Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot nine African Americans at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston last June, was found guilty of 33 separate federal charges last week. He faces the death penalty.
Roof acted alone, but the massacre he committed was not an isolated incident. Other white supremacist shooters from the past five years included Wade Michael Page, who fatally shot six people and wounded four others in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012; and Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., who killed three people at a Jewish Community Center in Kansas in 2014.
News reports have often described Roof and the perpetrators of similar massacres as “self-radicalized” “lone wolves.” But these attacks don’t emerge out of vacuums. Page got involved in neo-Nazi activities at a U.S. Army base. Miller was the leader of the now defunct White Patriot Party; he was first introduced to white supremacist ideas through his father, who gave him a copy of The Thunderbolt, published by National States Rights Party activist Ed Fields.
Robert Futrell, sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and co-author of “American Swastika, Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate,” said the term “self-radicalization” ignores how networks of white supremacist groups create a culture that radicalizes people like Roof.
“There is nothing totally isolated about this. That person enters a culture that people are creating and perpetuating,” Futrell said. “And there is nothing totally ‘self’ or loner about that. So whether he’s reading something on NPI [the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist organization] or CCC [the Council of Conservative Citizens] or any other website, and talking to people and chatting, that is a social and interactive experience.”
How white supremacists become radicalized
As Roof’s manifesto shows, his interest in white supremacist websites began after he learned of the George Zimmerman case. Roof read the CCC website and became concerned about what he believed to be an epidemic of black-on-white crime. This fear of a white genocide radicalized Roof, experts on white supremacist networks say.
There are a lot of avenues for people like Roof to get involved in white supremacist networks, but two of the key ways stand out: normalization, and getting drawn in through other issues, such as anti-immigrant sentiment. Men can be drawn into white supremacist movements through misogynist circles as well.
“What they’re doing is connecting things that are culturally familiar to us and linking them to an ideology that is extreme,” Futrell said, referencing the use of memes — such as the “moon man” meme, and the promotion of a music scene and merchandise to draw in supporters.
“It makes a difference when the form is familiar, because then people might take another step in and then another step in, out of curiosity. It won’t hook most people but it will hook some, and Dylann Roof might be one of those,” Futrell added.
The network of white supremacist groups may be loose, but their ideologies easily reinforce each other. Religiously inflected racist groups, those who call themselves white supremacists, militia members, sovereign citizens, anti-immigration activists, and others express many of the same “conspiratorial anxieties,” Futrell said.
“They’ve been able to intensify extremist theories about racial genocide and the federal government declaring martial law and all of these ideas, so it’s hard to really talk about them as a movement in the old-school sense that you have organizations and they protest,” Futrell said. “Because they’ve been moving back from that for a while.”
Roof proves that ‘cleaned up’ white supremacy still produces violence
“The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens,” Roof wrote in his manifesto.
The Council of Conservative Citizens, founded in the 1980s, is a successor organization to the anti-integration Citizens Councils of America, or “white citizens councils.” As The Atlantic noted last year, it was considered a “more respectable alternative” to the KKK. CCC also has a history of involvement from prominent politicians, such as Trent Lott, a former U.S. Senator (R-MS) and Bob Barr, a Libertarian former Congressman (GA). The group is considered a more sanitized version of other white supremacist groups.
Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said, “The interesting thing about the Dylann Roof radicalization is that the CCC is actually a relatively mild website in the realm of hate sites.”
“People thought, ‘Oh the sort of cleaned-up white nationalism of the Council wouldn’t inspire violence.’”
When it comes to the ideology behind them, however, Beirich doesn’t see any difference between CCC, NPI, and less “mild” white supremacist outlets.
“[Before Roof] people thought, ‘Oh the sort of cleaned up white nationalism of the Council wouldn’t inspire violence,’ but the truth is whether it’s cleaned up guys in suits spouting white supremacist propaganda or websites like Daily Stormer … both kinds of sites have had followers and people who read them that have been moved to commit violent acts,” Beirich said.
Although the CCC tried to distance itself from Roof after the shooting, it didn’t back off of the rhetoric that apparently inspired Roof to take action. NPI — which was founded by Richard Spencer, who also coined the term “alt-right” — has also mentioned genocide on its website. “The Return of the Repressed,” an essay by the late Samuel Francis featured on its research page, holds up the Rwandan genocide as a warning to white people:
At a time when anti-white racial and ethnic groups define themselves in explicitly racial terms, only our own unity and identity as a race will be able to meet their challenge. If and when that challenge should triumph and those enemies come to kill us as the Tutsis were slaughtered in Rwanda or as Robert Mugabe has threatened to do to whites in Zimbabwe, they will do so not because we are “Westerners” or “Americans” or “Christians” or “conservatives” or “liberals,” but because we are white.
Warnings of “white genocide” are what radicalized Roof, Beirich said.
“I think in many ways it is the most damaging [of rhetoric on white supremacist sites]. It’s what got Dylann Roof to go on his shooting spree. It’s what made him view white people as under assault,” Beirich said.
As the National Policy Institute continues its mission to normalize white supremacy — which experts say has been going on for a few years now — there is a danger of underestimating white supremacists’ capacity for violence. The glamorization of Richard Spencer through profiles that describe his “prom-kind good looks,” tweets that present NPI as the “new think tank in town,” and un-examined use of the term “alt-right” all imply that NPI is less harmful to people of color than other white supremacist groups.
Although white supremacist websites may claim that they don’t wish to commit violent acts or force segregation, that’s more of a legal disclaimer to discourage police scrutiny and distance themselves from any “lone wolves” that may interact with their website, Beirich said.
“When you’re talking about genocide of one group, then what’s the response to genocide? It’s violence.”
For example, on Friday, the Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin encouraged harassment of Jewish when people he falsely claimed were harassing Spencer’s mother. Anglin wrote, “NO VIOLENCE OR THREATS OF VIOLENCE OR ANYTHING EVEN CLOSE TO THAT.” In the same post, he included photos, email addresses, and social media accounts of a peace organization in Whitefish, Montana, where Spencer’s mother lives.
Similarly, at an NPI press conference held in Washington DC in November, Spencer said, “We’re against any direct threat of violence.” At the same press conference, Jared Taylor, editor of white supremacist magazine American Renaissance, said, “white supremacy is presumably the desire of whites to rule over other people, and I don’t think there’s anybody in this room who has that desire.”
These statements, while designed to comfort people, accomplish exactly what white supremacists hope to achieve, which is to normalize their ideas by making the groups that support them appear benign.
When asked whether supporters are expected to expected to read between the lines of essays comparing a multicultural society to genocide, Futrell said, “They not only expect it. They know it is happening, absolutely. That is the strategy and it’s an effective one … When you’re talking about genocide of one group, then what’s the response to genocide? It’s violence and putting down the group that you think is committing the genocide. So they know and they expect it to happen, but they’re just are becoming more savvy in how they characterize it.”
The similarities between NPI and CCC are quite clear, Futrell added, because they both trade in “white-collar white supremacy.”
“They’re doing the same thing,” Futrell said. “This is all about sanitizing the kinds of extremist rhetoric by making it appealing to moderate and mainstream conservative whites, by talking about white pride and Eurocentric heritage preservation.”