Thursday, July 29, 2004

Hate among the young

One of the most troubling aspects of the recent resurgence of white-supremacist ideology and its attendant hate crimes is the reality that young people -- especially young males -- are now the primary target of recruitment by hate groups.

Even if they never join such groups (which is most often the case), young men are targeted by white-supremacist ideologues specifically because they know they are likely to act out on the belief system spread by the rhetoric they engender, which is often picked up and used by non-members who are nonetheless sympathetic. Hate groups carefully tailor their messages to appeal to young men's sensibilities, running the gamut from inflaming urban and suburban racial tensions in high schools to promoting so-called "racist rock."

Accordingly, it's mostly among young people that we've been seeing this fresh wave of currency for white-supremacist ideology and hate crimes. We may be gradually approaching the day that most of those who monitor right-wing extremism have always dreaded: the day when racism and white supremacism become "hip" and "cool" because they embody the ultimate in rebelliousness.

This concern was raised by a recent Dwight Lewis column in the Tennessean that details the racist material taken from a teenager by his grandmother in Nashville.

It's worth noting how the teen obtained the material:
Jackie told me her grandson got involved in hatred groups such the Klan and neo-Nazis after going to Florida during spring break this year.

"He met a girl in Orlando whose father was said to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan," Jackie said. "She fed on my grandson, and then he started getting all this stuff in the mail.

"When I went to visit him, he started telling about some of it. I said, 'Andy, that's not the way you're supposed to think about people.' And then he said to me, 'If I came home with a black girl, you wouldn't have any problem with it?'

"I said, 'No, Andy, I wouldn't.' "

Jackie said her grandson has been using both of his parents' computers to get in the chat rooms of hate groups.

"I think if he keeps this up, it could lead to trouble for him," Jackie said. "And I think other people ought to know that stuff like this is taking place, that it's out there on computers and kids such as my grandson are having their brains filled with this garbage."

The column references a recent Southern Poverty Law Center report titled "Age of Rage" that details what's happening on the ground:
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.

The article also explores the underlying dynamic of what is attracting young people:
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."

As I've previously explained, one of the chief manifestations of the spread of hate-group ideology is the appearance of hate crimes, largely because so much of white-supremacist rhetoric is specifically intended to inspire such acts, and so many such crimes indeed feature such rhetoric and symbology.

There certainly has been a recent spike in reported hate crimes, though whether that represents a real increase in the crimes remains anyone's guess. And it's important to note that not all of them are being committed by teenagers: two recent cases in Wisconsin -- one in Waukesha and the other in Sturgeon Bay -- were committed mostly by younger men and women in their 20s, but with supporting help from older men.

More typical, however, is a recent hate crime in Chico, California, involved racist grafitti, which is predominantly committed by teenagers. There has also been a recent influx of white-supremacist literature appearing on doorsteps in the Chico area, a clear sign of both increased recruitment activity and the likelihood of increased violence.

Fortunately, community leaders in Chico are doing the right thing. Rather than following the classic Chamber of Commerce approach and trying to sweep the problem under the rug, a local human-rights group organized an anti-hate march in Chico last Tuesday to draw community attention to the problem.

Public demonstrations such as these may on the surface seem trite or "politically correct," but they really are essential steps in sending a signal to would-be perpetrators -- who typically believe they are acting out their community's real values -- that nothing but condemnation and opprobrium await them if they commit such crimes.

Another important step, along the way, is to make hate-crime laws effective. Only a little more than half of all states actually have effective laws on the books, and it should be incumbent on state legislators to make sure they're in place. It's worth noting that a prosecutor in Kentucky recently denounced his state's bias-crime law, remarking that the current statute -- which "states that if hate were determined as a primary factor in the commission of a crime, officials may use that to deny probation or parole" -- is one of the most toothless pieces of law on anyone's books. The same is true of many other states.

Dwight Lewis's column included a passage from John Seigenthaler's introduction to My Life In The Klan, by Jerry Thompson, particularly this:
During placid periods of relative social calm, we tend to ignore or forget the still-segregated mosaic of life in the United States, knowing that our instincts for decency and equity eventually will right the diminished wrongs. In the meantime, we are a tolerant people -- willing to tolerate a modest measure of intolerance. But a few seeds of intolerance take root in extremist fields and grow wild in a climate of unconcern. The environment is ripe for trouble.

The question is, will we have the courage to confront it when it ripens in our own children?

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