11/20/2012 10:57 am ET

'Good' and 'Evil' Whites? The Shared Meanings of Race

Every few months or so, a patterned story makes its way into mainstream news. This tale is book-ended by two central characters. First, a band of white nationalists or supremacists protest that the U.S. president is black (and possibly not a "natural born" citizen), argue that undocumented workers are "stealing white jobs," or lament the fact that the U.S. will be "majority-minority" circa 2050. These folks are easily understood as the "bad" or "evil" whites.

The second actor in this story is a group of white counter-protestors who praise the virtues of racial diversity, rail against racial inequities in education and the economy, institutions, and call upon policing agencies to end their practices of racial profiling. These are often hailed as the examples of the "good" and anti-racist whites. For example:

• A protest broke out at Bloomington, Indiana's town square on April 7, 2012 when white antiracists disputed a white supremacist group that spoke in favor of "Southern Heritage and Confederate History."

• White nationalists and members of the largely white "Anti-Racist Action" group were embroiled in a fight in Tinley Park, a suburb just outside of Chicago on 19 May 2012.

• On August 5, 2012, alleged gunman Wade Michael Page opened fire on a Wisconsin Sikh temple, killing several. In response, the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed they had long been tracking Page due to his long-standing involvement in the white supremacist music scene.

• And on October 23, 2012, Pre­ston Wig­in­ton, a 48-year-old neo-Nazi and for­mer racist skin­head, spon­sor­ed a speech by white suprema­cist Jared Tay­lor at Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity that drew widespread support and antiracist condemnation.

These stories are framed in an easily digestible framework; The good and the bad fight ugly battles.

But what if the relationship between white racial identity and racism transcends political or ideological bifurcation? How do we explain whites growing racial privileges (e.g. average white wealth is 20 times more than average black wealth) and the prejudicial beliefs amid both "racist" and "anti-racist" white populations? And, most importantly, how do the white actors involved in these disputes make sense of inequality, race relations, and their own racial identity?

The answers to these questions lie in a closer examination of white peoples' lives within these polarized groups. So enter White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race. From May 2006 through June 2007 I spent at least one day a week, often much more, with members of two nationwide organizations: First, the white nationalist organization I call (using pseudonyms) "National Equality for All" (NEA) and second, the white antiracist organization I call "Whites for Racial Justice" (WRJ). I compiled pages and pages of observations, conducted hundreds of interviews with members, friends of members, and their families, and engaged in an in-depth examination of their literature and written communications among both groups.

What I found might be surprising to some. Members of both NEA and WRJ held an eerily similar view of race and whiteness. In specific, they held similar "ideals" of what whiteness is, and importantly, what whiteness should be. And these shared views of the ideal white self functioned as seemingly neutral yardsticks against which mundane behaviors, norms, values, and expectations were measured.

To some, the idea that "racists" and "antiracists" share intimate similarities may seem impossible and/or infuriating. Resistance to this idea stems from the seductive reach of pop-psychology explanations about racism and racial identity. That is, once racism is conceived as a stereotypical thought, ignorance, or a moral failing, we too easily divide the world into those that are "sick" with the disease of prejudice and those that are "healthy" anti- or non-racists.

But if we stop looking for the "racist" or "antiracist" intent within people and instead within the shared, patterned, and common ways that people interact and make sense of the world within the context of those interactions, we can move beyond the common and often misleading ways of dividing the world into simplistic dichotomies of good and bad.

Many (not all) whites across the racialized political and ideological spectrum hold aloft an ideal white self -- to which they aspire. This ideal white self is characterized by a person that:

• Avoids the supposed "dysfunctional" pathologies of people of color.
• Never allows oneself to be victimized by Blacks, Latinos, and an anti-white "politically correct" culture.
• Understand their role in contemporary race relations as a kind of messianic savior to people of color.
• Objectifies and collects friendships with Blacks and Asians because they are possessive of a kind of primordial "cool" and "exotic" character.

Either these whites are all "bad" or there is something about the dominant and shared expectations associated with being a white person that binds ideologically diverse whites to these types of actions and interpretations. For if whites fail to pursue these practices, they may be stigmatized or marginalized.

If we more closely examine the similarities and differences between seemingly antithetical white groups, we see not just the many ways of being white, but how members of the "good" and "bad" groups may make meaning of whiteness in ways that collectively reproduce both white identity and, ultimately, white supremacy.