NEW SCIENTIST is one of my favorite magazines and more than one WINN post has included research found on its pages. The first one, two years ago, presented a charming discovery that involved diversity and cooperation in the natural world. Researchers had found that “a crab, a shrimp and a fish” had teamed up for their mutual benefit. This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke but it was real, and you can read about it in the WINN post published on June 9, 2016.
This is not a time for charming stories. This is a time when many people are both bewildered and appalled by what is happening. Peter Byrne, the author of the article in NEW SCIENTIST, “On the Origins of White Nationalism,” wrote,
“After decades largely under the radar, race-based violence and extremism is back in the news.”
Although it is natural for humans to distinguish “self” from “other,” it is not natural to hate those others. That kind of hatred, and the violence that can accompany it, have many, complex causes that demand more attention than this single article can provide. But Byrne and the researchers he quotes make some points it’s useful to consider even in this limited way.
Kathleen Blee, an ethnographer at the University of Pittsburgh, published her book, INSIDE ORGANIZED RACISM, in 2002 and Byrne quotes her as writing,
“The mainstay of any substantial racist movement is not the pathological individual but rather the pathological vein of racism, intolerance, and bigotry in the larger population that the movement successfully mines.”
And counter-terrorism expert Erroll Southers sees similarities,
“…between the white extremists and Islamist terrorists: both fit the prevailing notion among researchers that most terrorists are not psychopaths, but relatively typical people motivated by circumstances to protect their ‘in-group’ from danger, real or imagined.”
Southers, who is African-American and a retired FBI agent, now teaches law enforcement officers about the dangers of white nationalism.
Pete Simi, from Chapman University in California, is a sociologist with training in mental health assessment. He has learned that many white supremacists experienced childhood trauma and were predisposed to violent behavior even before they joined racist groups. He has developed a form of interviewing people with extreme views that has allowed him to learn about their life experiences and emotional motivations. He has been able to explore some of the psychological aspects that have contributed to their violent behavior and their choice to join white nationalist groups. Simi’s research found that,
* “About 80 per cent of his interviewees have experienced childhood traumas: violence, sexual abuse and broken homes.”
* “Many had horrible, shame-filled childhoods that morphed into lonely, self-hating adulthoods. White power groups can provide angry loners with a sense of pride in community and conveniently dehumanize targets to blame.”
* “Resorting to violent extremism can be a coping mechanism for these people. They are drawn toward violent extremist groups for non-ideological reasons, for shelter,
protection, a sense of family.
* “White supremacist propaganda is filled with references to collective shame related to feeling of cultural, racial, and economic dispossession, from the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War to the election of Barack Obama as the first non-white US President.”
Simi and Blee and two colleagues (Matthew DeMichele and Steven Windisch) designed a pilot study to compare the brain functioning of 5 former white supremacists and 5 mixed martial arts fighters to discover whether they showed similar signs of trauma. To quote from Peter Byrnes’ article:
“The volunteers were shown symbols and images designed to be neutral or to activate the former white supremacists’ previous identity and ideological orientation. The experiment found significant activation in the emotion processing regions of the brains of the former white supremacists in response to racially charged images, such as of an interracial couple. No such regions were activated for the control group. The researchers conclude that ‘the inherent racial bias in former white supremacists happens before more active processing.’”
The findings, so far, show that as a nation we must deal both with the childhood trauma that can lead to violent behavior and we must confront the endemic racism that has existed for generations.
Racism takes many forms that are all destructive but not all of them involve open violence. There’s another story from another magazine that I’d like to include here. Oprah published her interview with Ray Hinton, the author of THE SUN DOES SHINE. He’s an African American man who was accused of murder by policemen who knew he was innocent and he was jailed on death row in Alabama for 28 years. (You can read the whole interview in the July issue of OPRAH MAGAZINE.) He told the story of Henry, a fellow inmate on death row:
“His father was a Klan leader who’d gotten upset that a black man hadn’t been convicted of killing a white man, and ordered his son and other Klansmen to kill the first black man they came across. They hanged that poor kid. … Henry had been taught to hate his whole life. He didn’t know any different.”
Ray Hinton doesn’t hate. He is a great man who can teach us something about compassion for “others.”
* * *
“On the Origins of White Nationalism,” can be found in
NEW SCIENTIST, June 9-15, 2018