When the nearly 108-year-old Anti-Defamation League, an organization founded to counter anti-Semitism and other forms of racial, religious, or political bias, runs programs to address the dangers of white supremacy, it shows audiences a graphic representation it calls “The Pyramid of Hate.”
“White supremacist groups exploit people’s vulnerabilities and disillusionments and promote a false sense of relief.”
The Pyramid’s foundation, the League says, is biased attitudes. Left unchallenged, these attitudes can escalate into acts of bigotry, things like bullying, name-calling, or ridicule. From there, they can explode into discriminatory behaviors, then move into hate-motivated violence—arson, assault, desecration of sacred spaces, rape, and murder, among other crimes—until, finally, genocidal policies are developed and implemented.
“Biased behaviors grow in complexity,” Jinnie Spiegler, director of curriculum at the Anti-Defamation League tells The Progressive. “This is why our education programs are working to prepare the next generation to challenge bias in oneself, in others, and in society.”
Christian Picciolini, who was a white supremacist leader from 1988 until 1996, now helps people disengage from hate groups. As founder of the Free Radicals Project, he stresses the importance of preventing people from joining organizations that promote rancor against Jews, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants.
“As a society, we have to find ways to get prejudice out of our system, otherwise we will constantly be cleaning up in the wake of tragedy,” Picciolini says.
Among the most notable of recent tragedies were the January 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol and the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The two offer potent reminders that white supremacists are capable of causing tremendous upheaval, but Picciolini cautions that these well-publicized attacks are just a glimpse into a far less-visible undercurrent in the body politic.
According to the FBI, there were 8,559 reported bias incidents in 2019, including fifty-one murders. That same year, researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch Project documented 940 separate organizations devoted to white supremacy: The Lost Sons of Liberty, The Boogaloo Bois, The Proud Boys, White Lives Matter, White Revolution, The League of the South, the KKK, and VDARE, among them. The majority are in California (eighty-eight), Florida (sixty-seven), New York (forty-four), Pennsylvania (thirty-six), and Texas (sixty-three).
But as chilling as these numbers are to advocates of racial, gender, and economic justice, they tell only part of the story. “Most white supremacists do not belong to organized hate groups, but rather, participate in the white supremacist movement as unaffiliated individuals,” the ADL writes on its website. “Thus, the size of the white supremacist movement is considerably greater than the number of hate groups.”
So, what is their appeal?
“People join these groups or begin adopting the ideology of hate for many reasons,” says Dimitrios Kalantzis, director of communications at Life After Hate, a group founded in 2011 by former white supremacists to support those wishing to exit racist organizations. “Having a hateful ideology is not a prerequisite for joining. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. A lot of factors can fuel people to join: A history of abuse, feelings of shame, trauma. Some people are looking for a community that will accept and protect them. Others may want to participate in a militaristic culture or they may be thrill seekers.”
Picciolini saw this play out in his own life. As an angry, rootless, fourteen-year-old boy who felt neglected by his hard-working immigrant parents, he felt great pride when a noted racist skinhead singled him out and introduced him to white supremacy music—and a movement.
“Everyone who participates has a different set of circumstances that got them where they are. Many, like me, were not raised with racist ideologies, but are searching for an identity. When you are in a crossroads in your life, how you turn out can depend upon who happens to cross your path,” Picciolini says. “White supremacy is a brotherhood bonded by a mission. You’re saving the white race from extinction. This goal gives disempowered people a sense of agency.”
But just as there are many reasons for joining racist groups, both Kalantzis and Picciolini say that there are a multitude of reasons pushing people to leave. “They may have wanted to be politically active, but now realize that they are not actually engaged in political activism,” Kalantzis says. “Violence can also be a wake-up call; they may feel horrified by the insurrections they’ve seen.”
Having friends, community, and purpose make it possible for people to sustain the new life they’ve created, but it can be extremely difficult.
Extrication, however, is typically difficult and some people have been on the receiving end of violence for daring to express dissatisfaction, questioning what they’re doing, or simply voicing their determination to pursue something different.
This has made the work done by groups like Life After Hate and the Free Radicals Project both sensitive and tricky. For Picciolini, it has meant being involved with three distinct constituencies: Members of hate groups who want out, friends and family who want to intervene with a loved one, and former white supremacists who have never told anyone about their past or done anything to repair the damage they caused.
“People call or email Free Radicals and I start by listening, but I ask leading questions,” Picciolini explains. “I don’t debate them about their beliefs, but I try to uncover what I call the potholes in their life, the obstacles that led them to white supremacy in the first place. I am not a therapist, so I suggest they find a therapist in their town or city, but it’s a really big challenge to build a network around the person so that they have a good support system. I see myself as doing triage.”
Picciolini’s current caseload includes about 300 people, and he encourages all of them to hold themselves accountable for the emotional and material trouble they’ve caused. “Nobody gets a free pass,” he says. “We do not whitewash what someone did but instead provide a safe space—virtual now due to the pandemic—for them to heal. Nonetheless, everyone has to take responsibility for the damage they caused, otherwise we’re allowing white privilege to continue unchecked.”
Similarly, Kalantzis says that Life After Hate “tows the line between empathy and accountability.” The group’s EXIT USA program, which has intervened with approximately 500 people since the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, notes the importance of letting people air their grievances, whether real or imagined.
“White supremacist groups exploit people’s vulnerabilities and disillusionments and promote a false sense of relief. They tell them that their problems are caused by immigrants, Jews, people of color, or Democrats in Congress,” Kalantzis says. “As we saw on January 6, this can easily devolve into violence. People wishing to leave have to take ownership of their past. We can then help them create the circumstances for their redemption.”
Finding redemption, however, can be thorny, especially if those who’ve been wronged are reluctant to forgive their tormentors. One of Picciolini’s current clients, a former white supremacist who lost a high-powered corporate position after he was doxed—that is, publicly identifiyed as a hate group member —offers a case in point. Although the man has been seeking work for more than a year, he has been unsuccessful, something Picciolini attributes to background checks that reveal his past affiliation.
“This guy’s whole life fell apart after he was doxed and his home address was published,” Picciolini says. “As he became more self-reflective, he began working with a life coach and also began working out at a boxing gym that had been started by an anti-racist skinhead. He has repeatedly expressed gratitude that he left that life, but he’s still out of work. He has fully disengaged and has worked himself hard, but the world does not want these people back. He is really struggling.”
Having friends, community, and purpose, Kalantzis agrees, make it possible for people to sustain the new life they’ve created, but it can be extremely difficult.
“We believe people are more likely to disengage from hate groups if they have a different community waiting for them,” he says, “so part of our work is to convince the public that these people should not be given up on, that they can take responsibility for their past and change.”