Editor’s Note: A CNN Special Report “State of Hate: The Explosion of White Supremacy,” hosted by Fareed Zakaria, airs Sunday, June 30, at 8 p.m. ET. Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” He is also a columnist for The Washington Post and the author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education” and “The Post-American World.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If there is a great American novel, one that is thought to define the American sensibility, it is probably “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. In its opening pages, one of the characters, Tom Buchanan, talks about “a fine book” titled “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” by a man named Goddard.
“The idea,” Tom explains, “is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
Fitzgerald might not have been endorsing these sentiments in the novel. The character who mouths them, Tom Buchanan, is one of the least admirable ones, representing a certain kind of unthinking, vulgar rich man. And yet, in 1921, a few years before he wrote the “Great Gatsby,” Fitzgerald wrote a letter to the legendary literary critic, Edmund Wilson, explaining his own views.
“The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race,” he wrote. “Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter. France made me sick … I think it’s a shame that England and America didn’t let Germany conquer Europe. It’s the only thing that would have saved the fleet of tottering old wrecks.”
Now Fitzgerald seems aware that his views, even then, were not politically correct. He adds in the letter, “My reactions were all philistine, anti-socialistic, provincial and racially snobbish.” But he persisted in his view of racial hierarchy: “We are as far above the modern Frenchman as he is above the Negro.”
The reason I begin with this literary reference is to remind us all how deeply embedded is the idea of racial hierarchy in Western civilization. In fact, in some ways it is in the DNA of the modern West because, from the 16th and 17th centuries, as Europe grew richer and stronger, it began to assume that its material success must be a result of its superiority – religious or ethnic or racial.
This view, built on centuries of Western success, has taken deep root – and not just among whites. People across Asia and Africa prefer light skin to dark and spend billions on creams that promise to make them whiter. In some parts of the black community in the United States, there is a preference for lighter skin. And ironically, this all persists despite the fact that we are now living in an age where the fastest-growing economies in the world are Asian, where China and India are demonstrating powerfully that they can be as materially successful as the whitest and most Nordic people.
The fact that these views are so deep-seated, subconsciously part of the modern psyche, is perhaps why we have been unable to see the growing danger in our midst. The number of white militants has grown; they have attacked more often and with greater brutality. And yet the authorities have always seemed to be surprised and unprepared, perhaps unable to fully internalize the nature of this ideology and its violent ambitions.
It is important to understand, as America and the Western world become more mixed, multicultural and multiracial, the backlash will grow. White supremacists want to do more than just protest. They make this clear in their internal communications. And they are planning for it every day. Let’s hope we can all recognize this danger before they succeed.