After Dylann Roof allegedly opened fire on worshippers gathered inside the historically black Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston, South Carolina last month, killing nine congregants and claiming that they “rape our women” and “are taking over our country,” a disturbing image circulated online. A Facebook picture of Roof sitting on top of his car and straddling a license plate celebrating the “Confederate States of America” went viral, stoking an outrage that prompted the South Carolina government to permanently lower the Confederate flag that had long flown over the State House.
For some, however, the debate isn’t over. The Ku Klux Klan successfully petitioned to hold a pro-Confederate flag rally in Charleston last week, resulting in five arrests as white racialist groups clashed with counter-protesters such as the New Black Panther Party. Video footage from the scene shows African Americans angrily tearing up a Confederate flag, while Nazis inveighed against the government’s decision to “delete your history.”
In the wake of the horrific shooting, Roof quickly became the newest and most disturbing face of a movement that is dwindling in formal membership while exploding online. “Look at stormfront.org,” said Daryl Johnson, lead analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security from 2004-2010. “They went from less than 100,000 registered users in 2008 to over 300,000 today. And that’s just one website … Right now is a good time for supremacists, given that we have a black president, are discussing immigration reform, and there were race riots in Baltimore.”
This online proliferation doesn’t necessarily equate to a commensurate uptick in successful law enforcement, however, as tracking the movement is an exceptionally difficult proposition. “Membership in these groups is so fluid, it changes, it ebbs and flows,” Johnson said. “Calculating raw numbers is a task that’s very daunting, that doesn’t necessarily give you an accurate reflection of what’s happening. Organizations are fragmenting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there are less white supremacists in America.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is widely considered to be one of the leading organizations dedicated to studying right-wing hate groups. According to the latest edition of their annual report, “The Year in Hate and Extremism,” the membership and reach of formal white nationalist groups is on a sharp downward trajectory. “The rapidly falling numbers of both hate and antigovernment ‘Patriot’ groups seem to have been driven by a strengthening economy, continuing crackdowns by law enforcement, and an accelerated movement of radicals out of groups and into the anonymity, safety and far-reaching communicative power of the internet,” the report found.
However, Johnson sees a glaring hole in SPLC’s methodology. “What SPLC does on a day to day basis is a noble effort, they’re the best out there, but it’s a difficult endeavor, and I don’t think it accurately reflects what the true landscape is. Their numbers are based on publicly available information, so it doesn’t include underground groups, groups that are off the radar and don’t have websites, or people who only interact via websites,” he explained.
These numbers also don’t include people like Roof. While his direct affiliation with the country’s most visible white nationalist groups appears tenuous, his motivation for the attack was undoubtedly racial. He has been characterized as a “lone wolf,” someone “disconnected from traditional hate or terrorist groups, who looked online for his inspiration and struck without detection.” According to Johnson, this “exemplifies the modern day white supremacist. He didn’t really affiliate with these groups, but was indoctrinated into their philosophy, and was able to sympathize and support the cause without really having to interact.”
If the Charleston tragedy proves anything, it’s that the classic ideologies of white nationalism are alive and well, even though the traditional vessels used to deliver them have seen better days. The internet offers a means by which to drink from the well of hate without engaging in the social and legal risks that come with being a registered, card-carrying member.
According to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, Roof is evidence of someone who cross-pollinated with these subcultures. “He didn’t have to join the KKK,” Levin said. “There was enough out there on the internet for him to put together his own belief system … Dylann Roof represents white supremacists, and the language and symbols of his world were taken out of the varieties of that ecosystem. The ‘14 words’ of the Nazis referred to in his manifesto, the Rhodesian and Confederate flags … In some ways, he was actually more in line with what you see if he had been in a group in the first place; he didn’t deviate that much from what you’d hear from a Nazi, skinhead, or member of the KKK.”
Experts believe that the white nationalist movement can be broken into six subcategories, though the lines separating these groups aren’t always clear, and it is possible for a single individual to belong to more than one of them. Each group varies in their ideologies and customs but together, they helped create the ecosystem that in turn created Roof.
The roots of the American neo-Nazi movement date back to 1959, when George Lincoln Rockwell, a Navy fighter pilot who lamented America’s alignment with the Allied Cause during WWII, formed the American Nazi Party. “Part of Rockwell’s genius was that he understood that whiteness in the United States needed to be more broadly defined [than it had been in Germany],” SPLC’s Mark Potok explained. “To Hitler, the Greeks weren’t white, [nor were the Spanish and Slavic peoples]. The United States is characterized by a lot of different ethnic groups, so Rockwell expanded whiteness so that those groups could be included.”
In recent decades, the West Virginia-based National Alliance (NA) stood as the most active and influential organization within the American neo-Nazi movement. According to the Anti-Defamation League, though, the group is “barely a shell of its former self.” A combination of bad financial management, a lack of charismatic leadership, and petty internal schisms weakened the National Alliance and the larger neo-Nazi movement over the last two decades, and the NA ceased all formal operations in 2013.
Today, the National Socialist Movement (NSM), based out of Detroit, Michigan, is commonly considered the most prominent and active Nazi organization in the U.S., though Potok estimates NSM likely has a maximum of only 400 dues-paying members.
Its current leader, Jeff Schoep, spoke at the KKK’s July 18 rally in Charleston, but explained that sees his organization as distinct from the Klan.
“In the racialist movement, some groups are based on religious beliefs and others on political beliefs. The National Socialist Movement is a political organization. We don’t endorse any specific religion, whereas the Klan is a specifically Christian association,” he told ThinkProgress.
For Schoep, the decision to support the KKK came down to a particular philosophy of patriotism. “Even if a person doesn’t support the Confederate flag, this is an issue that all Americans should be concerned about,” he said. “Our freedoms are being whittled away. Companies have banned sales of any Confederate or rebel item because this kid went on the shooting rampage there in Charleston some weeks back or some months back or whatever it was. Using one person’s violent act against the rest of the population is insane. Say [serial murderer] Jeffrey Dahmer was a Democrat; does that mean we’d say all Democrats are cannibalistic serial killers and rapists? That’s kind of what we’re seeing in this issue.”
The Ku Klux Klan is a uniquely American phenomenon that predates others on this list. Originally formed in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865 as a social club for former confederate soldiers, the KKK sought to weaken the political power of southern blacks and Republicans in the wake of the Civil War.
The Anti-Defamation League estimates that there are about 44 active Klan groups in America today, attributing a large part of their decline to the same factors that tore apart the neo-Nazi movement. However, it also points to the 20th century proliferation of other, distinct hate groups as another contributing factor to the decline of the KKK. “Competition is a weakening force here,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of research for ADL. “The more modern Nazis and skinheads emerged later and successfully competed for members. The number of Klan rallies has really dropped in the last twenty years. The most common Klan tactic now is spreading racist flyers in neighborhoods, and that’s because doing so only requires one person.”
“The Klan is small, dwindling, and poorly led,” Potok said. “They are seen by other white nationalists as people who are uneducated, live out in the middle of the country, and do nothing of any use to the movement. In 1925, there were about four million Klan members in the U.S. By 1965, you’re talking about 40,000 Klansman. Today, we think there are fewer than 4,000 Klansman when you put all the different groups together.”
The skinhead movement was originally apolitical. It came about in Britain in the 1960s as a reaction against the growing influence and numbers of the peace and love hippies. “They despised trust fund children and people who were into peace signs and long hair,” Potok said. “Instead, they adopted a uniform meant to emphasize a tough working class background. They wore steel-toed boots, which were part of the uniform of people who worked in factories and feared a heavy beam falling on their feet. These same workers shaved their heads to keep their hair from getting eaten up by machinery.”
The movement split into racist and anti-racist factions in the 1970s as some members were recruited into the white supremacist British National Front. It crossed the Atlantic later in the decade on the back of the punk rock scene, simmering until 1988 when it broke out of the underground and firmly ensconced itself in the public’s awareness.
In that year, the notorious white supremacist Tom Metzger organized the first ever “hate rock festival” in Oklahoma. These aptly named Aryan Fests brought together skinheads who formed the Hammerskin Nation, which bills itself today as “a leaderless group of men and women who have adopted the White Power Skinhead lifestyle.” The Hammerskins spent much of the summer and fall of 1988 attacking blacks and Hispanics, and planning the destruction of Jewish businesses for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
While the skinhead movement experienced a temporary growth spurt following the election of President Obama, like much of the formal right wing hate movement in the United States, their last few years have been characterized by a string of successful law enforcement operations and the death of important leaders.
Marcus Faella was the president and national director of the American Front skinhead group based in Osecola County, Florida. He was arrested in 2012, with authorities alleging that his group had plans to attack and kill minorities, Jews, and immigrants.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Faella said his recruitment into the movement came about in part as a result of his attending a high school with a large black population. “I got picked on … and when I joined the skinheads it was a strength thing. I wasn’t the strongest kid in the world and I wasn’t the most popular. I kept seeing this skinhead thing, and I was attracted to it. These guys were tough guys.”
Faella acknowledges that there is a common bond of racialism that runs strong and unites these disparate groups. What distinguishes a skinhead specifically is that it’s “a youth sub-culture with a specific fashion attached to it, not necessarily an ideology. But a national socialist could look like anything. He could be a redneck or a juggalo. And it’s possible to have a national socialist skinhead, or a skinhead in the Klan … A lot of people think there is only a few basic ideologies, but really it’s an interwoven web that you can’t understand unless if you’ve been in it for years.”
Christian Identity refers to a swath of American religious sects that consider white Europeans, rather than the Jewish people, the true descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “many of the major conspiracies and violent acts by right-wing extremists in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s can be attributed in whole or in part to adherents of Christian Identity, including shooting sprees, bombings and bomb plots, and armed robberies. Christian Identity mingled with neo-Nazis, through groups such as Aryan Nations; it appealed to many racist skinheads; and it took root in a number of Klan groups, some of which became exclusively Christian Identity in nature.”
It was this ideology that reportedly stirred Larry McQuilliams, who was shot and killed by police last year after firing more than 100 rounds into the downtown Austin area and attempting to burn down the Mexican Consulate. McQuilliams was allegedly inspired by the book Vigilantes of Christendom, a notorious tract which claims that anyone who acts with violence against “race mixers,” homosexuals and abortionists is automatically drafted into the secretive and elite Phineas Priesthood.
In spite of this recent example, the ideology has retreated in recent years, suffering the same fractioned and poorly organized fate as the American Nazis, KKK, and skinheads. The ADL currently estimates that there are roughly 100 Christian Identity groups and 120 Christian Identity preachers active in the U.S. today, though they are so widely dispersed that a physical church is hard to find. “They have been increasingly marginalized in larger society,” said the SPLC’s Potok. “People are leaving these organizations and moving their activism on to the internet due to the very high social cost of being a member.”
White supremacist prison gangs are the only formal subculture in the American racialist movement that is thriving, and yet, ironically, their ideology is also the most superficial and least consequential to their day-to-day operations.
The Aryan Brotherhood is widely considered the oldest and most notorious racialist prison gang in the United States. In his 2004 New Yorker profile on the Brotherhood (who refer to themselves as “The Brand”), David Grann wrote that the gang “established drug-trafficking, prostitution, and extortion rackets in prisons across the country. Its leaders, often working out of barren cells in solitary confinement, allegedly ordered scores of stabbings and murders … They killed, most of all, in order to impose a culture of terror that would solidify their power.”
According to David Skarbek, author of a recent book on the social order of prison gangs, the accumulation of power, rather than some abstract vision of “white purity,” is the main driver behind the actions of racialist prison gangs. He says that their numbers are growing as a result of our country’s thriving prison-industrial complex, in which public sector employees, organizations and private prisons spend money and lobby elected officials to send more people to jail for longer sentences, thus ensuring the continuing need for more and bigger facilities. In a world overcrowded with convicts, prison gangs are a vital source of authority and structure in an otherwise anarchic environment.
“Gangs exist because, in large prison populations of strangers, they’re the most efficient creators of order,” Skarbek said. For these gangs, then, race is more a recruiting and organizing tool than it is an actual set of political beliefs.
“They’re more of an organized crime syndicate,” Johnson said. “They’re more interested in money and drugs, and will set aside ideological beliefs to work alongside other gangs, other groups and races.”
The sixth and final major subdivision in the contemporary white nationalist movement is comprised of the amorphous band of “intellectuals” whose written and published works aim to give racialist crusaders a patina of academic credibility.
“They present themselves as an alternative to the [political] right,” Pitcavage explained, “and they try to spread their message along with more mainstream conservatives.”
Jared Taylor of the website American Renaissance is widely considered a leading figure in this subculture. The site boasts of his undergraduate philosophy degree from Yale, an extensive list of published works, and a past job teaching Japanese at Harvard summer school.
According to Taylor, the problem in America today is that, unlike with minority populations, there is no major organization looking after the interests of white people. His books are branded with titles such as White Identity: Racial Consciousness for the 21st Century and his website states that “race is an important aspect of individual and group identity, that different races build different societies that reflect their natures, and that it is entirely normal for whites (or for people of any other race) to want to be the majority race in their own homeland. If whites permit themselves to become a minority population, they will lose their civilization, their heritage, and even their existence as a distinct people.”
Not unlike Marcus Faella, Taylor rejects the label “white supremacist.”
“I don’t know what that term even means,” he said. “Presumably it signifies someone who wants to rule over other races. It’s a historical term that has no relevance today; in fact to call someone a white supremacist is the equivalent of calling a black person the ‘N-word’. It expresses the deepest possible contempt.”
And yet, Taylor offers a conspiratorial worldview which presents America’s creeping demographic shift as the product of active decision making.
“I want to raise the question of why the United States, which for the vast majority of its existence was a European country with a European majority … Why did it decide to become non-white and why aren’t we allowed to discuss if that was a good thing?” he asked. “Whites are constantly being told to celebrate diversity. And yet, to celebrate diversity is to celebrate their dwindling numbers and declining influence.”
While the organizing ability of these groups is undoubtedly waning, white nationalists and separatists are migrating online to websites like stormfront.org (which, with 40,000 daily visitors, seems to be the most popular website of its kind in the world) and newsaxon.org (the social networking site for the neo-Nazi movement)
“There is a lot of fear of the government and persecution,” explained the National Socialist Movement’s Jeff Schoep. “It keeps people away.”
On this point, the neo-Nazi leader and the former DHS official are in agreement.
“If we didn’t have the internet, I’d venture to say the movement would be pretty small and unable to communicate,” Johnson said. “People can set up a website with no financial investment; there is no publishing cost. The internet also allows you to keep private and remain anonymous. The danger we find ourselves in now is that you have lone wolves, people who are indoctrinated but aren’t on law enforcement radar because they aren’t showing up to Klan rallies.”
Dylann Roof’s actions as a “rogue agent” who took matters into his own hands falls squarely in line with an important, quasi-mythical element common to many extremist subcultures. “They believe that there is some kind of massive conspiracy combined with crushing, invasive power that requires people to act out on their own,” said Brian Levin. “We see this in Al Qaeda and ISIS. And we also see it in the right wing world contained in texts like the Turner Diaries.
“It’s similar to the way people are streaming music rather than buying albums,” he added. “In the same way, they aren’t joining hate groups; they’re streaming hate … This general set of subgroups still exists, but you don’t have to buy into the whole package of each one. Individual sales are not only permissible but also encouraged. As long as someone acts out against a minority, these extremist groups are happy. And as if they don’t have their fingerprints on the crime scene, they’re even happier.”
This piece has been updated to more accurately reflect the beliefs of David Skarbek.