How White Nationalism Moved from the Margins to the Center of American Politics

October 2, 2020

Professor Sanford Schram's new book takes a deep, intellectual look at white nationalism's move from the fringes to the center of American politics.


Professor Sanford Schram (Hunter/GC, political science) has spent years as both a political scientist and sociologist, blending the fields in his analyses of current politics. So Schram was intrigued when Donald Trump gained popularity in the months before the 2016 election, and by the prejudice that accompanied his rise.

He and Richard Fording (of the University of Alabama) described this rise in overt racism as a “hard white” turn. This is the title of Schram’s new book with Fording. Hard White takes a deep, intellectual look at white nationalism’s move from the fringes to the center of American politics. 

“Things have shifted over the last couple of decades. People wanted to think that, post-civil rights era, issues of racism had been pushed to the margins,” Schram tells The Graduate Center.

“We wanted to highlight that white people were never really all that accepting of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. I think a lot of this came to a head when [Barack] Obama was elected. It was a watershed moment that led to a change in the structure of politics in our society.”

Hard White cites Obama’s presidential tenure and increases in minority representation as the two major shifts that ignited the mainstreaming of white nationalism. According to Schram, the nation underestimated the immensity of the white nationalist movement. Though Trump’s rise may have given white supremacy a more overt place in the White House, Schram says that today’s mainstreaming of white nationalism actually began as a backlash during the Obama era.

“The main takeaway of the book is that out-group hostility has become more of an issue. What we’re seeing now is the increasing polarization of out-group hostility where people are more extreme in their views of being anxious about out-groups,” Schram explains. “We show in our book that white in-group identity may be best understood as a platform for out-group hostility.”

Fortunately, the “blue wave” of 2018 was brought on, in part, by the multicultural coalition prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement, Schram says. Still, even as presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his vice president pick Kamala Harris lead in the polls, Schram says any attempts to diversify the Democratic base will be an uphill struggle.

“I think a lot of Democrats are not that enthusiastic about them. There are challenges, there’s an enthusiasm gap,” he says. Trump has these crazy, die-hard supporters. And the Democratic Party is just trying to put together a coalition.”