Hate crimes and violence around the U.S. show that increasingly young extremists are committing crimes, getting recruited by hate groups — and doing recruiting of their own.
Last July 4, a lesbian couple in Boston took their two children to an Independence Day celebration in a local park — and ran smack into a gang of teenagers who did not appreciate their presence.
After the teens allegedly taunted the family with anti-gay slurs and threats, 15-year-old Anita Santiago allegedly slugged 35-year-old Lisa Craig hard enough to knock her to the ground. According to police reports, Santiago and her fellow gang members then bashed Craig's head against the sidewalk and kicked the woman so brutally that her brain hemorrhaged and she needed more than 200 stitches.
A few hours later, in the blue-collar suburb of Farmingville, N.Y., a Mexican family was startled awake — just in time — by a fire that would tear through their home and reduce it to ashes in minutes. Five boys, ages 15 to 17, had decided to top off their July 4th festivities by torching the house with leftover firecrackers.
Asked why, one of the teens simply told police that "Mexicans live there" — as if that were reason enough.
Welcome to the harsh new world of young-adult hate. Like the stories, photos and profiles in this special section, the Independence Day incidents illustrate some major shifts in the ways American kids are learning to hate — and how they act it out.
The Poison Spreads
Hate among kids has probably never been more widespread — and it doesn't stop with racist graffiti, Confederate flag T-shirts, swastika tattoos and homophobic slurs in high-school hallways.
Studies by hate-crime experts like Jack Levin, director of Northeastern University's Brudnick Center and co-author of the new book, Why We Hate, show that incidents perpetrated by youngsters, which became more frequent from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, "plummeted" during the Clinton years.
But since 9/11, the number of hate crimes by kids has risen sharply — and they appear to be more brutal than ever. "What we're seeing," says Eric Ward, a longtime observer of extremist youth who works at Chicago's Center for New Community, "is a more militant, street-fighter culture."
As both the Boston and Farmingville incidents show, the targets of this militance have multiplied — and so have the perpetrators. After 9 /11, a disproportionate number of the assaults on Muslim-Americans were committed by teenagers. The same appears true for attacks against sexual and gender minorities, Hispanics and the homeless.
And hate activity is no longer the province of white boys, though they're still the main offenders. Not only are more Hispanic and African-American kids getting involved in hate, but more girls as well.
Social ecologist Ronald Huff, a longtime student of both street and racist youth gangs, estimates that in many cities "anywhere from a third to 50% of gang members are girls."
In another demographic shift, the bulk of hate activity now bubbles up in the suburbs — among reasonably well-off youth.
"Twenty years ago, big cities were hotbeds of hate," says Levin. "But as more and more minority families have moved into suburban areas, the prevalence of hate attacks has also increased there — much of it perpetrated by kids."
Where the classic profile of a young hater in the 1980s was a blue-collar juvenile angered by economic displacement, the more typical picture now is a teenager "raised in a middle-class family in a place where almost everyone is a racial rubber-stamp of himself," Levin says.
"These kids aren't prepared for people who are different. They see them as a threat. They come home in the afternoon to their empty houses, log onto the Internet, visit hate sites, chat rooms, bulletin boards and get ideas. "
For kids who've grown up online, there's no longer a need to join large hate groups in order to get those ideas. Neo-Nazi outfits like the National Socialist Movement and Aryan Nations (see Youth Action Corps) still work hard to recruit youngsters into the fold, and concerts featuring adrenaline-fueled "hatecore" music continue to gain popularity and win converts.
But much of the racist activity among kids is springing up from the grassroots, with small groups like the Connecticut White Wolves and Agnostic Neo-Nazis, who draw inspiration from Internet hate sites — and run with it.
"I don't know what's more frightening," says Ward, "kids joining organized hate groups, or the way hate is rising up spontaneously among kids who feel it's OK to terrorize and assault people because of their race or religion or sexual orientation. What does that say about where our society's headed?"
Desperately Seeking Stability
It's an excellent question. Why is juvenile hate spreading in a culture that seems to become more accepting of differences by the day?
There's no shortage of reasons that have been proferred by sociologists and criminologists. Some blame the re-segregation of schools and neighborhoods. Some point to the omnipresence of violence in movies, on TV, and in video games.
Some cite misguided "zero tolerance" policies in schools and communities, where kids are increasingly incarcerated for first offenses; on any given day, well over 100,000 U.S. youth are locked up in places that are "not only schools of violence," says Levin, "but crash courses in hatred."
Then there's the lingering death of the American dream: with downward mobility — rather than upward — as their most likely future direction, more middle-class kids are looking to rebel, and looking for somebody to blame.
No single factor is sufficient to explain the spread of youth hatred. But the upsurge in one of its main manifestations — white supremacy — has inspired a theory developed by sociologists like Pamela Perry and Randy Blazak.
In Perry's 2002 book, Shades of White, she chronicled the racial attitudes of white kids at two contemporary California high schools — one predominantly white, one minority white. She found what Blazak calls "anomie" — French sociologist Emile Durkheim's term for the sense of confusion brought on by rapid social change.
The confusion, in this case, amounts to a basic question: "[W]hat is the new role of whites in the multicultural chorus?"
As Blazak points out in his forthcoming book, Ethnic Envy, "contemporary youth were born in the 1980s and 1990s, long after the frontline civil rights battles." White kids lack a long-term perspective on racial oppression in the U.S. — and end up saying, for instance, that "racism ended in the 1960s" and they're tired of hearing blacks "complaining about it."
They also see Hispanics, lesbians and gay men, Asian-Americans and others embraced and recognized — while straight white culture seems, from their limited vantage points, to be dissed and demonized.
"White kids feel like their racial identity is murky nowadays," says Ward. That's been partly responsible for the outbreak of Confederate flag T-shirts in high schools, both North and South, and also in several efforts — usually snuffed out by administrators — to start Caucasian clubs, mostly in California high schools.
"When they bring it up, they get their hands slapped," Ward says, "and they become pariahs. Pariahs can be dangerous."
Hate groups have tailored their recruitment pitches to these frustrated white kids. A perfect example is Jeff Schoep, "commander" of the National Socialist Movement, who says his group "lets our young people know it's all right to be white, and better yet, something to be proud of."
With whites already a minority in some parts of the U.S., it's a pitch that has become very popular among extremist groups — and among bright, middle-class kids like Logan Brown. The 15-year-old lives in California, the first large American state to become minority white, and he's trying to revive the Aryan Nations Youth Action Corps.
Brown insists that he's nothing like "the stereotypical racist," certainly no "redneck." But he yearns for the long-lost days like "the 1920s when everything was white and beautiful. Minorities were few and far between. Gays weren't out of the closet. We were a white civilized nation."
Brown's longing for simplicity and order — two things that seem hopelessly lost in the America of 2004 — points up one final, age-old reason why kids turn to hate. They want to know why the world seems so messy, so complicated, so out-of-control.
"Most parents, most teachers don't pretend to have easy answers," notes Ward. "Hate groups do. Hate music does. Hate sites do. The racist Skinhead down the street does, too."
Easy answers can be mighty appealing to young people. But when those answers don't mesh with the complicated realities of contemporary life, the result can be anger, frustration, and violence. The following articles offer sad, and instructive, testimony to that.