The shooting rampage on Sunday that killed six people and wounded three others at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin exposed the continued dangers of white power extremism in our midst. The shooter, Wade M. Page, was affiliated with a range of neo-Nazi skinhead groups, and during the last decade, he played in several prominent bands in the white power music scene.
Mr. Page’s neighbors said they were “stunned” that he could have done something so violent or have been connected to extremist hate culture. And yet that culture claims an estimated 50,000 adherents nationwide, far more than most people realize. The white power movement persists, and even thrives, but not always in the ways we think.
Popular stereotypes paint neo-Nazis as young, swastika-tattooed skinheads yelling obscenities about blacks, Jews, gays and other so-called enemies of the white race, usually surrounded by counterprotesters and the police. In some ways, we are comforted by such images, because they let us believe it’s easy to identify extremists and intervene when they seem threatening.
But the reality is more complicated. White power adherents are not typically “out” about their extremist leanings. They straddle the worlds of white power and mainstream society, often publicly playing down or hiding their extremist identities. In the past, this might have been a hindrance. But these days they thrive in what we call hidden spaces of hate, often online, where they gather to support one another and their cause.
Among the most important hidden spaces is the white power music scene. Neo-Nazis are particularly adept at incorporating music into just about every aspect of the movement, having grasped the medium’s capacity to bring adherents together into shared experiences and sustain communities anchored in Aryan ideology.
As with many young men and women who join white power groups, it was the music scene that helped solidify Mr. Page’s commitment to the movement, in his case the vibrant scene in Southern California, where one of us, Pete Simi, met and interviewed him in the early 2000s. Mr. Page connected with extremist communities, found mutual support for virulent racist fantasies and made a name for himself by performing in notorious white power bands, like Youngland, Intimidation One, End Apathy and Definite Hate.
The bands’ lyrics range from subtle and vaguely hortatory to aggressively, explicitly racist. But it is not the lyrics that unite Aryans. The collective events where the music is performed, like private backyard parties, bar concerts and multiday music festivals, are where they meet and support their common stance against the mainstream world.
The music does more than convey anger, hatred and outrage toward racial enemies; like all music, it is heavy with emotions like power, pride, dignity, love and pleasure, which create a collective bond that strengthens members’ commitment to the cause.
Many white power music events are tightly controlled in ways that limit attendance to neo-Nazi sympathizers and keep them mostly hidden from public view. Organizing the events as “white-only, members-only” spaces is a calculated effort to create collective experiences where, at least momentarily, adherents can experience the world they idealize: where enemies of whites are vanquished and Aryans rule.
The reach of white power music stretches far beyond the collective gatherings into Aryans’ everyday lives. Neo-Nazis download Aryan music, stream audio and video Webcasts of performances, read fanzines and music blogs, and chat online in white power music Web forums.
With just a few keystrokes, any Internet search can link Aryans to sites featuring MP3s of their favorite bands, along with T-shirts, jewelry, hats and other symbols of racist music culture. They can carry their music with them electronically to school and work, where they don headphones and secretly connect to a broad music scene that nurtures their virulent racism.
Law enforcement and anti-racist activists should pay close attention to the scene as a motivating force for hate crime because when extremist ideas endure, so does the potential for extremist actions. Mr. Page appears to have lived up to the violent ideals that permeated his life. We should not be surprised when other neo-Nazis follow suit, because potent inspiration for violence continues to percolate in white power music’s hidden spaces of hate.
Robert Futrell, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Pete Simi, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, are the authors of American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate.