Language Corner

The key difference between ‘nationalists’ and ‘supremacists’

August 14, 2017

Almost every American is a “nationalist” of one kind or another. So is almost every Russian, Chinese, or North Korean.

Don’t get mad. We are not accusing you of any sort of bias, racism, or other unpleasant views. We are merely trying to emphasize, again, how overly simplistic some labels can be.

Demonstrations over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in violence and death were described in news reports in different ways. Some called one group of demonstrators “white nationalists.” Others call that same group “white supremacists.” Some used both terms in the same article.

Those terms mean two different things, though they are in the same family.

A “supremacist” believes a particular race (or sex, or other genetic or cultural characteristic) is naturally superior to others. Because you must know what the characteristic is that is believed to be “supreme,” an adjective has to be attached. Thus there are “white supremacists,” “Muslim supremacists,” “male supremacists” (also sometimes known as “misogynists”), etc. Racial and cultural groups can also have their own internal divisions, as in Sunnis who believe themselves “supreme” in relation to Shiites, and vice versa.

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A “nationalist,” though, is at heart merely someone who strongly believes in the interest of one’s own nation, however “nation” might be defined. President Trump is a “nationalist,” as are most liberals, populists, and everyone to the right and left.

But adding an adjective to indicate what “their” nation is can turn “nationalism” into a polarizing term. A “white nationalist” generally wants a nation of white people. Whether that means creating a separate nation of just white people or pushing those who are not white out of their current nation depends on which branch of “white nationalism” is talking.

While many “white nationalists” are also “white supremacists” because they believe white people are inherently superior to other races, the terms are really not interchangeable.

As Merriam-Webster explains, “white nationalist is defined as ‘one of a group of militant whites who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation,’ while white supremacist is ‘a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.’”

M-W says “white supremacy” first showed up in an 1882 report of an election, though it is clear from the context that at least one candidate had been using “white supremacy” longer.

“White nationalists” first appeared around 1925, M-W says, though there were certainly “nationalist” movements focusing on “whites” long before them, including national policies restricting immigration as well as voting and other “nationalist” activities.

“Nationalism” shows up frequently in politics and ideology. “Nationalist China” was a common nickname for China before Mao, and later for Taiwan*, and many nations have “nationalist” policies. They all look to focus on specific policies or traits, and so are by their nature restrictive, but not all are seeking to restrict individuals based on racial or other characteristics.

Words and labels are often thrown about in emotional situations, but journalists need to take the high road and not fuel the rhetoric. It’s easy to resort to labels, but that can play into the polemics at work.

What, then, should we call the people who demonstrated against removing the statue of Robert E. Lee? Or the people who demonstrated against them? Don’t give them a label. Just say what they believe, or what they want. If they want to call themselves “white nationalists” or “white separatists,” you can explain to your audience what that means.

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*Correction: An earlier version of this article did not present a time frame for this nickname, and did not include Taiwan. It has since been updated.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.