Why would somebody kill complete strangers near a Jewish center, as happened Sunday outside Kansas City? Or open fire at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee two years ago? Or shoot a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, as the nation witnessed in 2009?
The most common answer is that such perpetrators are irrational and full of hate. That they resent Jews, Sikhs and anyone different from them. And that they look for opportunities to act on their hate.
This is true. But it is only part of the explanation. And perhaps not the most important part.
The people who kill strangers in the name of white or Aryan supremacy do hate. But their hatred is shaped and given direction by the shadowy world of organized racism.
The 73-year-old accused in the Kansas City killings, Frazier Glenn Cross — also known as Frazier Glenn Miller — was a longstanding activist in white supremacist, neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups with a lengthy track record of violence and attempted violence. Wade Michael Page, identified in the Milwaukee-area murders, was a 40-year-old racist skinhead and mainstay of the white power music scene. James von Brunn, 88, charged in the attack on the Holocaust Museum, drifted around the edges of white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups and ran a website of racial hate.
It is not correct to think of organized racism as simply how people express their hatred of others. Organized racism shapes racial hatred. It takes racism and gives it urgency and direction. It turns racists into racist terrorists.
Consider what happens as people join racist groups. Certainly, some people are attracted to skinhead gangs or Ku Klux Klan chapters or neo-Nazi groups because they dislike nonwhites. But others slide into this world with less clear motives.
They might not even particularly hate nonwhites or Jews. Instead, they drift into white power music scenes and become acquainted with neo-Nazi skinheads. Or they are befriended by people who seem to share their concerns about crime, the perceived deterioration of their children’s schools or the degradation of the environment; these friends then introduce them to racial explanations and racial solutions for crime, schools and the environment. Or they are pulled in by the allure of violence and aggression without much thought for its racial targets.
Regardless of how they enter, the web of Klan, neo-Nazi, racist skinhead and white supremacist groups organizes and intensifies how people hate. It teaches them to hate in a specific way and toward a specific end. In a world with its own distorted racial ideas, recruits learn that Jews are the enemy, the source of evil, the hidden conspirators who control the world and choke off the aspirations of Aryan peoples. They learn that the white race is on the brink of extermination due to a “race suicide” as nonwhites have more babies than whites. They learn that whites are the real racial victims, oppressed by all others.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that in a world of racial enemies and devastating racial threats, violence is easily understood as an answer. Even as a necessity.
The violence expressed in Sunday’s shooting outside Kansas City should not be dismissed as the isolated act of a deranged man. Like the terrible acts that proceeded and will no doubt follow, the Kansas events are the product of a world in which violence is too often portrayed as a means and an end.
People from this world who shoot innocent people in parking lots, in museums, in community centers do so for a reason. They have learned to see this as their mission. It is the same mission that drives them to post websites with the most virulent expressions of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. And draw swastikas on billboards. And march down city streets. And burn crosses. It is the mission of terrorism, the desire to inflict fear, to damage a community by attacking or threatening its members. It is a plan that organized racism teaches and that its members sometimes tragically enact.
Kathleen Blee is distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She has published extensively on why people join racist groups, including the book Inside Organized Racism The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.