Portland State Sociologist Randy Blazak Discusses Youth and Hate
BLAZAK: I had a conversation with one anti-racist Skinhead who had previously been a very serious Nazi. He had joined up with the Youth Corps Skins, partly because he was really tired of his parents telling him what to do, and was doing some work with the Klan. But the Klan was even more authoritarian.
He said, "It was bad enough that my dad was always telling me to take out the trash. But now the Klan guys were telling me what to do all the time." So he got out of it and became an anti-racist Skinhead — purely to fulfill the need of having some autonomy. The racism was just a vehicle for other emotional needs.
Another example is how often the fliers you see are ancient, they've been copied so many times. The kids just regurgitate the party line. They don't really think about it.
IR: How do you see organized hate groups recruiting young people?
BLAZAK: Well, there's a couple different tracks. One of the more common ones that I found was racist groups going into areas that had experienced some type of economic or racial change. The Klan zoomed right in to my high school when we started receiving more minorities through a desegregation program. What I've seen is that often around a factory layoff there will be a lot of Klan or Skinhead or national socialist recruiting.
Another thing I'm watching right now in the Northwest is how Skinhead groups will have someone in the local school as a contact — usually, it's a little brother or a member — who reports on the graffiti in the bathrooms.
If there's a lot of racist or homophobic graffiti, they know there are a lot of the people there who have the feelings but might not be expressing them openly. So they will target that area with fliers and try to get a foothold.
IR: What do the recruiters do then?
BLAZAK: The next step is to get the kids into the racist music, get them onto the mailing list of a distributor like Resistance Records and start getting them CDs that reflect some of those same things they're writing on the bathroom walls.
This is a whole form of music and kids are always wanting to discover new things. For young people, music is also a strong reinforcement of feelings, because they are in such an inarticulate phase of their lives. It's a way of expressing themselves.
Music also gives the movement legitimacy. It is a subculture just like hip hop is a subculture. When the bands play live, they get the hard-core followers but also the friends of those people and the girlfriends and the curious. It can be very seductive.
IR: What about recruiting in prisons and juvenile detention facilities?
BLAZAK: It's become increasingly important. The majority of the recruitment that we see in the Northwest now is prison recruitment. For instance, Volksfront [a neo-Nazi Skinhead group] has a mailing list of "prisoners of war," and it gives those people a connection. You become a hero in the struggle, a martyr.
You gain a name as a prisoner of war. You have people who write to you, lots of reinforcement, and protection inside the prison. And once you get out, you have a subculture to come home to. In fact, we get waves of Skinhead activity around the release of members of prison hate groups.
Many whites feel they don't have a gang or a group to defend them in prison. We had a fellow here in Portland who was arrested for burning a cross in a black man's yard. I actually got to know him pretty well. What had happened to him was he was in a juvenile detention center, and he was a white kid, and some black kid stabbed him with a fork.
The Aryan Brotherhood [a racist prison gang] showed up right afterward and said, "Stick with us and we'll protect you." He became the founder of Volksfront.
IR: How has multiculturalism affected these young people?
BLAZAK: One of the big issues is that these kids increasingly are born after the civil rights era. Kids born in the '80s don't really have a frame of reference, personal experience of the obvious manifestations of racism.
They didn't see segregation or busing or a lot of the other things that older people grew up with. And some of them feel they're getting multiculturalism forced down their throats in school. They don't get the context of why it's important.
Now, all of a sudden, white kids see white people seeming like the enemies in history. We have all these black and Hispanic faces in our history books, and [minorities] even have their own history books. "And where is white history month?"
That plays to their real simplistic notion of justice and fairness: "If you can do it, I can do it." There's this lack of understanding that we have black history month because in the past we've excised black history from our history books. The context is gone.
IR: Why do you think that is?
BLAZAK: In the '80s, as a society, we stopped talking about race. There was this illusion that the race problem had been solved. I've had students tell me that racism ended — and they'll pinpoint the date, 1965 — and say that black people are just complaining now.
The component of the dialogue that we never got to was the notion of white privilege — how all white people have benefited from racism, the idea that I should be guaranteed a certain status because of my whiteness — or male privilege, or heterosexual privilege. That's a discussion that's been fiercely absent in our dialogue about race.
IR: Since you've been in Portland, you've taken some steps to try to deal with the problems we've discussed. Can you describe your efforts?
BLAZAK: We've formed an organization called Oregon Spotlight. It's basically myself and two former racist Skinheads, Steven Stroud and Scott Britt. We're working on three levels. We do a lot of monitoring of hate groups, focusing on Oregon.
We also work with people who've been convicted of hate crimes, lesser offenses like vandalism, because one of the worst things you can do is put lesser offenders into detention facilities where they get more indoctrinated in racist ideology. We want to change these people.
But the main thing we do is talk to high school kids to try to give them the critical thinking skills to resist recruitment and to recognize that diversity is a lot more rewarding, that racism is inherently irrational. It's such an easy ideology to deconstruct. All you have to do is ask the question, "Who is white?"
For a lot of Nazis, if you don't have blond hair and blue eyes, you've got Gypsy blood, you're a lower rank. "How do you get black people back to Africa if they were born here?" "Should all Irish-Americans go back to Ireland because they're hyphenated Americans as well?" It's all just so silly.
Hate groups appeal to a really simplistic, black-and-white world view. You're either loyal to the white race or you're part of ZOG. "Why is there a black student union and not a white student union? How can that not be racist?"
Well, let's talk about the history of racism in this country. "Why is there gay pride and not straight pride?" Let's talk about the history of homophobia. Conspiracy theories try to explain everything, but reality doesn't work that way. It's just not that simple. There's no one explanation for everything — things are not black-and-white. So we have to help kids with these shades of gray.