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Your Research-Based Guide to American White Supremacist Movements

Hate groups provide violent ideologies for terrorists who have killed dozens of Americans over the last 14 years.
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Neo-Nazis gather in front of the Federal Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo: Chad Johnson/Flickr)

Neo-Nazis gather in front of the Federal Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo: Chad Johnson/Flickr)

Although the focus often falls on jihadist terrorists, since 9/11, more people have been killed on American soil by right-wing terrorists than by Muslim ones, according to a recent New York Times report. Case in point: The killer who gunned down nine members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is a white supremacist, and is likely to face federal charges for a hate crime.

Over the past decade, sociologists have collected a lot of data about white supremacists and other American extreme right-wing movements, which present a danger to all Americans. Such movements "openly and virulently embrace racism, anti-Semitism, and/or xenophobia and promote violence," University of Pittsburgh sociologists Kathleen Blee and Kimberly Creasap wrote in the Annual Review of Sociology in 2010. Here's a primer, based on the review, on what we know about these hate groups:


  • They want to "preserve the power and privileges of white Aryans." Most believe non-whites and Jews are "inferior, destructive, and fearsome."
  • White supremacist movements are often strongly nationalist, yet anti-government. They're proud of what they view as America's heritage, but think the government makes mistakes: It's too restrictive on gun laws, or too supportive of Israel. Deadly government raids on such groups throughout the 1980s and '90s—exemplified by the 1993 Waco, Texas, siege—only solidified this stance.
  • Many have some touchstone moment in history they like to base their ideology around, but those moments vary. The Ku Klux Klan is all about the Civil War-era Confederacy, for example, while neo-Nazis orient toward World War II-era Nazi Germany.


  • Different movements arise for different reasons, but in recent years, some have latched onto this idea that white men in America are losing political power.
  • Do people with violent, racist ideas seek to join right-wing groups, or do right-wing groups make people violently racist? There's evidence both happen.
  • Sometimes movements arise in response to economic stress. In the 1920s, anti-union KKK groups appeared in Indiana where corn farmers were suffering, and in at least one Indiana town, the group membership comprised some of the area's most prominent men. In the 1990s, right-wing patriot and militia groups popped up where farmers and factory workers were losing their jobs.


  • Sociologists have different theories about this. Some say certain events, like white power music concerts, gun shows, and neighborhood crime prevention meetings help groups recruit new members. Internet forums make a big difference, too, of course.
  • Women are joining right-wing movements in increasing numbers worldwide. That's despite the fact that "right-wing movements are generally highly masculinized, with all-male leaderships and a strong culture of white male dominance that excludes women," Blee and Creasap write, or that "right-wing propaganda commonly depicts women as nonpolitical, as mothers and wives who support activist men and nurture their families, nations, and race." Figuring out women join these groups is still under study.

What's left to analyze? At the end of their review, Blee and Creasap offer prescient advice. Social scientists who study right-wing movements need to look into the research on foreign terrorists, as these homegrown terrorists are increasingly adopting their overseas counterparts' structure and strategies, the sociologists write.