“Grandpa just grew up when that was the way people thought,” you can imagine a young man saying. It’s an easy way to write off perspectives that don’t align with today’s social norms. In some ways it’s true: issues do come and go with generations. But the recent events in Charlottesville and across the nation are proof that racism in the U.S. is not just a generational issue.
The fact is, photographs and video from the August protests in the Virginia college town don’t portray today’s white nationalists as a bunch of old men. On the contrary, most of the faces are young. How is it that after coming so far in the fight for civil rights, American youth are still drawn to, and compelled by, these tasteless racist ideas?
A change in tactics
The white nationalist groups present in the Charlottesville protests didn’t necessarily identify with the KKK. They went by names most Americans have probably never heard before – or, like the alt-Right, not until recently. Among those represented were the Traditional Workers Party and a group called Anti-Communist Action.
None of those names carry overtly racial overtones. That is why, for many who follow these groups, the ambiguous racial and political stances that they take – until one examines their deeper motives – can make it easy to live with the inhumane values they support.
As Buzzfeed’s Joseph Burnstein reports in an investigative piece about the new white nationalism front, “becoming a member of a private mobile group chat for white supremacist teenagers was surprisingly easy.”
The common concern among those who are misled by these groups is that the cultural influence of white, western Europeans is eroding. The internet is a perfect tool to fan the flames of these fabricated conflicts. With no checks in place to confirm factual versus misleading information in these forums, gullible youth who want to identify with a cause are easily taken in with false information that further spurs their involvement in the white nationalist community.
After all, just because information is false doesn’t mean it is poorly packaged. Leaders in the white nationalist community have learned how to effectively create and distribute their hateful propaganda in ways that resonate with young people. Their progress is undeniable. When young people go looking for acceptance, they want to believe what their new friends tell them. And the evolution of today’s racism has given these young adults comfort in believing that they are victims of a nonexistent crime.
A recent NPR interviewee, Christian Picciolini, is a great example of the even bigger issue behind why young people gravitate toward these groups. Picciolini was once a part of a faction like this. Feeling cast out from society, he fell in with a group of Chicago-area skinheads until he realized that the path he had chosen was a wrong one. At 22 years old, he decided to leave the group and work towards educating others who might be attracted to the lifestyle.
The former white supremacist believes that many young people subscribe to these groups for the same reasons he did. With nowhere else to go, they find comfort in the black-and-white world view these groups promote. The group supports a simple set of ideas that, due to their skin color, they can almost never defy.
Statistics show that today’s youth are more depressed and anxiety-ridden than ever before. Proposed reasoning for this varies, from suggestions that social media has caused us to become more isolated, to the argument that our access to mental health care and education is poor.
However, one thing remains clear over time: young people find their purpose primarily through relationships. The young are vulnerable because they demand acceptance. They desire to feel heard, understood and valued.
Picciolini’s belief is that young people gravitate toward hate groups not because of the ideologies, but because of the human needs that these groups can satisfy. Extremist groups, he says, offer members an “identity, community and a sense of purpose. Underneath that fundamental search is something that’s broken — is there abuse or trauma or mental illness or addiction?”
Picciolini also suggests that the Internet age has created a prime opportunity for these groups to reach disenchanted youths. Young people spend so much of their time online, especially if they don’t have friends or communities to interact with in person, which creates a perfect storm of opportunity for hate groups to exploit.
Picciolini also says the fight against racism is tougher than ever because the battle lines have become blurred. White supremacists are no longer easily identified by swastikas and shaved heads. They have learned to blend into their surroundings, gathering strength as an underground movement, and it’s only during events like Charlottesville that people realize how prominent they have become.
It could be argued that the fight for our nation’s moral compass has evolved, eerily, in much the same way as the world’s geopolitical conflicts: where it was once easy to know who the bad guys were, today the enemy hides in plain sight. The only time we feel their presence is during acts of terror when they emerge to intimidate the rest of society.
Setting an example
A spokesman for the fascist group Vanguard America proclaimed, “Every rally we’re going to be more organized, we’re going to have more people, and it’s going to be harder and harder for them to shut us down.” Photographic and video evidencefrom Charlottesville laid plain for the nation what the ranks of these organizations already look like. They emerged from the crowds well organized, and unlike some of the groups they seek to hold down, many members of white nationalist groups are affluent. A sheltered existence makes it easy to adopt extremist views, and by recruiting estranged white males with access to money, hate organizations have created a makeshift PAC for their social campaign.
Donald Trump has been heavily criticized for inviting numerous people viewed as overtly racist – Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka, to name a few – into his cabinet. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka went on record to describe the current White House as home to two factions, one of which he called flat-out racist.
Trump’s failure to condemn the actions of white supremacists, in Charlottesville and elsewhere, is precisely what these hate groups expect – and it’s what spurs them to grow further. Among other things, the president is supposed to be a role model. If the most powerful man in the country can’t set an example for American youth, what should we expect of them? The array of young faces at hate-fueled spectacles like Charlottesville is disquieting, though it’s becoming less and less surprising.
A lot of people still assume white supremacist groups are primarily made up of older folks, and that these ideas will eventually die out with the older generation. But if anything, Charlottesville was a wakeup call, as more Americans reached the unsettling realization that this just isn’t true. Racism and intolerance is being seeded in our youth all over the country. Whether by geography, in the online realm, or through other channels, young people present a unique opportunity for extremist groups to reach them. The question Americans everywhere must now ask is: how are we going to respond?