From Boots to Suits: Countering a New Wave of White Supremacist Organizing

I recently spoke with a “former,” a man named Graham Finochio, who broke away from a white supremacist gang with the help of a program called Success Stories. We talked while waiting for an event to begin wherein we would be two of five panelists. The panel was to include myself, Graham, Monica Lomeli (a Senior Intergroup Relations Specialist for Los Angeles County), Thandiwe Abdullah (founder Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles Youth Vanguard), and Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Nefesh.

Graham and I talked about what he had learned about privilege, intersectionality, and toxic masculinity through the Success Stories program. Prompted by Rabbi Susan, who sat between the two of us, he shared his thought process about whether or not he would remove the tattoos that cover both his arms (full sleeves) and his torso. Rabbi Susan responded by gently informing Graham how hard it was for her to sit next to the Nazi insignias and dates glorifying WWII just inches from her own arm. My stomach dropped as I considered what she must have been feeling. This moment played out on Sunday afternoon, August 25th, in a venue that had been a synagogue, and then a church, and then a synagogue once again.

This was the first time I would speak to the general public about white nationalism in the U.S. The event was titled: From Boots to Suits: Countering a New Wave of White Supremacist Organizing. It was the most recent Courage Against Racism event produced by White People 4 Black Lives (WP4BL) as a fundraiser for BLM-LA. I was invited to participate because the organizers knew I’d spent the last two years learning about the recruitment tactics of white nationalists and I’ve been a long-time member of the AWARE-LA community, of which WP4BL is a part.

The event began with a screening of the Frontline documentary, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, which was followed by the panel. While describing the full scope of the panel is beyond the intent of this post, it would be wrong for me to skip directly to my remarks without expressing my deepest appreciation to those who spoke from the stage. I was particularly affected by Thandiwe Abdullah, the young BLM organizer who spoke through tears of the direct harm she has experienced from white liberal women who think they’re beyond enacting white supremacy, yet continue to negatively impact Black people every day. It feels important to name this because while my focus at the event was on raising awareness about white nationalists’ recruitment, Thandiwe gave voice to the connecting threads that run between conscious and unconscious racism and systems of white domination. She also asked us (white women) to stop feeling guilty about our ancestral lineage, but instead turn our attention toward being active in the pursuit of justice for Black lives.

My turn to speak came rather late in the program, so I sat on the stage nervously for quite some time, aware that some of what I was about to say would be controversial, particularly my comments about white identity. Even now, as I write this introduction after the event, I am not positive it was the right venue for the entirety of the message. I’d been encouraged, however, by a multi-racial group of colleagues who have asked me to be more courageous in sharing my thinking. For this reason, I did speak my truth. And, I still wonder and question, because that is also the right thing to do.

What follows are the remarks I offered, although I’ve added a number of additions (*within parentheticals and at the end) so you know some of what I would have said if time had not been a constraint.

This is what I read aloud:

How has white supremacist recruitment evolved recently?

An important thing to name is that there is a particular brand of white supremacy behind the mass shootings in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Poway, Gilroy, and El Paso, and it involves a very specific ideology. I’m sorry I need to say this out loud, but it helps explain the recruitment strategies operating today. So, for those of you for whom this will be triggering, I apologize.

White nationalism, while under the umbrella of white supremacy, is largely driven by the idea that Jews are using multiculturalism and a liberal agenda to increase immigration and miscegenation to lower the white birth rate. White nationalists believe this will lead to white genocide or “The Great Replacement.” According to this narrative, white people are under attack and need to fight for their preservation. Jewish people are considered the primary enemy, with Black and LGBTQ folks not far behind. The ultimate goal is to create a white ethno-state. The link to the recent mass shootings is that white nationalists believe inciting a “race war” through violence is the way to achieve this white ethno-state.

This ideology isn’t new, and neither is the primary and most essential part of their recruitment. They still actively target young white males who lack a sense of power, self-esteem, and community. After they’ve provided them with a sense of belonging, pride, and voice, they sell themselves as offering these young men a chance to act heroically, to be part of a movement larger than themselves. As they always have, they prey upon young people’s trauma and suffering in order to manipulate them into hurting others.

There are four things that are new, however.

First, their use of language has shifted. Many of the groups have realized that overtly racist messages don’t go over well with the mainstream public and this was hurting their expansion efforts. So they shifted their public-facing rhetoric.

Those who target college students argue that they have no hatred for any other group. They say they simply believe all groups would be better off if they were separated. And much of the propaganda focuses on white pride and on preserving Western culture and European lineage.

Second, and this one really got my attention. These groups are explicitly targeting people for recruitment who start sentences with, “I’m not racist, but….” This blew me away because it made me reflect on how often white anti-racist eyeballs roll back into our heads when we hear this phrase. It seems to me like we may want to re-think our attitude and see these “I’m not racist, but…” folks as susceptible targets who need to be inoculated against the vitriol and coaxed toward our side. I mean, at least they care enough to NOT want to be seen as racist. That is a starting point we may need to value a bit more.

A third new thing is that we can now categorize the various groups into two different types: the “boots” and the “suits.” The boots are those who prepare for violence, anticipating the race war they are sure is coming. The suits, on the other hand, may hold many of the same views, but their approach is more intellectual and they try to appear upstanding by using reasoned arguments that play well with mainstream audiences who are confused and conflicted about the economic and cultural changes occurring in the U.S.

A fourth new thing is that the ranks of white nationalists are growing extremely rapidly because of their ability to recruit online.

Extensive reporting from the SPLC indicates that “there are two common pathways into the online hate world, either through participation in the racist and misogynistic online trolling culture of 4chan and its offshoots, or through the variety of pseudo-academic ‘race realism’ that couches racism in the language of science.”

“The ultimate goal for the most extreme white supremacist websites, such as The Right Stuff and the Daily Stormer, is to shift what lies within the respectable terms of political debate.” And whether intentionally or not, Fox News and the current administration are pushing this agenda farther and faster than the white nationalists ever thought possible.

(*Most of the information offered in this section and the next is more fully described in Swastikas in the Bathroom: Connecting the Dots Between White Supremacy, White Nationalism, the Alt-Right and the Light-Right, which also includes links to the original source material.)

So, how does online recruitment actually work?

“A common way people get pulled in is when someone lands on a white supremacist site where they experience some kind of resonance. Social media algorithms are a huge part of this process. If a user chooses something that leans conservative, the next suggested website or YouTube video will be more of the same, often a more extreme version. There may be some things the person doesn’t agree with, but the more time spent on the sites, the more normal those ideas become. Once entered into the ecosystem, the reality begins to get shaped in a wholly different way. They call the moment when someone wakes up into this new reality, being ‘red pilled’.“ And, yes, it is a Matrix reference.

In terms of active online recruitment efforts, there are a variety of strategies used:

One — They create slick videos, posted on YouTube, that are almost like music videos or movie trailers. Some of them offer take-downs of social justice concepts. Others provide an underlying message [of] “join our cause, you will be a part of our family and your life will have meaning.” Because of the algorithms, it doesn’t take very long for someone searching for anti-racist terms to end up watching these far-right videos. When I tried it, it took just a few clicks.

TwoThey go into mental health forums to search for kids who are struggling with depression.

Three — They create one-to-one connections within chat rooms on multi-player gaming sites, like Fortnite.

Four — They drop hints to people who are part of anti-feminist groups like the pick-up artists, incels, Men Going Their Own Way, and Proud Boys. One reporter writes, “They use a range of tactics to confuse and spread false and misleading information. And what’s important about this is that, it’s sexism, not racist rhetoric, that leads most of the young men to join initially.”

“The…indoctrination process starts out looking like a healthy way for men to socialize” but then radicalizes white men by catering to their sexual frustration and isolation.” In the end, “many young men join these online groups in hopes of learning tips to pick up girls. But, they end up believing that it is “up to them to save Western civilization.”

Looking at all of this, what is clear to me is that there are two very different and dangerous trend lines. One is that the “boots” are radicalizing white suburban kids from middle class backgrounds and successfully convincing them to kill people. Take for example, the shooting in Poway that happened this last April. The shooter was a nursing student at Cal State San Marcos who wrote that he spent only a year and a half online before deciding to act and that he couldn’t have imagined himself doing it just six months before.

Second, the “suits” representing groups like Vanguard America and the American Identity Movement (formerly Identity Evropa, they just rebranded this spring), are extremely successful in recruiting college-aged kids and are actively working to infiltrate the GOP political establishment. They won’t admit it publicly, but white supremacists are already an active part of Turning Point U.S.A., the largest conservative student group on college campuses today.

What does this mean for anti-racist organizing?

Given all of this, I have to be honest and tell you that I don’t think white anti-racist people have been paying enough attention to how savvy and effective white nationalists are at taking advantage of the shame that continues to be a foundation for many white anti-racists’ approach to conversations about our racial identity. White nationalists are paying close attention and they are using our messaging as a weapon.

To be more specific, please listen to what I’m about to read with an ear toward what it would sound like to you if you were a white adolescent who is trying to form your sense of self. You don’t feel particularly embraced by, or invested in, U.S. culture as it exists right now, and you don’t know the history of racial oppression in the U.S. because your parents and teachers aren’t making sure you know it. You also don’t understand whiteness as a system of dominance. To you, whiteness is just a description of what you happen to be.

Now, listen to the messages you are likely to run across from white anti-racists online or on social media:

1) There is no “us vs. them” with “us” being decent, non-racist white people and “them” being bad racist people. We’re all racists, enacting racism all the time.

2) We need to stop worrying about whether or not we are “good” people. No matter what we do, the idea of being a “good” white person is a lost cause.

3) We’re all perpetuating white supremacy culture. Every one of us is complicit. There’s no escape from this reality, as long as we’re white.

4) Our intentions don’t matter. Our impact is what counts, and our impact is generally harmful because we’re white, and therefore racist.

5) We should be working to dismantle whiteness, undo whiteness, disrupt whiteness. Pick your verb. But the message is that whiteness is bad, it needs to be eliminated, and we should focus on being less white.

White nationalists recognize the shame embedded in this messaging and are using it to leverage their recruitment with their own claim that anti-racism is anti-white. Let’s be honest, to a white person outside the fold of anti-racism, it sounds pretty bad. It certainly isn’t welcoming or inviting. On the face of it, it doesn’t sound like there’s room for a white kid to build a sense of positive esteem.

Please know, like many of you, I understand the deeper analysis and value of each of the messages, what they really are intended to convey. And I know that what I’ve done with this list might feel like a mischaracterization of the true meaning. (*See below for different framing.) What I’m trying to name, though, is that uninformed white people coming across these messages online feel pushed away.

My argument is that in the face of all of this, it’s white people’s work to articulate more strongly and publicly a narrative that offers a compelling, healthy, positive, anti-racist white identity that connects us to movements of collective liberation. We need to inspire hope and purpose within confused white people who are new to these ideas. We need to let them see how they can feel good about plugging in and becoming part of an anti-racist community that will appreciate their voice and unique gifts (because all of us, even white boys, have unique gifts). If we don’t do this, our messaging will continue to be effectively hijacked, and white kids will remain susceptible to white nationalists who are out there distributing flyers on college campuses that simply say, “it’s okay to be white.”

End of presentation.

What I wish I could have also said…

About racial identity — The issue of white racial identity is one worth arguing over, and I’ve spent years engaged in the discussion. Many people I know and love have landed on the side of it being far better to follow the, quite understandable, logic that because race is an invented concept meant to divide people, and whiteness was created specifically as part of a system to oppress people of color, then it’s best for us to build our identity on something, anything, that provides a more solid and healing ground upon which to stand. In this approach, the suggestion put forward is that we should stop identifying as white.

…I sometimes feel pulled in this direction myself. I feel the truth in it. And then I observe the consequences of what happens when we do not move through the racial identity process. It’s generally not pretty. We tend to beat up on ourselves, as well as each other, and we distance ourselves from those who aren’t “on board” with our analysis. Our investment in empathy is often reduced, and this limits our effectiveness in bringing more white people into anti-racism.

…Ultimately, I believe that if we’re going to dismantle whiteness, we need to understand not only the economic and political construction of race, but the social construction as well, and this involves the identity development process.

…It’s been my experience working with AWARE-LA for the last 15 years, that AWARE-LA’s model of creating a healthy anti-racist white identity has been quite useful in helping people build and enact a more effective anti-racist practice, one that pulls more white people toward investing in racial justice. It’s this outcome that is my primary concern. — Please notice that I said anti-racist white identity. I always use the anti-racist part. It is essential that I distinguish that the intent is not to replicate the same, old dominant form of white identity.

About that list — In my experience, those who bypass the inner, healing work needed to resolve identity questions are more likely to speak and act in ways that betray unresolved guilt and shame, which leads to conveying those unfortunate and muddled messages listed in the presentation. What I know to be true is that healthy, white anti-racist people become skillful at imparting messages that both tell the truth about our racism and uplift people at the same time. This is what I hear within my anti-racist white community:

1) Each of us has been conditioned by a system steeped in racism, and each of us has the opportunity to join a community of people who recognize this and collectively work against it.

2) We can be good people and conditioned by racism at the same time. It’s a both/and kind of thing.

3) We’ve inherited a society that has had white supremacy baked into its systems and cultural norms for so long that none of us is immune. It isn’t our fault personally. What we are responsible for is choosing to take action to change things.

4) When we are told we’ve hurt someone, we often say our behavior could not possibly be connected to racism because we didn’t intend it that way. In doing this, we fail to recognize the harm done. If we focus on the impact instead, we learn something new and avoid harming someone in the future.

5) Whiteness is a system of dominance. Whiteness is not white people. The effort to undo whiteness is about recognizing how racism has conditioned our psyches, relationships, institutions, systems, and culture for a very, very long time, and then trying to unravel it. White people can choose how we relate to dominant cultural norms and systems. We can work collectively to change society.

These are all messages I find encouraging.

About my focus on white people generally — Some will say that a focus on white nationalism is not a racial justice priority, as racial justice is about focusing on the needs of people of color. To this I would respectfully suggest that disrupting the recruitment efforts of white nationalists is intrinsically related to racial justice because the spread of white nationalist rhetoric results in dangerous conditions for people of color. Whether those conditions involve a mass shooting, hate-filled graffiti in a neighborhood, or aggressive rhetoric on school campuses, disrupting the spread of white nationalist ideology is a part of creating equitable and inclusive environments for people of color. I recognize and take responsibility for the fact that this is white people’s work. It is also work that must continue in solidarity with people of color and Jewish folks, those who are most impacted by white nationalist violence.

About my concern for the emotional lives of white boys specifically — I have been looking closely at this issue for two years. That’s not a long time. It’s more than most who run in anti-racist circles, though. And I am convinced that we are in danger of losing a large percentage of the next generation of white youth. They may go all the way down the rabbit hole to adopting white nationalism. Or, they may stop midway and land on the light-right versions of misogyny, jokes about social justice warriors, or advocating more strongly for free speech than against hate speech. Either way, pulling them back from these positions of conscious hate is far harder than stopping them from going down that road in the first place.

…White people have an opportunity to interrupt the harm that could result by offering young white boys 1) a sense of community that encourages exploration of how toxic masculinity boxes them in, 2) purpose and meaning in joining the fight for justice, and 3) a pathway toward an anti-racist white identity that supports them to stand tall and proud. To make this a reality, these young people will need an accepting and understanding community to join, and that’s what we as anti-racist white people have no choice but to create for them.

If you’ve read this far, you’re invested. So, what can you do?

Learn more. Read the Swastikas in the Bathroom compilation of resources (30-minute read). Follow the links and get up to speed. This post offers only the tip of the iceberg.

Stay up-to-date. My colleague, Christine Saxman, is regularly updating a google doc called Interrupting White Nationalist Recruiting. Take a look at the most recent entries. I also send out a newsletter each month, and they usually include several pertinent links. Feel free to subscribe here.

Stay connected. I have been searching for a network invested in educating white parents and teachers about all of this. Finding none, I invite you to join me in developing one. Sign up here if you want to stay connected. This is the list I’ll use to reach out to people when there is news to share or ways to get involved. Join the effort.

Reach out and amplify what you learn. Talk to people in your community. If they’re not concerned, it’s because they don’t know or understand what’s happening. Share the resources you’re reading. Does anyone you know have white middle or high school aged kids? Do you know any teachers? Are they aware? Are they engaging in dialogue with their white children or students about race, racism, sexism, and the propaganda coming their way? There are many good resources out there that can help. You can get them connected.

author, educator, advocate

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