted by state and local government actions. The other issues, such as the urban-rural divide and the erosion of white identity are more systemic, and probably more outside the bounds of local control.
Stefan: Since education, particularly in Oregon, is so state power-based (as opposed to city power-based), there are some jurisdictional challenges. But there are definitely opportunities for conversations. And similarly, there’s the opportunity to memorialize public space. These spaces could include Skinner Butte, or Mims house – which is a place in Eugene where African-Americans would stay because of Eugene’s policy as a “sundown town,” and in Oregon, black people weren’t allowed to stay in public accommodations. In these kinds of sites, there can be memorials, there can be conversations, there can be museums, there can be exhibits that discuss these atrocities. This is within the purview of municipal government.
Brady: What I would add is that right now, cities are quite focused. They’re on the defensive and they’re in a really responsive stage, so they’re not thinking proactively about reacting to hate crimes or public incidences in which, for instance, there’s an officer-involved shooting of a person of color. What our analysis tries to do is consider how in this moment when we know hate crimes are on the rise, and we know extremist ideology is becoming more crystallized and legitimated at the federal level, what cities can do is think about proximate and root causes and solutions. The proximate solutions that we offer are solutions such as, let’s actually define what we’re talking about here and we say white nationalism or white supremacy. Let’s build out a racial equity plan. Many cities undergo this. Organizations such as GARE help cities scale the problem – in Eugene it’s a county problem as well as a city problem. The good thing is that Eugene is the county seat so you can have those conversations with folks that are close by and then begin to think more in the long term, so you have your back house in order. But what can you do next? Is it thinking about education modules to pilot in public high schools? Is it thinking about sites and conversations that you could convene and have, to think about building a public memory? We think that there should be a continuum of responses in thinking about ways to respond to hate crimes. To deal with not only the proximate of what a city should do in that immediate moment but also in the long term when you’re actually thinking about preventing this from ever happening again.