Ever since the civil rights movement, groups like SNCC and the Black Panthers have been telling white people to look to and take care of their own communities. And, consistently, white, mostly middle class, liberals have marched in the streets, presented themselves as allies of black communities, and signed people up to vote. They are quick to denounce open displays of white supremacy and quick to denounce poor white communities as gun toting, bigoted racists. But they have never been quick to do what they were asked to do: take care of and do the hard work of working in white communities.
I am a redneck. I grew up target shooting with shotguns and rifles, grew up in a majority white rural community—and I grew up reading white power materials and using racial slurs, alongside listening to sermons that said we were all created equal.
I now work very close to where I grew up, as pastor to a very poor, heavily criminalized, majority white community. A lot of the young people I work with have been recruited into white power gangs: everything from the KKK to the Skinheads and Peckerwoods to the newish Thor’s Hammer. They are not the face of the alt-right; most of the folks who gather in places like Charlottesville are middle class armchair racists turned activists who join neo-Nazi, Patriot, and White Nationalist groups for ideological reasons. My kids join white gangs that run drugs, provide protection in prison and on the streets, and give them somewhere to belong.
Because no one answered the call 100 years ago, and again 50 years ago, to organize in white communities, my kids have few alternatives to white power gangs. The left has abandoned white poor communities, time and again, to deepening poverty, to heavy criminalization, to hunger, to police violence—and to the Skinheads.
Young white kids join white power gangs for similar reasons that black and brown kids join black and Latino gangs: for protection, for belonging, for economic survival. Of course, they have an added, deadly commitment to white supremacy. It is especially easy for young people who have grown up in rural, white communities to join white supremacists: the racist structure of our society insure that many of them have not had much contact with people of color. At least, until they are incarcerated.
Kellan Howell interviewed several former neo-Nazis about how to confront the recent public rise of white power protests. They said, in part:
When it comes to engaging with far-right extremists, Meeink and Angela said it's all about making them feel human again.
"Maybe, a simple kind word, a simple act of compassion, and that is not an easy thing to do," King said, adding that her own transformation came after a Jamaican woman in prison asked her to play a game of cribbage…
…Both Meeink and King say that a rough childhood and feelings of isolation and emptiness led them to seek solace with white power groups, but they say people who have had similar experiences can help show those who are currently struggling that they don't have to turn to hatred to find purpose.
My work centers in part around this work. While our ministry reaches a number of native kids who are frequently the target of racial violence (including a young kid who was just killed in a racially motivated vehicular homicide), the majority of people we work with are white. Many of them are, or have been, members of white power gangs. We focus on “making them feel human again.” None of them are, first and foremost, white supremacists. They are young people who have been beaten time and again by the police, who have been jailed from the time they were around 13, who got their first felonies as teenagers and who have never had a stable life since, who run drugs because there is no other economy in town, who have experienced extreme violence and abuse, who have lost their parents and their children to a system that offers them no first chance, much less a second. They are tired. They are brave. They are angry. In jail, they have native friends and Latino friends who have experienced the same thing and sometimes they have each other’s backs.
But they have never had the opportunity to see that, perhaps, they have more in common with poor communities of color than they have with the wealthy and powerful leaders of organizations like the KKK, the Patriots, and other alt-right groups. The white supremacist plan to divide and conquer the poor has worked. Sometimes, anyway.
These young people are mostly tired. And out of hope. They spend their days surviving for one more day. They want so much more, they deserve so much better. They are hungry for something better. They are hungry for hope. They are hungry for a way out of the violence, the terror, the damning struggle to survive. In the coming struggle for the soul of a nation, we have a choice. We can abandon them to the alt-right. Or we can invite them into a better world.