Members of the White Student Union, from left to right (they agreed to participate on condition we only used their first names): Sean, Ken, Paddy, Matthew Heimbach, Addie, and Shayne. Photos by Jackson Fager.
Matthew Heimbach insists he’s not a racist. This comes as a surprise to his fellow students at Towson University, in the suburbs of Baltimore, where Matthew has formed a group called the White Student Union that advocates for “persons of European heritage”—what most of us call “white people.” It also comes as a surprise to the African American students who feel threatened by the night patrols the senior history major began conducting in March. The patrols target supposed “black predators,” Matthew wrote on the WSU’s website, citing (among others) a case in which an African American man pulled out a knife and his penis, and wagged both at a co-ed couple who were copulating in a parking garage. “White Southern men,” he wrote, “have long been called to defend their communities when law enforcement and the State seem unwilling to protect our people.”
Also surprised by Matthew’s claim that he’s not a racist is Duane Davis. “You are a fat, racist little bitch,” the scrappy, dreadlocked man told Matthew one sunny Tuesday this April. There was a rally going on, organized by the Student Government Association and the Black Student Union. In a field behind Duane and Matthew, about 100 students protested the White Student Union by reading unity-themed slam poetry from a microphone. When Matthew showed up on the edge of the crowd, a dozen protesters had come to confront him. Down the façade of a parking garage, a banner unfurled reading, WSU GTFO (translation: White Student Union Get the Fuck Out).
“There’s no need to insult me,” Matthew told Duane, who looked one wrong reply away from punching the 21-year-old.
“I’ve killed people,” Duane said. “In self-defense... But I’ve killed people.”
Matthew has the look of someone who’s been bullied his whole life: he puffs out his chest to hide an abundant belly, wears unfashionable drugstore spectacles, and on this day sported what vaguely resembled a Morrissey T-shirt.
“Who is that on your shirt?” Duane said, jabbing Matthew in the chest. The onlookers leaned in to hear the answer.
“Ian Smith,” Matthew said, before rattling off the biography of the former prime minister of Rhodesia, a white supremacist who resisted efforts to end white rule there in the 60s. “He’s one of my heroes.”
A svelte woman in a dashiki interrupted. “If you were dying and needed a heart transplant,” she asked, “would you accept one from a black person?”
Matthew was silent. He cracked an awkward smile. From the microphone, the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” were heard.
“He doesn’t need a black heart,” Duane said. “He’s already got one!”
Protesters at a “unity rally” on the Towson campus send a message to Matthew and company: “White Student Union Get The Fuck Out.” Photo by Iram Nayati.
Since launching the night patrols, Matthew has become the pasty public face of campus hate. He knows how to court the media, and the segments about him that have aired on CNN, CBS, the Thom Hartmann Program, and pretty much every news blog, all prove it. As such, going to Maryland and hanging out with him and his shadowy “comrades,” as we did recently, risks giving him the thing he wants even more than his own Rhodesia: attention. Yet accounts so far have treated the student as a vile curiosity rather than what he really is—the possible future of organized racism in America—and so we figured, what the hell, let’s go interview him.
“I hate Hitler,” Matthew told me at his apartment, in an African American neighborhood in Baltimore about 15 miles from Towson’s campus. He resents being classified as a “racist” or “white supremacist,” he said, and despises the KKK and neo-Nazi organizations. “They’re just low-rent thugs trying to make themselves feel better. Frankly, they’re an embarrassment.”
Sipping coffee from a mug emblazoned with the Confederate flag, Matthew told me about the “race realist” movement of which he's a part—a group of activists and academics who some believe have traded burning crosses for PhDs and tweed jackets. They float a variety of ideologies, but the most popular are identitarianism (a term mostly used in Europe) and racial realism, interchangeable names for people who believe that whiteness is worth celebrating as much as blackness or any other identity. “We stand for positive love of our people,” Matthew told me, “but also respect for everyone else… That’s the key difference [between them and groups like the Klan]. Love will get us a lot further than yelling racial epithets into a bullhorn.” According to Matthew, identitarianism and racial realism reject white power but embrace white pride on the basis that if pride is a good thing for one group, it’s good for any group. “You’re never going to get anywhere in America by waving a swastika banner,” he said.
Matthew formed his first White Student Union when he was still in high school, in the rural town of Poolesville, Maryland, after the school tried to integrate. “There were, like, three black kids before that,” he said. But the group didn’t become a reality until years later when in August 2012, Matthew organized sympathizers at Towson (initially under the name of "Youth for Western Civilization") and enlisted a conservative professor to serve as its advisor. They went mostly unnoticed until one of their members, Scott Terry (who isn’t a Towson student), was spotted on national TV at the Conservative Political Action Conference this March. Scott told K. Carl Smith, the black founder of the Frederick Douglass Republicans, that Frederick Douglass should’ve thanked his master for “feeding and housing him.” Jon Stewart played the clip on The Daily Show and lambasted Scott. Their advisor dropped his support, and the group was denied official recognition by the university, but the group grew as a result: according to Matthew, it now allegedly has 57 members. He’s also helped form similar groups on other campuses, most recently at Indiana University, in Bloomington. (Though antiracist activists have since shut down that chapter.)
When I asked Matthew how he felt about Obama’s presidency, he said, “I’m not a fan, but not because he’s African American.” He explained how, for him, Obama’s two presidential victories underscored the waning power of white male voters in America. Pointing to US Census Bureau predictions that by 2040 whites will no longer be a majority (though they’ll still be the largest ethnic category), he said that, because of changing demographics across the country, Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election showed that “we’ve already lost the ability to elect a president. Mitt Romney got 60 percent of the white vote. Ten years ago, if you got 60 percent of the white vote, you would win the presidency. Now it’s not enough. So the change in demographics spells to us the fact that we’ve lost the ability on a national level to even advocate for ourselves.” It was clear that his usage of “we” and “our” did not include non-Caucasian Americans.
According to Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, this same sentiment has fueled a recent spike in white-supremacist activity: since 2008, there’s been an 800 percent increase in what he calls “patriot groups,” many of whom have armed themselves against the government, and a twofold increase in hate groups. He cites Obama’s presidency and the economic recession as motivating factors. “It’s about capitalizing on discontent,” Mark told me recently. “Heimbach couches his politics in vague, Christian-sounding language that’s designed to make the racist message palatable to young, disenfranchised, ignorant whites on college campuses or elsewhere.” The Southern Poverty Law Center recently listed Matthew on its annual Hatewatch list.
The weekend after my first visit to Towson, at a conference held by the American Renaissance outside Nashville, Tennessee, the theme of white victimization was on full display, as were the movement’s increasingly young followers. American Renaissance was founded in 1990 by Jared Taylor, a Yale-educated academic who has taught Japanese at Harvard and also runs a white-separatist organization called New Century Foundation. Jared has provided much of the intellectual heft for the identitarianism and racial-realism movement by publishing books brimming with dubious statistics, which argue that blacks are less intelligent than whites and more prone to commit crimes, yet he has barred neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers from joining his group. He is pro-Israel and celebrates Japan (where he was born) as a successful example of a homogenous ethnic state because he believes the Japanese are more “advanced”—genetically and socially—than whites. But at the conference, Jared, who looks a bit like Ted Danson and is a fan of foppish sport coats and collared shirts, dropped his polished tone for a more incendiary message. When he asked the 150 or so people there how many were first-time attendees, more than half raised their hands. From a stage, he explained the ultimate goal of his efforts. “We want a homeland where we are a majority,” he said. “We have a government of traitors... White people who express a desire for a homeland are labeled as haters.” He ended his speech to applause: “Think of secession…Think of hometowns. We have to build them ourselves… Survival is the first law. We have no choice but to keep fighting.”
Matthew had flown down from Baltimore to attend. He stood up and asked a question. “The federal government will continue its genocide of our people,” he said. “Where should we go? What’s the best way to create a homeland?”
“It will work itself out organically in ways we can’t predict,” Jared responded. “White anger may erupt in places we haven’t heard of.”