NASHVILLE, Tenn. (USA TODAY) - Just shy of her 80th birthday, elegantly dressed in silver jewelry and a pencil skirt, retired Vanderbilt professor Virginia Abernethy doesn't appear a likely contender for emerging leader of the nation's white supremacist movement.
But the Anti-Defamation League described her as an "unabashed white supremacist."
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls her a "full-fledged professor of hate" and added Abernethy to its list of 30 new leaders to watch on the radical right.
This year, Abernethy is on the ticket as a vice presidential candidate of the obscure American Third Position Party, or A3P. The whites-only political party was formed "to represent the interests of White Americans," according to its website. It has run a handful of candidates for offices as varied as the Mesa, Ariz., City Council and the New Hampshire governor's office. Republicans in New Hampshire called A3P the party of "despicable racists."
Abernethy calls all the attention misguided but amusing.
"I think it's hilarious," said Abernethy, speaking from the corner office on the Vanderbilt campus that is hers for life as a professor emerita of anthropology and psychiatry. "I'm 104 pounds exactly. I'm punching above my weight, to hear the SPLC tell it."
She politely would like to set the record straight.
Abernethy is not a white supremacist, she said.
She's an environmentalist and a scientist. She opposes most immigration. She's a feminist who helped put an end to Vanderbilt professors calling female medical students "girls." She's a Christian and a European-American.
She is also an "ethnic separatist," she said.
"Separatism says, 'Birds of a feather flock together,' " Abernethy said. "I say, 'Let them.' What I see is rampant racial discrimination against European-Americans. And I am not in favor of discrimination.
"I see African-American groups and Asian-American groups, and I feel that we should respect our identity as European-Americans as well.
"I do not see anything whatever wrong with that."
Abernethy appears on the Tennessee ballot as running mate to Gatlinburg, Tenn.-area filmmaker Merlin Miller, who is running for president of the United States. The party was founded by neo-Nazi skinheads in California in 2010 in response to the recession and Barack Obama's election. The A3P, according to the SPLC, is the "most important hate group in America at the moment."
Abernethy is unusual among American white separatists, said Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC's "intelligence project," which has tracked Abernethy's affiliations, speeches and writings for more than a decade.
Abernethy's academic credentials, which include a Harvard doctorate, a Vanderbilt master's in business administration and 20 years as a Vanderbilt Medical School professor, have long lent credibility to her position on immigration, which Abernethy strongly opposes with the exception of Europeans, Beirich said.
"There's a difference between being concerned about our immigration policies and overcrowding in schools and being involved in organizations that say non-whites should not be in this country."
-- Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's intelligence project
But Beirich has traced a marked shift in Abernethy's focus and affiliations in recent years. Where Abernethy once worked with more mainstream immigration-reform groups, now her affiliations are with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, groups that have benefited from Abernethy's credentials, Beirich said.
"Because of her background, she elevates these horrible views and these racist organizations," Beirich said. "She provides cover to them and lends them an academic veneer to views that are repugnantly anti-Semitic and racist."
The A3P party is a prime example, according to Beirich. The group was founded by California corporate lawyer William Johnson, who once sought a constitutional amendment to deport any American with an "ascertainable trace of Negro blood."
Fellow board members include James Edwards, host of the "pro-white" radio show The Political Cesspool; Don Wassal, publisher of The Nationalist Times, which SPLC calls a racist newspaper; and James Kelso, a former aide to Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
"How does a professor emeritus end up hanging around with people who want to throw out people with a drop of 'Negro' blood?" Beirich said. "There's a difference between being concerned about our immigration policies and overcrowding in schools and being involved in organizations that say non-whites should not be in this country."
However, Abernethy said she doesn't subscribe to the idea of deporting African-Americans.
Where she and Johnson do agree is on the platform of the American Third Position Party, she said.
"The American Third Position Party believes that government policy in the United States discriminates against white Americans, the majority population, and that white Americans need their own political party to fight this discrimination," the party's platform says.
"We are constantly seeing reports about African-Americans being discriminated against," Abernethy said. "Why are we not reading about white Americans who are also being discriminated against?"
Born in Cuba to American parents and raised in Argentina, Abernethy said her life outside the United States has made her more patriotic.
In her two decades as a Vanderbilt professor - she retired in 1996 - Abernethy was perhaps best known within academia as the author of the "fertility-opportunity hypothesis."
Abernethy's theory says that as women have access to more economic opportunities, they have more children, rather than fewer.
The theory runs counter to a prevailing hypothesis that says when women become better educated and more affluent, they have more access to contraception and tend to opt for fewer children.
Abernethy said her theory is behind her opposition to sending food aid to developing countries to avoid contributing to overpopulation.
Outside academic journals, Abernethy's theory drives her anti-immigration activism. In 2004, Abernethy was asked to lead Arizona's Proposition 200 campaign. The measure, which passed, required proof of legal residence for voting and to access public benefits.
When Abernethy described herself as an "ethnic separatist" during the campaign, she got national attention - most of it negative. A non-public figure before that election, Abernethy said she was called out by international news outlets for not having politically correct views.
"There is a level of hostility some people have toward scientists who describe the world as they think it is instead of how it ought to be," Abernethy says now.
Abernethy concluded from the Arizona experience that "some people favor mass immigration. The divide is between people who want European-Americans to become a minority and those who do not."
Kathy McKee, an Arizona anti-immigration activist who worked with Abernethy, said Abernethy, like herself, drew charges of racism for simply advocating for reasonable immigration limits.
But McKee said she grew concerned when she learned Abernethy served as an editorial adviser to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that has referred in its written materials to African-Americans as a "retrograde species of humanity."
"When I found out she was affiliated with this group, I called her and said, 'It sounds terrible - have you looked at their website? Because they're a bunch of nasty racists,' " McKee said. "She resigned immediately. You don't meet many people her age or my age who have said, 'Maybe I have made a mistake and will change.' I respected her for that.
"I think her views that people of European ancestry - that there's a concerted effort to discriminate against us - that's not my issue, but what she says certainly seems factual to me," McKee said.
Intellectuals lend legitimacy
Abernethy joined the board of the American Third Position in 2011. Shortly afterward, she agreed to join the ticket of the A3P party, which sprang from the organization.
"Parts of our beautiful country now resemble Third World communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia," the party platform says. "White people are already a minority in many cities and counties, along with several states, both large and small. Without constructive political action, within a few decades we will become a minority across the entire country. Enough is enough! The American Third Position Party believes that we should put America first!"
Abernethy doesn't actively campaign, except to send out a steady stream of emailed commentary daily to several hundred people on her mailing list about world events.
Running mate Miller, 60, is a filmmaker who left Hollywood to found Americana Pictures in his hometown, Gatlinburg, Tenn. The company's goal is "to develop, produce and market quality motion pictures, which promote fresh talent and the best of traditional European-American ideals."
Miller said criticism of Abernethy - and himself - is driven by "Zionist power background, including the mainstream media, which is controlled by Zionist influences in my opinion."
Those same interests helped spur his candidacy, which Miller said he uses as a platform to spread the message that European-Americans have lost representation politically.
"For the most part, Virginia and I are in agreement on various platforms," he said. "She is forthright and doesn't pull any punches. She has incredible credentials. We both believe European-derived Americans have not had representation politically. I believe diversity can be a very good thing, but look at Ireland, Germany. They're unique in their national character. But America is different, and global elites want a borderless world and they don't want American sovereignty."
A white supremacist movement led by professionals in law, film, academia or other areas represents a new vehicle for extremism that hate watch groups such as the Anti-Defamation League are keeping a close eye on.
"They're not this old image of rednecks in the backwoods," said Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, which monitors right-wing extremism "What makes this party different is it's made up of a number of people who are intellectuals and well established in their fields. It gives this party a form of legitimacy. They're of concern because they're a party that's organizing to get some kind of power in this country."
Retired for more than 20 years and now a great-grandmother, Abernethy makes the trip from her home in Hendersonville, Tenn., to her office on the Vanderbilt campus three days a week.
"All emeritus in good standing are permitted use of space within the Medical Center's Emeritus Professors' Office," Vanderbilt University spokeswoman Amy Wolf said. "As an emeritus professor, faculty are permitted access to shared office space that is to be used for academic and scholarly pursuits."