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The radicalization of white Americans

We need to talk about homegrown extremism too.

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unite the right 2018, dc, charlottesville Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There were many horrible sights and sounds at the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests over the weekend, from Nazi and Ku Klux Klan iconography to chants of “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” But perhaps the most horrifying of all came after the protests were technically over, when a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer sped his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. In just a few seconds, he killed a woman and injured at least 19 others.

For many Americans, the realization came as a shock. This wasn’t supposed to happen in 2017. But it’s true: America has a white supremacist problem.

It’s not just Charlottesville. In another horrific terrorist attack by another young white supremacist, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Generally, more terrorist attacks in the US are perpetrated by right-wing extremists than by Islamists, according to data from Reveal (although, overall, there are still very few terrorist acts in the US).

A chart of domestic terrorism incidents by type.

It raises the question: What is leading these people to such extremes?

I turned to experts on radicalization and terrorism for answers. One thing that surprised me: They consistently said that the processes of radicalization are similar across ideologies, whether the person is a jihadist, a white supremacist, or some other belief system.

“The processes are pretty much the same,” Mary Beth Altier, an expert on radicalization at New York University, told me. “There aren’t really distinctions between joining a group like the KKK and ISIS.”

Now, there are differences between having radical beliefs, joining a radical group, and actually committing violence or terrorism. Someone may hold white supremacist beliefs but may not join the KKK or any other racist group. And someone may be part of a racist group but never engage in racist violence.

In fact, one tough lesson is that there’s no one archetype for extremists. A 2014 study from researchers Paul Gill, John Horgan, and Paige Deckert looked at 119 lone-actor terrorists, and concluded that “[t]here was no uniform profile of lone-actor terrorists.” Basically every major demographic factor except gender (most were male), from age to educational level to marital status, greatly differed.

Still, experts have identified some common contributors to radicalization. Knowing these is crucial to potentially preventing tragic attacks like those in Charlottesville and Charleston: By understanding what puts someone on the path to radicalization, that path can be cut short before it becomes a potentially violent threat.

The common causes of radicalization

One thing experts emphasize: There is no single pathway to radicalization, and there are many contributors to radicalization. But generally, radicalization takes root when someone has some sort of problem — whether about his own life, society at large, or something else entirely — and a radical ideology or group provides an answer to that problem. He may seek out that radical ideology himself, or a group will come to him.

J.M. Berger, an expert on terrorism and author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, explained in a talk that sources of grievances can be broadly broken into two categories: personal issues and social issues.

For personal, he cited economic insecurity, loss of a loved one, exposure to violence, relocation, religious conversion, and some kinds of mental illness.

For social, he cited war and insurgency, rapidly changing demographics, swift changes in civil society or civil rights, watershed changes in communication technology, efforts to foment uncertainty by state actors, and economic upheaval.

KKK members protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chet Strange/Getty Images

Many of these issues are present for some white Americans. Manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas. The opioid epidemic is killing family and friends, and addiction is on the rise. Meanwhile, demographic statistics show that white people will no longer be the majority in the US in a few decades. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media tools are giving white Americans an outlet to voice these concerns. President Donald Trump is giving voice to many people’s uncertainty with his own racist rhetoric.

Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist and author of Strangers in Their Own Land, provided an apt analogy for how many white Americans feel: As they see it, they’re all in a line toward a hill with prosperity at the top. But over the past few years, globalization and income stagnation have caused the line to stop moving. And from their perspective, other groups — black and brown Americans, women — are now cutting in the line, because they’re getting new (and more equal) opportunities through new anti-discrimination laws and policies like affirmative action.

One of the things that makes this so complicated is many of these factors can be present in someone’s life and still not lead to radicalization. And if they do contribute to radicalization, it’s often not just one but multiple factors simultaneously that play a role, often with unique, individualized issues playing a part as well.

So in the case of white Americans, many of them share the concerns noted by Hochschild. But only a very small number of white Americans will become radicalized and, in even rarer situations, commit a violent act as a result.

As Mia Bloom, an expert on radicalization at Georgia State University, told me, “There is no simple explanation.” There are just some broad, common contributors.

How people radicalize themselves

A common thread among people who are radicalized is a lack of purpose in life, which radical views — especially if a person acts on them — can help fill. “People tend to be seeking some meaning in their lives,” Bloom said. “They want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

Peter Bergen, an expert on radicalization at New America, put this bluntly: They’re people we would often consider losers. “If you look at the attackers in this country, that is not a bad description,” Bergen said. “They are often people whose lives aren’t going well.”

He pointed to Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida: “He was going nowhere in life. He was working as a security guard at a golf retirement resort. He had dreams of being a cop; he tried to get in a police academy, and failed. By his first and second wives’ accounts, he had abused both of them. By suddenly quote-unquote becoming a soldier of ISIS, even though he had nothing to do with ISIS, he became the heroic figure that he believed himself to be.”

White supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This applies to white supremacist terrorists as well. James Fields, the man accused of killing a woman in Charlottesville with his car, reportedly had trouble making friends, left the military after only four months of service (“due to a failure to meet training standards”), and until a few months ago lived with his mom. It’s hard to say for sure, but those issues may have contributed to his radicalization.

In other cases, it might not be personal grievances but rather political ones that lead to radicalization. For example, a white man may have concerns about immigration and, specifically, white Americans losing majority status in the coming decades. He also might feel like he can’t bring up these issues in public discourse without being quickly dismissed as racist. So as he sees these issues go unaddressed or become worse, he might dig deeper for any answer — and that might, over time, lead him to extremism.

“Rather than personal meaning, someone might deeply feel the political grievances that are being articulated and are drawn into the movement through that articulation,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me.

Extremist groups can also radicalize people

Groups take advantage of any of these types of issues to try to recruit people — often with downright devious tactics.

Altier gave an example she saw in her research on white supremacists: “I interviewed one fellow. He said they would go into schools and they would put things — racist fliers — in black children’s lockers. The black kids would think it was certain white kids doing it. Although the white kids weren’t actually putting the fliers in, [the black kids] would beat them up. Then the white supremacists would come in and protect them.”

Once they lock someone in, these groups can then foster radicalization. “You may start interacting with a group before you’re radicalized,” Altier explained. “And then because you’re hanging out with those people, you might become radicalized. … Once you’re actually in the group, you’re constantly subjected to the ideology. It’s reinforced by the people you’re around. And you may cut yourself off from other people, so it becomes this self-reinforcing mechanism.”

This is why various extremist groups, from ISIS to white supremacists, look for people who are socially isolated and lack purpose in life. Once these groups reel people in by giving them some sense of purpose, they can then begin to radicalize them.

It’s also one reason, Altier argued, that some people eventually get out of these groups after realizing they don’t really believe in what they’re doing, particularly in cases that involve a mental illness or some other issue that an extremist group took advantage of. Of course, there are plenty of true, hardcore believers in such causes as well, but that’s not always the case.

This only covers some of the contributors to self-radicalization and how groups can take advantage of people to radicalize them. There is still a lot of debate about what leads to radicalization, which common factors are more important, and so on. But the examples above give something of a rough consensus between the experts I spoke to, showing the many kinds of issues that can lead someone to extremist views and acts.

We can prevent radicalization, but it’ll require tough conversations

If radicalization is a result of messaging that extremists deploy to attract people with specific grievances, then one way to prevent radicalization may be to develop countermessaging that addresses those grievances in a way that avoids radicalization.

In the context of white supremacists, part of addressing this may mean expanding the Overton window — meaning what’s acceptable to talk about in public discourse. “The more we put things off limits, the more we empower bad actors who will talk about things other people aren’t willing to,” Gartenstein-Ross said.

For instance, right now it’s difficult for a white man to bring up concerns about changing racial demographics without getting labeled as racist. But maybe his concerns don’t have anything to do with race. He may be concerned that as the group he belongs to loses status, he will as well — economically, socially, and so on. A good response to this could point out that, for example, New York City is very diverse and still people, including white men, lead prosperous lives (and it has a below-average crime rate, contrary to what some dog whistles may suggest).

But if that person never has that kind of discussion because he’s dismissed as a racist, his concerns about changing demographics won’t go away. So he might search for answers outside the mainstream, and that might lead him to an extremist group. That is especially true if he experiences what sociologists call “white fragility”: When white people are asked to answer for potential racism, some become defensive — pushing them into denial that they’ve done anything wrong and, in some cases, hardening their racist attitudes. (Much more on that in a previous piece I wrote about this research.)

A young boy holds a sign that reads, “Smash white supremacy.” Scott Olson/Getty Images

This doesn’t mean people can’t call out racism when it’s in front of them. But it does suggest that public and political discourse about race may need to better address the underlying concerns that lead people to racism while also making it clear that racism is unacceptable. It may not be a comfortable conversation, but it’s potentially necessary.

Gartenstein-Ross pointed to President Donald Trump’s rise as a less extreme example of this. For much of the 2016 election, Trump was considered a long-shot candidate — someone who held far too many extreme, unconventional views to become president. But it may be those same extreme, unconventional views that made him successful; by reflecting the concerns some people have about immigrants and Muslims, he appealed in a way other candidates did not. And the underlying concerns behind those racist views weren’t addressed by Trump’s opponents; instead, they often just dismissed Trump as crude, racist, or insane.

Another example of countermessaging several experts pointed to: Life After Hate. This organization, largely made up of former members of the far-right movement, directly intervenes with radicalized individuals to help them leave extremist organizations and lifestyles.

The organization explains: “Through personal experience and highly unique skill sets, we have developed a sophisticated understanding about what draws individuals to extremist groups and, equally important, why they leave. Compassion is the opposite of judgment and we understand the roles compassion and empathy play in healing individuals and communities.”

Countermessaging can also involve robbing extremist messages of a platform. For example, Twitter can ban people with explicitly racist views, or those who are trolling people of color and getting others to harass them. That makes it much harder, if not impossible, for someone to use that platform to get his message out.

Put the emphasis on preventing violence, not just radicalization

“To me, the issue is not radicalization; the issue is violence,” Bergen said. “There are a lot of people with radical ideas — very stupid ideas — all over the country. But very few of them are going to commit acts of violence.”

To this end, there was one issue that several experts raised: People need to be vigilant in their communities and even families, watching for signs of radicalism and potential violence. And they’ll need to give that information to authorities when necessary.

Consider this chilling statistic, from the 2014 study by Gill, Horgan, and Deckert: “In 64% of cases, family and friends were aware of the individual’s intent to engage in a terrorism-related activity because the offender verbally told them.” (Although right-wing offenders were, compared to others, “less likely to … make verbal statements to friends and family about their intent or beliefs.”)

“These findings suggest that friends, family, and coworkers can play important roles in efforts that seek to prevent or disrupt lone-actor terrorist plots,” the researchers concluded. “In many cases, those aware of the individual’s intent to engage in violence did not report this information to the relevant authorities.”

Or consider the warning signs to the attack in Charlottesville. Based on reports, we now know that Fields, the alleged perpetrator, had a history of violence — leading his own mother to call 911 twice. In one situation, he struck her in the head and put his hands over her mouth. In another, he brandished a 12-inch knife. He also showed a fondness for Adolf Hitler, and apparently was fairly vocal about his racist views. And he told his mom that he would go to a rally for the “alt-right” (an umbrella term for white nationalists) in Charlottesville.

If authorities, family, and peers took the warning signs and threats more seriously in these kinds of cases, the attack could have — although it’s hard to say for certain — been prevented.

Experts readily acknowledge this will be difficult. People don’t, after all, want to report their children, family, or friends to the police. But in some cases, it’s truly necessary.

The silver Dodge Challenger a Nazi sympathizer used to kill a woman and injure 19 others. Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

Part of this involves taking right-wing terrorism more seriously. “It’s a very serious threat, and one that’s often underplayed,” Altier said. “There’s an inherent bias in how we frame Islamist versus far right-wing, white supremacist terrorism.” She pointed to the Charlottesville car attack as an example: “The guy ran people over with a car. If a Muslim deliberately ran people over with a car, immediately it would be a terrorist attack.”

By downplaying far-right violence in this way, society diminishes the sense of urgency that people might otherwise have when they hear of their relatives hinting at acting out violently. And that makes it harder to actually prevent these attacks.

Some experts also suggested addressing root causes of radicalization and terrorism, particularly the socioeconomic, mental health, and other issues that turn into the kinds of grievances that can lead to such extremism. But that gets into fairly weedy discussion about how, exactly, you do that: Do you create a stronger social safety net? More jobs? A better mental health care system? What, exactly, is the best prioritization of resources here?

Other experts are skeptical that solutions to root causes would have much effect. There are, after all, people with jobs and families who end up committing terrorist attacks — just look at the perpetrators of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, who were married and had a child; the husband also held a job. And there are plenty of white supremacists who are not mentally ill, received a good education, and maintain solid jobs — many of them even showed up in Charlottesville. (As my colleague Dylan Matthews explained, there is no good evidence that more jobs can combat racism.)

As with many policy issues, then, adequately confronting radicalization will require a variety of ideas and solutions. Even the best policy approaches won’t stop every attack. But they could, at the very least, help make events like Charlottesville less likely.

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