As a professional racist, Richard Spencer’s career and life philosophy rest on a few basic bits of misinformation. The first is the innate supremacy of whiteness: The idea that white people’s superior inventiveness, strength and vision have made them high achievers who earned every bit of their status. The second is that non-white people (around the world, but particularly in the United States) serve only as a burden to white greatness. According to this historically revisionist theory, white people got to the top on their own, while people of color mostly just got in their way.
Spencer has repeated this racist lie many times. Speaking at the National Policy Institute, an innocuously named think tank run by Spencer to promote all things white power, he told an audience giddy over Trump’s election, “[White people] don’t exploit other groups. We don’t gain anything from their presence. They need us and not the other way around.”
He doubled down on those remarks when African-American pundit Roland Martin suggested centuries of free black labor had built America into an economic superpower, a truth Spencer dismissed out of hand. “White people ultimately don’t need other races in order to succeed, in order to be ourselves,” Spencer retorted. “Absolutely not.”
Spencer argued America had become a world leader “through the genius of Europeans...it has nothing to do with slavery....White people could have figured out another way to pick cotton....We do it now, we did it previously.”
As Lance Williams, writing at Reveal shows, Spencer’s answer is ridiculous, and not just because American history proves it wrong. Spencer’s own personal history, and that of his family, flies in the face of that illogical conclusion:
Spencer, along with his mother and sister, are absentee landlords of 5,200 acres of cotton and corn fields in an impoverished, largely African American region of Louisiana, according to records examined by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). The farms, controlled by multiple family-owned businesses, are worth millions: A 1,600-acre parcel sold for $4.3 million in 2012.
The Spencer family’s farms also are subsidized heavily by the federal government. From 2008 through 2015, the Spencers received $2 million in U.S. farm subsidy payments, according to federal data.
The land was originally purchased during the Jim Crow era by Spencer’s maternal grandfather, R.W. Dickenhorst. The northern Louisiana region was a harsh place for black folks to live in the Civil Rights era, with a thriving Ku Klux Klan and a legacy of lynchings and anti-black violence. Dickenhorst, a well-to-do radiologist, grew even richer off his land holdings, thanks to the labor of poor black Louisianans who lived under the constant threat of white terror and were paid almost nothing.
Spencer’s mother, Sherry, inherited the lands when her father died in 2002. Those thousands of acres added lots of money to the Spencers’ coffers, as inherited land holdings have for millions of white Americans. The racial wealth gap currently stands at $13 to $1 for black and white households. The key to that difference is property ownership—the "central vehicle Americans use to store wealth” that is handed down within white families, according to Demos senior policy analyst Catherine Ruetschlin.
Huffington Post cites a USDA report that states, "of all private U.S. agricultural land, Whites account for 96 percent of the owners, 97 percent of the value, and 98 percent of the acres... Blacks possess 7.8 million acres “of overall rural land” ... For a century after the end of slavery, Black farmers tended to be tenants rather than owners. Since the early 1970s, activists and scholars have warned that the rural Black community was in danger of losing its entire land base. Land ownership by Black farmers peaked in 1910 at 16-19 million acres, according to the Census of Agriculture. However, the 1997 census reports that Black farmers owned only 1.5 million acres 'of farmable land.'"
The story of white supremacy Spencer peddles, in which wealthy white people like the Spencers got that way by power and pluck, and not institutionalized black economic exploitation, is a myth. White people got a leg up on everyone else because of a system designed to enforce and maintain white power while ensuring black vulnerability and subjugation. Richard Spencer should know this, because he’s a case in point.
The finances of NPI, Spencer’s “up with white people” organization, are unclear because it “hasn’t filed a public report since 2013,” according to reporting by Reveal’s Al Letson. (The organization was stripped of its nonprofit standing by the IRS just this March.) Spencer dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Duke University to run his white power club, and has had no other identifiable paid work before or since. While donations are likely up from racists and Trump supporters around the country, family money has likely been hugely important to keeping Spencer and NPI afloat.
When confronted about the land parcel during the Reveal podcast, Spencer refused to answer Letson’s questions about how much of those cotton-fueled profits have been filtered into his white power organizing machine. He also countered that he is “not involved in any direct day-to-day running of the business,” which is a moot point. Spencer later stated he is “proud of [what] my grandfather...built” and—without admitting that the Spencer story invalidates the lie of white American exceptionalism—copped to having gotten a boost from black labor.
“We’ve all benefited from white privilege,” Spencer says in the recording. “I want my children to have white privilege.”
What Spencer really wants is a future in which his children and other white people don’t have to compete for a country and power he believes they are entitled to by race. White supremacist ideology is precarious and insecure because it’s constructed out of lies. That's why black literacy was illegal for centuries, and why white racists—including Steve Bannon—want Trump to impose laws that stop nonwhite immigrants from taking over Silicon Valley today. White people have always needed to exploit other races to get ahead, and they still do. Ask some of those white California farmers who didn't realize they voted to keep their own Mexican farmworkers out of the country.
What Spencer is really offering his followers is a delusion of white superiority and a fable about coming white marginalization. They’ll buy it, because it fits their victim narrative and sense of entitlement, while soothing their insecurity about white extraordinariness. In that way, Spencer and Donald Trump have the same racist hustle.
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.