Conspiracy Beliefs and Violence in American Culture: A Comparative Study of Black and White Separatism

Michael Barkun, Political Science, Syracuse University

Research Grant, 1998, 1999

One of the most volatile forms of contemporary identity politics is that associated with race, and more especially with organized groups for which race is the characteristic of overriding significance. In North America and Europe, race-oriented political and social movements display two salient characteristics: ideologies that are mirror images of one another, and a treatment of race as the functional equivalent of nation. These characteristics imply a potential for violence.

While outwardly dissimilar, White and Black racial separatisms possess belief systems that are structurally similar. Each possesses a myth of origin which confers a transcendent significance on the group, and each identifies racial villains and inferiors against whom the group must struggle to realize its destiny. White racists and Afrocentrists may therefore differ less in the structure of their beliefs than in the groups to which they ascribe virtue and vice. Each also gravitates towards a Manichean worldview, in which the virtuous must battle an evil cabal.

While outwardly dissimilar, White and Black racial separatisms possess belief systems that are structurally similar. 

Like national groups, racialists adopt what Anthony D. Smith has called “myths of ethnic descent” to validate their claims to power. However, the boundaries of race and nation rarely coincide, and racial separatists therefore find themselves embedded in hostile environments or cut off from fellow members. They consequently may see political authorities as enemies to be challenged and overcome.

The vagueness and transnational character of racial boundaries also places stress on group cohesion. Hence the group’s own sense of purity may take precedence over the struggle with outsiders. As a result, violence is often directed at perceived enemies within—”race traitors,” defectors, informers, infiltrators, doctrinal heretics, and leadership rivals—who must be destroyed in the interests of boundary maintenance. When violence is directed against external foes, the targets are likely to be symbols of the imagined conspiracy.

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