Randy Blazak, a sociologist who has investigated white supremacist Skinheads, discusses the motivations and psychology of white supremacist youths and the social milieu that helps to produce them.
Randy Blazak, a sociologist at Portland State University in Oregon, has spent eight years studying white supremacist Skinheads in the United States and Europe. Specializing in the connections between conceptions of masculinity, gang crime and hate group youth recruitment, Blazak has emphasized the socioeconomic and subcultural roots of youth hatred in his work.
He has written on various aspects of the racist youth movement and is the co-author of a forthcoming book, Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws, about youth crime and Skinheads. In 1997, he created Oregon Spotlight, a small organization that monitors hate groups and provides resources to courts, parents and youths concerned about hate crime.
The Intelligence Report asked Blazak about his views of the motivations and psychology of white supremacist youths and the social milieu that helps to produce them.
INTELLIGENCE REPORT: How did you begin your research?
BLAZAK: The first thing I did was look for a Skinhead population that I thought was fairly representative of what was happening in the country.
I ended up spending 13 months hanging out with different cliques of Skinheads in Orlando, Fla., including a group called the Youth Corps Skins, which had ties to the Klan. I was going to meetings and drinking beer and slam dancing and doing all those things that Skinheads do.
IR: What attitude did you approach them with?
BLAZAK: An important part of it was seeing them as human beings and not as cartoon figures or caricatures of evil. They were really concerned kids who cared about social justice in a weird, warped sort of way.
On a certain level, I admired these kids because they were 17 years old, politically active and knew all about the changing economy.
They could just as easily have wound up in the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. But it was the right wing that had access to them. It was the Klan and [California neo-Nazi] John Metzger who gave them the analysis.
And of course the analysis was ZOG [many white supremacists believe that the federal government — which they term the "Zionist Occupational Government" (ZOG) — is secretly run by Jews]. It's all a big conspiracy.
IR: Were you surprised by what you found in Orlando?
BLAZAK: My initial theory going into the field turned out to be really off base. I had thought these were a bunch of bullies, or kids who had been bullied and were becoming bullies. What I found was a wide range of personality types.
But the one thing they had in common was this fear that the America they had grown up with — or their image of America — was disappearing. And that image was one that was based on straight white male supremacy. Of course, the big issue that also came in was the fact of economic downward mobility.
A lot of them had parents who had been laid off from the textile mill or downsized or whatever. If they hadn't directly experienced this, they knew other people who had.
They were very cognizant of the fact that the American dream — that everyone will be judged on the merits of their hard work and move up the ladder accordingly — was shrinking, a fairy tale.
Everybody gets excited about the Dow Jones being above 10,000. But another way of looking at that is how well corporate America is downsizing. It's great for the investors, but for the middle class it's often a nightmare.
These kids had this intense frustration. You know, if your dad works at a factory you can still go to college. It may not be Harvard, but you can go to college. Dad gets laid off, and you don't go to college.
Then you hear about affirmative action and what you perceive to be quotas or free rides and all of a sudden you see yourself as having been screwed. And it becomes the fault of the Jewish conspiracy. You could blame the multinational corporations and the economy, but it's much easier to pick a certain scapegoat.
IR: Were objective conditions or subjective perceptions more important in forming the world view of these young people?
BLAZAK: The most hard-core kids had experienced some first- or second-hand downward mobility. But the propaganda around the changing face of the American Dream was just as powerful. The perception was that all white people are moving down, and all minority people are moving up: "The working-class white man is losing out on America, the country that he built." So it becomes a mythology that is based on reality.
When I started doing my research, all the bitching was about "The Cosby Show," which of course was the most popular show on TV at the time. They were like, "Look at what this nigger family has, and look what we have. He's a doctor and she's a lawyer. They have a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. And I live in a trailer park."
There was a study on the impact of the show that found that it had actually hurt race relations because it gave the impression that racism had been solved and that all black people live like that. To me, the show was clearly symbolic of a shift in the perception of race relations in America.
IR: What are some other reasons young people join hate groups?
BLAZAK: There are a number of factors that drive kids into hate groups. You have the kid who's been laid off, the kid whose dad is in the Klan, and just the kid who's pissed off at his parents and because they're left, he's going to go right — the basic motivation of teenage rebellion.
All of these kids can be drawn into the mythical world of hate groups, which is appealing because of its very simplistic world view, especially now with its presence on the Internet. The ideology is so taboo in this politically correct era that it has to be intoxicating to kids.
And obviously, those kids who come from the more desperate situations are going to need something that gives them a sense that there's a reason their lives are so screwed up.
All subcultures offer some type of solution to a problem, whether it's getting money or ending the war or whatever it is. The hate group subculture offers a solution on the media level: "I have a group now, a political voice that speaks for me."
IR: How deep did the racism of these recruits seem to you?
BLAZAK: I think their racism was an excuse or a pose. Ultimately, when they sat down and thought about it, they couldn't defend it. But it gave them an excuse to be macho, to be righteous and take a stand on issues of justice.
One of the big things I saw in Skinhead culture — and I studied both racist and anti-racist Skinheads — was the feeling that not only were they losing their status as economic citizens but they also were losing their gender status, their opportunity to prove their masculinity.
The only difference between racist and anti-racist Skinheads I saw was racism. The anti-racist Skinheads were just as homophobic, just as sexist, and just as violent as the Nazi Skinheads.
IR: Can you give an example of the superficiality of Skinhead racism?
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 flyers 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 flyers 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.