On May 11, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas gave testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee pointing out that the greatest domestic threat facing the United States emanates from, as Garland stated, violent extremists, specifically “those who advocate for the superiority of the white race.”[i] This followed March 2021 testimony of FBI Director Christopher Wray before the Senate Judiciary Committee in which Wray warned of a rapidly growing threat of homegrown violent extremism that law enforcement is scrambling to contain through thousands of investigations. Echoing previous FBI warnings on the threat of white supremacist groups, he added that the domestic terrorism threat has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. He also pointed out that the number of white supremacists and other racially motivated extremists has almost tripled since he became director in 2017.[ii] Likewise, last year, a former head of the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence branch filed a whistleblower complaint in which he accused the department of blocking a report about the threat of violent extremism and described white supremacists as having been “exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent targeted attacks in recent years.”[iii]
Indeed, in 2019 alone the Anti-Defamation League reported that domestic extremists killed “at least 42 people in the United States in 17 separate incidents” with the numbers rising steadily year by year. “This number makes 2019 the sixth deadliest year on record for domestic extremist-related killings since 1970,” the ADL reports, noting that “as is typically the case, the extremist-related murders of 2019 were overwhelmingly (90%) linked to right-wing extremists.”[iv] Moreover, when the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots were analyzed it became clear that an alarmingly significant number of members of both police and military had joined in on attacking our nation’s institutions, many having been exposed to disinformation that led them to conclude that violent action was needed to save our democracy.
Clearly, we need a better understanding of these domestic terrorist groups and movements, how they operate, what their ideologies are, and how they find resonance to recruit. In that vein, the present study was undertaken in which 30 former white supremacists were in-depth interviewed over a period beginning in October 2020 to April 2021 to learn what sorts of motivations and vulnerabilities exist within those who are recruited into these groups and how these individuals begin to believe that violence is heroic and begin embracing hate and at times carrying out or supporting hate crimes. Likewise, it is important not only to know how individuals join and what their experiences are within such groups, but also how they become disillusioned, deradicalize and disengage. While this is an executive summary of the ICSVE report, the full report can be found here.
The information gleaned from this research is needed both for prevention efforts, to stop the radicalization and recruitment that is currently swelling the ranks of white supremacism in many countries, but also to understand how to address and remove the grievances, vulnerabilities and motivations for joining. Likewise, for those already in it’s important to understand what may make them leave white supremacism and how they can be reached and served best to exit and deradicalize. This research, which is ongoing, with the sample continuing to grow, is an attempt to identify many of these issues. The report’s important findings include:
- This particular sample of white supremacists had a much higher level of adverse childhood experiences than to be expected in the general population and were as a result more vulnerable to groups that gave out the expectation of belonging or familial relations and who conferred on new members a sense of purpose and significance. If this result bears out in larger samples, it shows that addressing childhood abuse and neglect is an important measure for preventing recruitment to white supremacism.
- Individuals in this sample who joined white supremacist groups generally were much more motivated by a need for belonging, purpose, dignity and significance rather than from outright hate or even bad experiences with minority and ethnic groups but many over time took on the hateful ideology, and supported and took part in violence as well.
- Many were only peripherally racist or had been raised in systemic versus overtly angry racism, especially those who grew up in the south, which made it easier to buy into white supremacist ideology over time.
- Like cults, white supremacist groups demand ideological and behavioral loyalty from their members and begin to isolate them from dissenting opinions as well as from members of the hated minority groups making it hard for them to have any positive exposures. As isolation and the echo chambers of hate increase, fusion with the ideology and buy-in to conspiracy theories sets in. This underlies the usefulness of measures designed to create positive interactions and dialogue across racial, ethnic and religious divides.
- Individuals in white supremacist groups often see themselves while active in their groups as heroic race warriors acting in self-defense of their “white” group.
- As was also shown in the Capitol Hill riots, some white supremacist groups recruit from both active-duty and retired members of the military and police hoping to benefit from their weaponry, knowledge and skills, which can be imparted to the group, possible access to weapons and for their already developed sense of discipline.
- Similarly, both active-duty and retired military and police recruits serve to lend an air of prestige and legitimacy to such groups, reinforce the idea that the groups are patriotic in nature and these members are also good recruiters as a result.
- As with most violent extremists and terrorist groups, females generally played support roles, were seen as “breeders” and did not hold leadership positions, with some exceptions occurring in the NSM, and there were far fewer women reported upon than men among the ranks of all the groups studied.
- Youth are more easily recruited by white supremacist groups who actively prey upon youth from broken homes and chaotic and painful childhood experiences by offering them a sense of a substitute family, personal significance and positive identity based upon their “whiteness.”
- Recruitment occurs through leafleting and literature as well as face-to-face interactions, but also increasingly relies on Internet-based exposures and online recruitment interactions – with the advent of social media, video chat and texting contain the possibilities of increased intimacy.
- White supremacist groups capitalize on using the mainstream media to sensationalize their demonstrations and egregious actions, which widens their recruitment exposure via the media.
- Gang and prison-based white extremist groups were the most violent and, in some cases, follow a “blood in, blood out” recruitment strategy meaning one can expect to only exit the group by dying.
- Tattooing permanent markers of white supremacy on one’s body is common and makes it more difficult to re-enter society as these marks of hatred are feared and reviled by others. Hence tattoo removal may be an integral part of rehabilitation and re-entry.
- Of those white supremacists who turned to psychotherapy for help exiting and rehabilitating from white supremacy groups, some found their therapists afraid of them and lacking relevant knowledge. Others deeply benefited from addressing both the adverse traumatic experiences that had led them to being vulnerable to join in the first place as well as those they encountered in the group.
- Reciprocal radicalization plays an important role in further radicalizing white supremacists and keeping them involved in their groups. Many referenced violent interactions with Antifa as further radicalizing events that influenced them.
- Doxxing has a serous effect on white supremacists causing some to leave their groups for fear of losing jobs, being arrested, etc. Likewise, the effect of significant others threatening to or actually leaving their white supremacist partners caused some to re-evaluate the worth of staying with their group.
- Spontaneous deradicalization occurs in some when they have positive interactions with members of groups they were taught to hate, thereby causing them cognitive dissonance that for some results in questioning what they were taught.
- Given the isolation and echo chambers that characterize white supremacist groups, disengaging from a hate group often means losing one’s entire group of friends.
- Ebbs and flows of engagement are common as individuals exit and again revert to their groups or move among various groups. Assistance for exiting is an important feature of a successful walking away from white supremacist groups and was mentioned only in some cases as being available.
The individuals in this study make clear that we cannot simply pull violent extremists from our society like weeds and expect no reappearances. This study makes clear that white supremacist recruitment in large part relies on the unmet needs of those who join and to do away with this type of violent extremism we must address the societal problems that made them vulnerable initially. Drug abuse, poverty, family dysfunction, and child maltreatment all contributed to serious vulnerabilities that left the interviewees with deep unmet needs for a sense of meaning, significance, and purpose in their lives. They felt desperate to belong, to be accepted, to be valued, to have their dignity established and to be given a sense of purpose. We also must address the context that made these individuals susceptible to the white supremacist ideology – systemic and casual racism that makes a more violent racist belief system easier to adopt. We can see how many of these people were easily drawn into adopting deeply hateful racist beliefs in exchange for a sense of purpose, significance, dignity and belonging as well as how quickly the same people’s minds were changed by simple interactions in which they were granted kindness and compassion by members of minority groups. There are plenty of valid arguments to be made that it is not Black or Jewish people’s responsibility to reach out to white supremacists, potentially putting themselves in danger, and to humanize themselves, but this is clear evidence that it is a powerful antidote to white supremacist ideologies. Daryl Davis, who is Black and was mentioned by a number of the interviewees, risks his life when he courageously approaches white supremacists to engage in a productive dialogue later to extract many from these dangerous and violent groups.[v] These conversations are worth having, but it is nevertheless evident that efforts to help violent extremists disengage and deradicalize, and efforts to prevent and counter radicalization, must acknowledge violent extremists’ humanity, vulnerability, unmet needs and indeed their normality.
Scholars, practitioners, and law enforcement have made clear that white supremacist violent extremism is one of the greatest threats to American national security, far more so than any other type of violent extremism.[vi] We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in efforts to counter militant jihadist terror – efforts that pathologized terrorists and securitized and alienated entire communities.[vii] Just as experts pushed for efforts that addressed the individual vulnerabilities that made people vulnerable to militant jihadist radicalization and recruitment, so should they push for broad, community-based preventing and countering white supremacist violent extremism efforts that provide young people with real opportunities to gain a sense of significance, belonging, dignity and purpose in prosocial ways and to be exposed to racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. These efforts must be rooted in an understanding that racism and taking part in white supremacism is a natural outgrowth of a confluence of factors, as articulated in this article. As is made clear by the interviewees, bigotry can truly feel like pride and patriotism, and deliver a sense of belonging and purpose as one believes their actions are in support of one’s own people.
Likewise, this research, if the sample is representative of the larger groups which were described by the respondents, makes clear that men are more involved in these groups than women, but that women are also involved and also at times just as violent as the men. As with most violent extremists and terrorist groups, females self-reported and were reported as generally playing support roles, were venerated as “breeders” and did not hold leadership positions, with some exceptions occurring in the NSM, and there were far fewer women reported upon than men among the ranks of all the groups studied. Thus, a gendered approach is necessary and, in some cases, needs to address assaults to young boys’ sense of masculinity and the whole concept of being drawn into toxic masculinity. For instance, one respondent in this sample who had been sexually abused by a male was very committed to the positive sense of identity conferred upon him by being a member of the KKK, a group that makes its members pledge that they are not gay.
Similarly, given that the groups specifically target active-duty and veteran members of military and police, as was also reported in the RAND report,[viii] it is important to assist them with prevention and intervention efforts to thwart these members from joining white supremacism. The groups themselves see military and police joiners as potential weapons trainers for the entire group to help them prepare for race war and as well as potential suppliers of weapons and value them for their already trained sense of discipline. Likewise, military and police members confer an air of legitimacy and patriotism to the group and are also valued for their potential of recruiting others to the group.
Likewise, prevention for youth should be specifically addressed as those who were recruited as youth and those who recruited highlighted that the need for belonging was easily manipulated by white supremacists. In this regard, it is clear that any prevention measures aimed at reducing adverse childhood experiences are likely to also reduce the effectiveness of white supremacists being able to recruit youth.
Most respondents in this sample referenced the extreme polarization currently present in Western society and the role of reciprocal radicalization in further radicalizing white supremacists and keeping them involved in their groups. Many referenced violent interactions with Antifa as further radicalizing events that influenced them. While doxxing and even being attacked by groups like Antifa was referenced as having a very negative effect on those who experienced it, causing some to leave their groups for fear of losing jobs, being arrested, etc., it was also referenced as a warning and reason by those who spoke of it as a reason not to join white supremacism. Likewise, the effect of significant others threatening to or actually leaving their white supremacist partners caused some to re-evaluate the worth of staying with their group. Thus, systems-based approaches to promoting exits can be both creative and useful, although kinder more creative approaches than doxxing are likely more effective and don’t have the side effects of further radicalizing others.
Like cults, white supremacist groups demand ideological and behavioral loyalty from their members and begin to isolate them from dissenting opinions as well as from members of the hated minority groups, making it hard for them to have any positive exposures. As isolation and the echo chambers of hate increase, fusion with the ideology and buy-in to conspiracy theories sets in. This underlies the usefulness of intervention and even prevention measures designed to create positive interactions and dialogue across racial, ethnic and religious divides.
For those who left white supremacism and deradicalized, spontaneously or with the help of a program or some kind of professional help, it was clear that there are ebbs and flows of involvement and that leaving white supremacism is not easily accomplished. In some cases, disillusionment with the group and disappointment with members not remaining loyal to each other or to the ideology served as the opening for beginning to leave. For others, positive interactions with the despised minority groups broke through the echo chamber they were living in and provided opportunities for reevaluating the group and its ideology with clearer objective views. However, exiting white supremacism involved deep personal losses and reckoning with that one had been wrong, and perhaps unjustly violent and harmful to others. Some had indelibly marked their bodies with marks of hate and need help with tattoo cover-up or removal to be able to engage with those outside their group without suffering rejection or fear from general society. While some in this sample reported serious growth accomplished in traditional psychotherapy, others referenced reaching out to formers, and the need for different and perhaps more support for exiting than would be available in traditional psychotherapy offered on a once- or twice-weekly schedule. Some very creative efforts are being undertaken by formers such as TM Garret with CHANGE, who arranges meetings between white supremacists and Jewish and Black people to help them overcome heavily ingrained prejudices and fully deradicalize. TM has also been highly involved in efforts to help former white supremacists remove their tattoos in a campaign aptly named Erasing the Hate. Jeff Schoep and Acacia Dietz of Beyond Barriers have a whole team of formers who intervene in various ways from speaking publicly to responding personally after texts and emails arrive from those wanting to exit their groups. They address ambivalence and fears of leaving by sharing their own stories, providing psycho-educational support, such as that offered by members who can now take their former group’s ideology apart bit by bit, where formerly they were following it loyally. Daryl Davis and Deeyah Khan, both members of minority groups, follow a very unorthodox and brave method of confronting white supremacists face-on by going to talk with them in a kind and challenging manner while sharing their own basic humanity. Others, such as Ed Schofield, make YouTube videos debunking the former ideologies to which they once adhered. Many others are listed on our Escape Hate website. Clearly, there is no one size fits all, and programs like these need to be developed and tested for evidence-based effectiveness for who, when, and how they are useful in facilitating lasting exits and full deradicalization from white supremacism as well as perhaps preventing entry into white supremacism as well. For those in the sample who agreed to feature in a counter narrative video, ICSVE has created the Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project consisting of a growing number of short counter narrative clips of white supremacists speaking out against what they formerly supported.
Recognizing the underlying and unmet needs that lead to radicalization, which often have nothing to do with actual experiences with minority groups, is important to understand to address white supremacists. While the respondents in this sample were taught to hate Jews and blame them for most of society’s problems, hardly any had ever met a Jewish person before joining white supremacy. Thus, our conclusions do not support some theorists’ views that grievances based on negative interactions with minority groups form the seed of discontent leading to white supremacist radicalization. Rather the vulnerabilities existing in these respondents’ lives identified in this research, vulnerabilities coming in many cases from adverse childhood experiences in their families and communities, and their unmet needs which were initially met by white supremacism are vulnerabilities and needs that must be redirected to better answers than provided by violent extremist groups. Understanding this and designing programs based on this knowledge will make efforts at prevention, disengagement, and deradicalization more understanding, compassionate, and, ultimately, more effective.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.
The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) thanks Jeff Schoep and Acacia Dietz of Beyond Barriers and TM Garret of CHANGE for their help in locating subjects as well as advising, translating and giving useful background information for this research.