For Tony McAleer, becoming a skinhead meant forming relationships with others through violence.
During his years as a young white supremacist, he stalked the streets of Vancouver, gun or walking cane or piece of wood in hand, provoking people into reactions that he and his fellow skinheads would use to justify beatings.
“I went out into the world emotionally hungry and gravitated to … an ideology that gave me permission to be violent,” says Mr. McAleer, who now runs the nonprofit Life After Hate, which helps former extremists (“formers”) transition out of violent movements. “And I think that if you look into the history of the formers I know and I deal with, there’s a lot of common threads.”
Indeed, though his experience transpired in Canada in the 1980s and ‘90s, McAleer’s story is emblematic of the sense of isolation, anger, and shame that continue to drive individuals toward extremist ideologies today, sociologists say.
In the United States, they note, those feelings are exacerbated by a struggling economy, racial tensions, and unprecedented demographic change. It’s a toxic combination that has led to what one report notes is a rise in the number of hate groups and extremist organizations – as well as actual violent attacks – across the country. And combating that rise means going down a long, fraught road that includes acknowledging and understanding the reasons behind extremism, and reaching out to those consumed with it.
“It’s a whole cocktail of things, a cocktail that’s been brewing for quite a while now,” says Pete Simi, a professor of sociology and director of radicalization and violent groups research at the Center for Collaboration Science at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. And key to the mix, he says, is “a sense of disenfranchisement. A lot of these groups see themselves as victims, pushed out of their rightful place in society.”
The last year saw a 14 percent uptick in the number of hate and extremist groups in the country, with the total jumping from 784 in 2014 to 892 in 2015, according to the report released Wednesday by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala.
The list includes domestic Islamist radicals and black separatist groups. It also highlights a surge in the number of antigovernment militias, white supremacists, neo-Confederates, and neo-Nazi groups nationwide, as well as organizations that target Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBT community.
Part of the reason may be that socioeconomic situation in the US today, coupled with a presidential race replete with inflammatory rhetoric over hot-button concerns, create conditions that would contribute to a swell in right-wing extremism, Professor Simi says.
The deluge of immigrants from south of the border, for instance; the prediction that by 2065 no single ethnic group will comprise a majority in the American population; and the growing attention on police treatment of black men – “these are issues that align well and have really spoken to that population,” Simi says. “It has really touched a nerve for folks on that end of the political spectrum.”
“There is a hell of a lot of anger among the white working class, and to some extent, the middle class,” adds Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC and lead author of the report. “These are people who are seeing things taken away, [and are] losing in a way that they have not lost in many years.”
That sense of loss echoes McAleer’s own slide to extremism. Beaten and bullied as a child, bitter and isolated as a teenager, the former skinhead vented his anger first through punk music then outright violence in his search for acceptance and belonging. The white power credo, when he discovered it as a young man, simply provided an intellectual justification for his actions, he says.
“It wasn’t the ideology that sought me, it was me seeking the ideology,” McAleer says. “It doesn’t matter what the ideology is. We were involved in a lot of violence before the politics came out, but politics tied it together, gave us a false sense of power.
“Look,” he adds, “when you’re starving and somebody keeps feeding you what you think are your favorite foods, even though it’s junk food, there’s going to be a while where you’re not going to get up from the table.”
Understanding the fears and anxieties fueling extremism are a critical part of combating it, sociologists say. In that, they note, reports such as the SPLC’s are a useful tool.
“It’s tough to say, ‘How do you deal with this,’ because anxieties underlie this and they’re multifaceted,” says Robert Futrell, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas who specializes in social movements and social change. “But to be less ignorant, having public conversations that are data-driven so that we come to a real understanding of that part of our culture … that is really important.”
The problem with the 'hate group' label
Still, some have criticized both the report and the SPLC of anti-conservative bias, and minimizing the threat of things like Islamist ideology.
“We are not anti-Muslim, we are anti the ideology – the same ideology that al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, whatever name they go by, use to kill hundreds of people, including mostly innocent Muslims,” says ACT for America founder and president Brigitte Gabriel, whose group made the SPLC report as an anti-Muslim organization for the first time this year.
“Islamophobia is where there is irrational fear of Islamic terrorism,” she adds. “The fear today is not an irrational fear.”
Others have objected to the notion of branding any organization as a hate group, calling it detrimental to meaningful discussion.
“The problem with the hate group label is it seeks to shut down debate,” says Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization that made the SPLC list as an anti-LGBT hate group. “It suggests that one side of the issue is not even worthy of being heard. That is what we think is really contrary to American principles and contrary to the truth of the nature of our organization.”
Such criticism should be taken seriously and considered as well, says Simi. But it is just as important to acknowledge that hate groups exist and that something needs to be done about them, he says.
“If we can’t even have a conversation about it, that’s not a good sign,” he says.
McAleer agrees, but takes the idea of acknowledgment a step further. Both in his experience and his work at Life After Hate, he says, he has found that reaching out and helping build relationships with people is the most effective way of leading anyone away from violence and radicalization.
He recalls making the decision to leave the skinhead movement after his daughter was born. “What happened in that moment is that I became connected to another human being for the first time since I could remember,” he says.
It was years more after his daughter's birth before McAleer truly walked away from his skinhead past. Yet says he hears similar stories from former extremists all the time, including one colleague who left a violent racist movement after being welcomed by black inmates in prison.
“Core in the story of all these people: it was an act of compassion that had the most profound impact, especially from someone they felt they didn’t deserve it from,” he says. “It’s very important for everybody to keep their sense of compassion. If society responds with fear and clamps down, it’s not a nice place to be.”
Getting to a place where empathy outweighs fear will take time and energy. But some are cautiously optimistic.
“In a society that’s grown increasingly diverse, we as citizens need to work at building bridges. We’ve got a tough road ahead,” says Mr. Potok at the SPLC. “But I don’t have much doubt that after this long, very dark tunnel, we as a country will come out in a better place.”