The Klan Never Ends
When Gospel According to the Klan was published in 2011, the reactions to the book surprised me at first. I had some white people, including scholars, tell me that the Klan was an artifact of the past, or a fringe movement of little consequence. While I might have written about the 1920s Klan, they were unsure about my book’s relevance to right now. The Klan, they implied, simply didn’t matter in the twenty-first century.
I gestured toward the Klan’s continued presence in American culture, and how the order simply refuses to go away. I pointed to the newer, different manifestations of white supremacist movements. I directed them to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatemap, which illustrates all of the active hate groups in the U.S. by state (Oh, hi, Florida, you disappoint me so). While the Klan no longer had millions of members, like the popular order of the 1920s did, I would note again and again, that doesn’t mean the Klan no longer exists. I tried to argue; my arguments didn’t entirely work.
Other white people even asked me, with solemn faces, if I was for or against the Klan. “Against,” I usually managed to sputter as soon as the initial shock wore off. Apparently for some, the Klan was such a distant historical phenomenon that it was completely reasonable to imagine, in 2011, that I could write a book in support of or defending it. More frightening was the staff person at my former university who, catching me in the hallway in front of my office, leaned in close to tell me that I, and everybody else, underestimated the Klan’s numbers in the present day. The Klan, they explained, was still around and active. I didn’t ask how they knew, or why.
When I give talks on the Klan, I’m always asked when the Klan is finally going to end. When will the Klan be done? The audiences want me, a religious historian, to make a prediction about the end of America’s oldest terrorist organization. I point to the order’s long history. I point to all of the fragmented modern Klans. And what I say, every time, without fail, is that the Klan manages to keep returning because their white supremacy still appeals today.
There’s something about the Klan that white Americans can’t let go. There’s something about the America that the Klan can’t let go either.
This answer never really satisfies the person who asked the question, or the rest of the audience either. They want me to say that the Klan can’t last in the twenty-first century. They want me to emphasize that the Klan’s style of racism is long gone. They want me to give an expiration date on the Klan, even as the order continues to hang around, but I can’t.
After that, I tend to say is that I’m really looking forward to the day when my research on the Klan is no longer relevant.
That day hasn’t happened yet, and more and more, I’m worried that that day might not arrive in my lifetime. When I read a Washington Post article about the dramatic rise in Google searches for the Klan since the election, I wasn’t surprised. After all, David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the Klan, supported Trump’s candidacy, and a Klan newspaper endorsed Donald Trump for president.
Christopher Ingraham reports, “For several days this month, about as many people were searching for the Ku Klux Klan as were looking for Kim Kardashian and college football, combined.” He points out that data from Google can’t tell us the intentions of the people Googling the Klan. It could be admiration, fear, or indifference. We only know that they are searching for the Klan in record numbers. He continues, “It does, however, illustrate how the Klan is now seen as part of current events, rather than a relic of the past.”
What I bristled at, eleven years after I started researching the book, was the suggestion that the Klan was ever “a relic of the past.” That is only true if you ignore their continued presence in the news cycle: the Klan fliers passed out in neighborhoods, the attempt of a Georgia Klan to adopt a stretch of highway, the possible Klan parade to celebrate Trump’s victory in the campaign, and SPLC’s remarkable dedication to tracking and reporting on what the Klan and other white supremacists are up to. The Klan is a part of American culture right now, even if some people refuse to recognize it.
What’s so bothersome is how familiar I am now with this particular dismissal of the Klan’s presence and relevance, the attempt to make the order a part of history, to ignore the fact that white supremacist organizations continue to exist, change, and grow.
I wrote Gospel According to the Klan not only to demonstrate how mainstream and influential the Klan was in the 1920s, but also to show that their form of white, masculine Protestant nationalism outlived the the collapse of the national order in 1930. The Klan’s visions of nation, white supremacy, gender, and Protestantism carried on without Klansmen and Klanswomen’s help. Their vision of white nationalism continued on in the rhetoric of major political parties and populist movements. Their influence cannot be limited to the groups that continue to label themselves,”Klan.” Who needs hoods and robes if your militant Protestant Christian ideology is adopted by other political movements? The 1920s Klan had won in some ways, even as they lost. When the Klan continues to win, we all lose.
In the afterword of Gospel According to the Klan, I urged that we had to take seriously the Klan’s brand of white religious nationalism. That we can’t assume the Klan is done because fewer members today pick up the hoods and robes. That declining Klan membership doesn’t mean the order will disappear. That just because the order is not hypervisible that they no longer exist. The Klan’s legacy is more accurately seen in their style of politics. Klan membership might actually be the worst way to think of the Klan’s historical legacy and influence, because the Klan’s ideas, rhetoric, and politics still matter. Several reviewers noted that my afterword was “reaching,” because the Klan had much less influence than I thought. Today, I really wish the reviewers were right.
When we imagine that white supremacy only exists within the bounds of white supremacist movements, we make a disastrous mistake.
And yet, the reaction to my Klan book suggests to me that white readers often make that mistake again and again. White supremacy is a structure of our lives. The Klan, at least, tends to admit that crucial fact as they fight to maintain it. So, yes, you be upset, angry, or heartbroken that folks are Googling the Klan, but also recognize that white supremacy is not contained in these movements. White supremacy never was. The Klan might seem to end at certain historical moments, but racism doesn’t go away simply because the Klan does. The targets, victims, and survivors of Klan terrorism know this.
The reappearance of the Klan seems like a “haunting” of different historical moments, as sociologist Avery Gordon uses the word to describe a historical avoidance that keeps returning until we reckon with it. The Klan is a periodic reminder of how white supremacy is ingrained in America, a fact that we should not need reminding of. The Klan keeps us from looking away from our nation’s racism, past or present, because white people still assume that racism can be isolated to those who wear hoods and robes.
White people can pretend white supremacy is over until the Klan re-emerges again wearing robes and burning crosses. But this pretending, the refusal to confront or even acknowledge white supremacy, is what causes the order to appear, again and again. White Americans have still not acknowledged the Klan, or America’s history of white supremacy, so the order continues haunting us. And it will continue to do so until we reckon with the reality of white supremacy.
Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.