Essay: The Racist Skinhead Movement

By Randy Blazak

A great irony of the skinhead subculture is that it is rooted in a multiracial style that emerged in London and other English cities. As the 1960s progressed and the hippie generation began to challenge mainstream ideas of war, work and gender, skinheads emerged in working-class London as a more traditional youth group in opposition to the middle-class, flower-power hippies. Working-class white youths began to adopt the look of an Afro-Caribbean youth subculture called "Rude Boy." They listened to Jamaican Ska music, cut their hair close (like the black kids and unlike the hippies), and laced up dockworker boots. In contrast to a hippie style that they viewed as feminine, their look was a tribute to the more masculine working class.

But the bond between working-class whites and working-class blacks deteriorated in the 1970s as a stalling economy began to introduce tensions into British society. An increase in immigration from former colonies such as Pakistan quickly racialized the plight of the falling white worker. Far-right groups, like the British Movement and the National Front (which had 20,000 members by 1974), began fueling skinheads with anti-immigrant rhetoric. "Paki-bashings" broadened to include violent attacks on all immigrant groups, including the very same Afro-Caribbeans who had provided the foundation of skinhead style.

The second half of the 20th century saw plenty of examples of American youth importing the styles of British youth culture, and the skinhead subculture was among them. By the early 1980s, racist skinheads had crossed the ocean as a part of the broader English punk-rock scene. At first, the shaven-headed youths were just a violent part of a growing punk music scene, using swastikas and "sieg heil!" salutes to provoke reaction. But their violent ideology soon moved beyond the clubs.

One early American group was the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH). In the mid-1980s, CASH members were arrested for intimidation, vandalism and assault. Their crimes included an assault on six Latinas and vandalism at three synagogues and numerous Jewish-owned businesses. CASH founder Clark Martell was arrested for assaulting a young woman who was trying to leave the group, painting a swastika and "Race Traitor" on her wall with her own blood.

Groups similar to CASH, such as the Confederate Hammerskins in Dallas, began to appear in cities across the country. At first, they directed most of their violence at progressive members of their own music scene, like peace punks, feminists, "Mods" and anarchists. But soon their target list expanded to include minorities, gays and lesbians, antiwar activists and Jews. By 1988, racist skinhead attacks were so widespread they began to receive national media attention. As frequent guests on "trash TV" programs, the skinheads were both ridiculed and promoted. In November of that year, anti-racists on "The Geraldo Rivera Show" attacked racist skinheads, setting off a televised brawl that ended with the host's nose being broken. The day after the show aired, Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian graduate student, was murdered in Portland by a group of skinheads called East Side White Pride.

The case of East Side White Pride is reflective of the emergence of skinheads as more than just a youth fad. By the 1980s, the influence of traditional extreme-right groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party was on the wane. Skinheads infused these older ideologies with a new, hip, urban flavor. Where the Klan was rural, skinheads were on the front lines of urban racial conflict. Their macho image was appealing to young men with fewer traditional male role models. Adult racist groups began reaching out to young skinheads, seeing them as soldiers in their race war. Prior to Seraw's murder, members of East Side White Pride had been trained in the art of racial confrontation by a group from Fallbrook, Calif., called the White Aryan Resistance (WAR).

After three skinheads were convicted of Seraw's murder, the victim's family, aided by the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a civil suit against WAR's leader, Tom Metzger, and his son, John, leader of the WAR-affiliated Aryan Youth Movement, for inciting the skinheads to murder. (Metzger wrote after the murder that the Portland skinheads had done a "civic duty" in killing the black man.) In 1991, the Seraw family, represented by the SPLC's Morris Dees, won a $12.5 million judgment against the Metzgers, effectively bankrupting WAR.

By the 1990s, racist skinheads occupied many parts of the larger white supremacist counterculture. Some were connected to older racist groups, including the KKK. Others, including the Confederate Hammerskins, were independent. There was a tendency to lump racist skinheads in with a larger white supremacist movement that included neo-Nazis, Klan groups, neo-Confederates and other white nationalists.

At times, the skinheads have seemed to be the foot soldiers of an organized racist movement with a clear agenda of inciting racial conflict. Seemingly taking a cue from the notorious race-war novel The Turner Diaries, they would instigate hate crimes to spark a race war in America. This would allow racist leaders to foment a revolution that would drive Jews, liberals, "race traitors" and other enemies from power.

Racist skinheads appeared at a famous 1992 standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, to jeer federal marshals near the cabin of white supremacist Randy Weaver, whom authorities were trying to arrest on weapons charges. (Weaver's wife and son, along with a U.S. marshal, were killed during the standoff.) Skinheads were regular fixtures at the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, which served as the symbolic headquarters of organized racism in the 1990s and where skinheads often provided security, brandishing weapons in the compound's guard tower. Around the country, racist skinheads were frequently spotted marching alongside the Klan. Revelations about the presence of skinheads in the military sparked widespread concern that the racists were arming their revolution from the inside.

Racist skinheads are more a counterculture rather than a coherent political movement. Indeed, no segment of the white supremacist community is better characterized by disunity than the skinheads. The Hammerskin Nation, which had nearly 30 chapters in the late 1990s, has had conflicts with the Blood & Honour Skins, among others, over who is the true leader of the skinheads. Skinhead groups like Volksfront have had conflicts with unaffiliated skinheads for attracting undue police attention. Skinheads have even attacked members of their own groups for not being "white" enough. In 2007, the skinhead group Vinlander Social Club publicly renounced its affiliation with other groups in the larger racist movement, describing them as "social outcasts and general losers in life."

However, this ragtag subculture of beer-swilling buffoons and macho bar brawlers contains a worrisome trend. Many racist skinheads have adopted the model of "leaderless resistance," popularized by the far-right militias that were active in the 1990s. This approach forgoes well-defined groups (in which skins are "patched" in, meaning they are given tattoos or cloth insignia identifying their affiliation) for nameless bands of racists united only by a common goal of nurturing racial strife in the hopes of societal collapse. Without leaders, they build consensus on Internet discussion groups, quietly developing strategies that may, anonymously, encourage violence and other criminal acts. Many congregate at "Aryan Rock Fests" and Hammerfests, as well as annual meetings of old-guard groups like the Imperial Klans of America to share ideas and war stories. There is no single racist skinhead leader or, for that matter, overall white supremacist leader. But there are followers acting on their own initiative.

Another factor that prevents the skinheads from becoming a unified movement is religion. Racist skinheads tend not to be particularly religious, yet the growth of racist religions has allowed them to justify their hate. After the 9/11 attacks, many Americans learned firsthand how a perversion of Islam could be used as a rationale for massive violence. Domestic racists also have twisted other religions to justify their beliefs. For example, Christian Identity (CI) belief rewrites the Christian Bible as a racist manifesto ending in a prophesized race war.

While not religious proselytizers, CI skinheads cast themselves as a kind of religious warriors in a racial war that they believe will end with the defeat of their enemies. Racial war and related themes are commonly celebrated by tattoos worn by skinheads, and skinheads were among the listeners at Pastor Richard Butler's weekly CI sermons at the Aryan Nations compound until his death in 2004. And now Hammerskins are often found with Biblical passages tattooed on their bodies.

Still, the irony that the pacifist religion of Christ, a Jew, was being perverted into a racist creed was not lost on some white supremacists. Many of them actively despised Christianity in any form, seeing it as a theology of weaklings seeking to turn the other cheek.

Looking for a pre-Christian European faith to claim, some skinheads began moving towards Viking paganism in the 1990s. Known as Asatrú or Odinism, after the Norse god Odin, this religion was based on ancestral worship and heroic battle. As in radical Islam, the way to heaven (Valhalla) was to die in combat for your tribe. Much to the dismay of non-racist Asatrú adherents, Odinists found many followers in prisons, where the faith is recognized as a legitimate religion. Racist skinhead groups, like Volksfront, used Odinism to refashion themselves as "cultural heritage organizations," not hate groups.

What these religions have in common is a fanatical belief in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They claim there is overwhelming evidence that the American political system and culture is controlled by a small cabal of Jews who want to destroy the white race. Everything from national elections and affirmative action to rap music and Mexican restaurants are seen as part of an evil plot. Young skinheads, religious or not, are easily pulled into this simplistic worldview and given a justification for hate.

Adding to the disunity of the skinhead subculture are SHARPS — Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. Some youths adopting the skinhead style are either not racist or actively anti-racist. Since the roots of the skinhead style were found among the West Indian immigrants of London, SHARPS believe that racist skinheads (or "boneheads," as they call them) have hijacked the working-class style and perverted it. Their response is to confront racists directly. Violence between racist and anti-racist skinheads has included the murder of both SHARPs and racist skinheads.

The skinheads have become a part of the long national history of racist terrorism that was pioneered by the original Klan after the Civil War. Hate crimes serve to terrorize large communities. All Americans were terrorized by the 9/11 attacks; on a smaller scale, a cross-burning or a gay-bashing also sends a frightening message to a larger group. For instance, the 1999 murder spree of Benjamin Smith, a skinhead connected to the racist World Church of the Creator, created a wave of fear in the Midwest. (Smith killed a black former Northwestern University basketball coach and a Korean doctoral student and wounded nine others in Indiana and Illinois.) Crimes like Smith's allow the very presence of skinheads to strike fear into the minds of potential targets. For many groups, the simple presence of a crew of skinheads in the area means the threat of attack is a constant possibility. This is the power of symbolic terrorism that racist skinheads hold.

The presence of racist skinheads in America's prisons and jails is a growing problem. The first wave of that growth was spurred by the Aryan Brotherhood, a racist inmate gang that grew out of California's desegregated prisons in the 1960s. Other skinhead prison gangs now include the Nazi Low Riders, Public Enemy No. 1, European Kindred, Aryan Circle and the Silent Aryan Warriors.

These groups often recruit vulnerable white inmates by offering to protect them against minority gangs. In exchange, they receive loyalty to the racist cause and a community outside the prison that will support them upon release. In addition, hate criminals convicted of "heroic acts" receive much adulation. This can include being listed as an "Aryan Prisoner of War" on skinhead websites and receiving supportive mail, and even being able to publish online. Jake Laskey, a Volksfront official and racist skinhead incarcerated after throwing rocks through a synagogue window, regularly publishes on the racist website, Nationalist.org.

Since 95 percent of all prisoners are ultimately released, prison skinhead gangs have now become a problem on the streets as well as in the prisons. The crimes of the Nazi Low Riders in California, for instance, include drug trafficking, identity theft, hate crimes and murder.

The racist skinhead phenomenon spread across Europe in the 1990s. As the Soviet Union and communism collapsed, Eastern European nations had their first tastes of freedom. Expectations were high that Western lifestyles would replace dreary communism. But with the collapse of the Soviet economy came economic depression. European racists blamed immigrants. In Slovakia, skinheads harassed Roma (Gypsies) and foreign asylum-seekers. In the Balkan region, Serbian skinheads attacked Muslims and Croats. In the former East Germany, gangs of skinheads set fire to immigrant housing. Just in 1992, there were over 2,500 racist attacks, including 697 arsons and 17 murders, committed by neo-Nazi skinheads in Germany. As the post-communist economy has grown, such attacks have declined. More recently, Russia has emerged as the new European front for racist skinhead activity.

Members of the racist right were among the early pioneers of online communications. The Internet now connects haters around the globe. Klan rallies and skinhead meetings were once clandestine affairs. Now a German teen can download Nazi flyers from an American website. The Internet has long been a tool for recruiting young skinheads who do not live near traditional areas of activity. Discussion boards on websites like Stormfront and Hammerskin Nation help young skinheads to adopt party-line interpretations of current events, share interests, and even find mates. Networking sites like MySpace and video sites like YouTube let skinheads spread their racism. The Internet has also allowed skinheads to promote their racist music.

Hate rock, a music form ironically with black blues roots, emerged with the British band Skrewdriver during the punk rock explosion of the late 1970s. Skrewdriver's racist lyrics found an international audience with the 1984 album "Hail the New Dawn," which became required listening for all skinheads.

Soon, skinhead bands appeared in the United States. Groups like Rahowa (short for Racial Holy War), Brutal Attack and Max Resist began to hold larger concerts, and some toured in Europe. Record labels like Panzerfaust, Final Stand and Resistance Records (a one-time powerhouse label built up by the late Turner Diaries author William Pierce, who also founded and long led the neo-Nazi National Alliance) delivered vinyl, cassettes, CDs, and now MP3s to skinheads and other racists around the world. The sales fund white supremacist groups — the National Alliance, for instance, once grossed nearly $1 million a year in music sales and membership dues — but more important is the spreading of a white-power rhetoric to young disaffected whites.

Hate rock, or white power music, has been very successful at keeping the racist skinhead culture vibrant. American skinhead bands have large audiences as far away as Croatia. Hate rock concerts are notable for the violence that surrounds them, leading many bands to be banned from particular venues and even countries. The hate genre has also expanded to include the subgenres of Black Metal (a form of heavy metal music), country, Celtic, and folk.

After more than two decades on the racist scene, American skinheads have evolved. Most have grown out of organized racism. But others have become elders of the racist subculture. Some skinhead groups have attempted to recast themselves as European heritage or white civil rights groups, but they always seem to return to their violent traditions. National and international skinhead groups, like the Hammerskins, have looked for ways into mainstream political debates, like the ones on gay marriage and illegal immigration.

In the 2000s, smaller groups have begun to compete with the more established groups. The Keystone State Skins (Pennsylvania), the Vinlander Skins (Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Missouri and Arizona), and the Golden State Skins (California) pull members away from larger groups. In 2005, the Vinlanders hosted its first Blood & Honour USA Council to unite smaller groups. In 2007, Volksfront attempted to unite with the Hammerskins to consolidate power in the South and West. Neither alliance lasted long. In 2008, the SPLC counted 98 racist skinhead groups in the United States. Given their mobile and fluid nature, a definitive count of racist skinheads is extremely difficult.

Contemporary skinheads are diverse. Some do not claim membership in any groups. Some have rejected the shaven head, steel-toed-boot look in an attempt to blend in. Others have turned increasingly to a professional life of crime — racist skinheads today are as likely to be involved in the methamphetamine trade as attacking immigrants and vandalizing synagogues. All in all, the supposed movement has shown no sign of stopping.

Because of their dramatic nature, skinheads have become a common topic in film. Films about skinheads range from the cartoonish to the sympathetic and include "Skinheads: The Second Coming of Hate" (1989), "Romper Stomper" (1992), "American History X" (1998), "The Believer" (2001) and "This Is England" (2007). These films have served to provide some insight into the skinhead psyche.

While federal civil right statutes and state hate crime laws have helped to get skinhead terrorists off the streets, they often end up in prison hate groups that are better organized than those on the outside. A broader approach to combating skinhead hate requires looking at the root causes of the decision to become a racist. Many skinheads are victims themselves — of abusive families, sexual repression, violent bullies, and economic downsizing. They have been given a simplistic ideology that blames the usual scapegoats for their personal problems.

The terroristic presence of racist skinheads continues to present a problem in American culture, a culture built on the strength of diversity. As skinheads focus on mainstream anxieties about immigration, the economy, and changing social roles, many young people will continue to see them as presenting a solution to society's problems. They remind us how far we still have to go. 

Randy Blazak is an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University in Oregon whose research interests include white supremacists and gangs.