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What attracts young people to white supremacy?

In the wake of news reports that Dylann Roof, the suspect in last week's horrific massacre at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, had become attracted to the ideology of white supremacy, I decided to make a visit, albeit a virtual one, to that world.

I came away shaken by the experience.

General impressions of the hate sites

Neo-Nazi protestors organized by the National Socialist Movement
Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Scott Olson

Neo-Nazi protestors organized by the National Socialist Movement demonstrate near where the grand opening ceremonies were held for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center April 19, 2009 in Skokie, Illinois. This is a preliminary analysis, based on visits to seven sites, a couple of them difficult to track down. I'll write later with more detail. For now, I want to record some general impressions. Note that there are no links, no site names and no direct quotes here. I am pretty nearly a First Amendment absolutist, so I don't believe the supremacists' message should be squelched. That doesn't mean it's my job to make their message easy to find.

I recognize that there are monitoring groups that visit these sites routinely, but I didn't want to read someone else's analysis. I wanted to see for myself.

A message based on grievance, not supremacy

A man displays a Ku Klux Klan cross
Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Spencer Platt

A man displays a Ku Klux Klan cross tattooed onto his arm during the 11th Annual Nathan Bedford Forrest Birthday march held by the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan July 11, 2009 in Pulaski, Tennessee. The first thing to understand is that most of the sites frame their welcome to visitors not in terms of supremacy but in terms of grievance. To those who are suffering, they offer succor. To those who are outcasts, they offer an explanation: The white race is being oppressed, and is in danger of extinction. Those feelings of being left out, they suggest, are being intentionally fomented. Every other race is encouraged to celebrate itself. Whites are encouraged only to feel guilty about themselves. They are blamed, the sites say, for all the world's ills.

A message so framed might prove attractive to an angry and frustrated young white loner. It's not his fault that he's feeling isolated and hopeless, his new friends tell him. Those feelings are being imposed upon him by others. And those others, the new recruit quickly learns, should be considered the enemy.

Here, however, things get a little murkier. Although there is much talk of war, the means are not specified. And the enemy is not always explicitly named. White liberals often come in for more vituperation than members of other races. Many of the supremacist sites insist, on their home pages, that they are not supremacist at all. They simply want for whites the same right to racial pride that others take for granted. And it isn't their black and brown countrymen who are denying them this right --- it's other whites, the liberals.

A member of the Ku Klux Klan salutes
Photo Credit: Getty Images/ William Thomas Cain

A member of the Ku Klux Klan salutes during American Nazi Party rally at Valley Forge National Park September 25, 2004 in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. To the struggling, isolated, unhappy young mind, it's probably like being welcomed into a self-help group. And like every self-help group, they offer a way out: Let's love each other and escape the people who are dragging us down.

But then you read on, and here comes the hate. You discover that they see whites as victims of aggression --- particularly black aggression. Some of the posts are about racial preferences --- that job you lost, that college that didn't admit you --- but most are about crime. They trumpet questionable statistics about how much more likely it is that a black person will kill or assault a white person than the other way around. At the same time, immigrants (presumably nonwhite) are taking jobs away from white Americans, and schools (instructed by white liberals) are teaching children the histories of every nonwhite race.

Probe more deeply into the forums, and you will find all the racist nonsense that the Charleston shooter was allegedly shouting, right down to the claim that black men are routinely raping white women. You don't have to search hard to find female commentators who say they joined up precisely because they had been victims of assaults by black perpetrators.

'Nationalists,' not white supremacists

A member of the Ku Klux Klan displays
Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Spencer Platt

A member of the Ku Klux Klan displays a ring with the confederate flag during the 11th Annual Nathan Bedford Forrest Birthday march July 11, 2009 in Pulaski, Tennessee. The organizations that run these sites insist that they are not supremacists but nationalists, and one common solution to the problems they see is the establishment of a separate white nation. This nation would be based on pride, not racism. It wouldn't undertake foreign wars or conquests, and would have no reluctance to trade with nations of other colors. But it would be free from the aggressions of nonwhites against whites.

The details of the separate white nation are hotly debated. African-Americans would be excluded. Some say that Asians would be welcome to join, because they are not anti-white aggressors. Others cite old World War II atrocities and say no. Some insist that Latinos, too, could come along, provided that they are not Hispanic supremacists.

Or maybe Latinos wouldn't be welcome. A poster on one discussion thread identified himself as a white Puerto Rican of European ancestry, and asked whether he could join the white side in the race war that he and many others seem to think is right around the corner. The thread exploded in vituperation, with many discussants describing him as "the enemy" and others suggesting that he was a liar or a plant.

So the answer to his question would seem to be no.

Neither left nor right, but above the political fray

Jerald O'Brien gives a salute during the World
Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Jerome Pollos

Jerald O'Brien gives a salute during the World Congress Parade held in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on July 17, 2004. At the same time, although the sites are usually described by the monitoring groups as far right (and at least one of them seems proudly to accept the title paleo-conservative), their politics are complicated. Mostly, the groups like to describe themselves as neither of the left nor of the right, but above the political fray.

The sites often link to commentary by mainstream conservative activists, but not conservatives alone. On foreign policy, the links are more likely to be to liberals who think the U.S. bends too far toward Israel in the Middle East.

Indeed, it is particularly instructive to examine the approach to Israel (and by extension to Jews, because the sites do not seem to draw a clear distinction). Zionists, we are told, have too much power in U.S. foreign policy. The Obama administration is shot through with them. (There are passages aplenty where writers seem to hate President Barack Obama more for what they see as his pro-Israel tilt than for the color of his skin.) The U.S. Zionists, for example, are in charge of negotiating the Iran deal, and are taking their orders from Israel --- which, by the way, they describe as a genocidal state intent on destroying its peaceful Arab neighbors.

Then there is the economy. Globalization and profit-seeking multinational corporations are destroying the middle class. Economic policies are made by and for the big banks --- which, incidentally, are also run by and for greedy Jews. As is the mass media.

The point is that the enemies of the white race are everywhere.

A message for disaffected loners

Members of a white supremacist group, the National
Photo Credit: Getty Images/ David McNew

Members of a white supremacist group, the National Socialist Movement, hold swastika flags at the NSM's anti-illegal immigration rally near a Home Depot store on October 24, 2009 in Riverside, California. All of this frightening nonsense could well prove attractive to the right kind of disaffected loner. The supremacists offer someone to love and someone to hate, along with an assurance that the problem isn't in you, but in "them." Whether that's what drew Dylann Roof we'll eventually find out.

Very likely it's drawing other unhappy young people even as you read these words.

Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.

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