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What We Can Learn From People Who Have Left White Supremacy Groups

Pacific Standard spoke with a sociologist who has interviewed dozens of former members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi groups, Christian Identity sects, and other white-ethnicity hate groups.

White supremacist groups have a retention problem. Although it's hard to say how frequently people abandon supremacist organizations—namely because researchers don't know how many people join in the first place, making calculating a defection rate nearly impossible—members often become disillusioned with the organizations and leave, says Pete Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University in California. Simi has been able to conduct dozens of interviews with former racist hate-group members for his studies. His work suggests that people can, in fact, change.

Simi also works with Life After Hate, a non-profit founded by former neo-Nazis and other hate-group members that aims to help others to exit extremist organizations. The non-profit's leadership says Life After Hate has helped hundreds leave white supremacy. At the same time, plenty of Simi's interviewees left their hate groups because they disliked the particular organizations without abandoning their racist beliefs.

Pacific Standard spoke with Simi to glean what we could about what works to de-radicalize members of white supremacist groups like the ones that rallied in Charlottesville earlier this month. White supremacists are likely to continue to kill in the year to come, a federal report obtained by Foreign Policy concluded. Below are the top four lessons we learned from the research into defectors.

1. White Supremacists Come From All Social Classes

Simi recently worked with criminologist Bryan Bubolz to interview 34 former white supremacists, 31 men and three women. The interviewees had been involved with hate groups—primarily the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinhead groups, and Christian Identity sects—for anywhere from three years to more than two decades. They self-identified as being in an array of economic classes, from lower to upper class. This wealth diversity stands in contrast to other violent groups sociologists study, such as gangs, whose members tend to have grown up in neighborhoods with persistent, multi-generational poverty.

2. People Can "Relapse" Into Racist Thinking

Many of Simi and Bubolz's interviewees reported experiencing "ideological relapses," or involuntary, unwanted, white supremacist thoughts. "A lot of them talk about feeling addicted to hate," Simi says. Seven of his interviewees eventually returned to hate groups.

3. De-Radicalizing People Can Take a Lot of Social Services

There's no consensus yet on what works to de-escalate violent group members, whether they're Klansmen or gang members or jihadists, Simi says. The one idea that has perhaps the most support, he notes, is "wraparound services," or social services that improve many aspects of a recent defector's life, to help inoculate them from returning to their old group. For example, de-radicalization programs may simultaneously help recent defectors find stable housing, job training, and any mental-health services they may need. "It's resource-intensive. It's time-intensive," Simi says. "Of course, the payoff is substantial and it's far cheaper than housing people in prison."

4. Prison Doesn't Work to Rehabilitate, Simi Thinks

Among the 34 former white supremacists Simi and Bubolz talked to, more than one in three quit their groups after committing crimes and being imprisoned, including some folks who became disillusioned after they discovered their groups' pledges of loyalty and brotherhood didn't extend to them once they'd been put away. But America shouldn't rely on incarceration to change people, Simi thinks. Many prisons are infiltrated by white supremacist gangs, so they're no getaway from hateful rhetoric and activity. The social isolation of prison makes things worse, not better, Simi thinks. Even those who report prison was a positive catalyst had already been distancing themselves from their groups: "It wasn't like prison rehabilitated them."

Will Simi and others get the chance to put their research to work? Perhaps not for a while yet: The Trump administration recently declined to fund a $400,000 grant promised to Life After Hate in the final days of the Obama administration, a part of a push from those in the White House who want to focus on terrorism associated with the Islamic State, as HuffPost reports.