The white supremacist movement in the United States wears a new and terrifying face. You could see it in the photographs that ran with hundreds of newspaper articles in July about a plot foiled in Los Angeles to murder Rodney King, kill worshippers in a black church, bomb Jewish leaders and synagogues, and assassinate black entertainers and sports figures.
The police say that this hellish scenario, intended to ignite a race war, was masterminded by the 20-year-old man shown in the photographs -- a former Eagle Scout turned neo-Nazi. The news photos did not show a sullen outcast with a shaved head and bomber jacket or a beer-bellied, shotgun-toting Klansman. He is, in the words of one newspaper, "the epitome of the all-American boy."
But he is, in fact, a self-described "skinhead," a member of the growing white supremacist movement that is much more sophisticated than most Americans realize.
Neo-Nazi skinheads -- violent, angry, deeply troubled young men and a growing number of young women -- are the most dangerous bigots in this country today. They operate in at least 30 states; with about 3,500 members, their numbers are small in proportion to the violence they commit. Klanwatch, which I founded in 1979 to monitor white supremacy activities, has documented 25 murders by skinheads since 1988.
Psychologists say that these young haters generally come from deeply troubled, dysfunctional families and are fundamentally damaged long before they swing their first baseball bat at someone or plant their first pipe bomb. Vulnerable but streetwise youngsters, who are looking for an excuse to fight, they are easy prey for older white supremacist leaders, who cynically offer a sense of family and purpose -- along with a hate-filled ideology.
The old-guard, armchair extremists have no intention of being anywhere near the front lines if a "racial holy war" ever occurs. But they actively recruit impressionable teen-agers, who take their message to heart and act on it. And if a skinhead kid gets caught, the hate movement's elders are quick with their denials.
Several established hate groups, like White Aryan Resistance (known as WAR) and the Church of the Creator, have been recruiting skinheads for several years. Members of both groups figured prominently in the recently uncovered race war plots on the West Coast. National leaders of both groups denied any knowledge of the scheme.
While the law enforcement agencies involved in investigating this conspiracy are to be commended, it will take more than arrests to stop skinhead violence. Until recently, skinhead violence was random and impulsive, mostly street crime targeting the nearest minority person. But their international counterparts have waged terrorist campaigns against immigrants and other minorities for at least two years. It may only be a matter of time before another race war scheme is hatched by American white supremacists.
We at the Southern Poverty Law Center fight white supremacists with civil suits. In 1990 we sued Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance over the beating death of a black man in Portland, Ore. The jury found the WAR leader liable and awarded $12.5 million to the victim's family. But as important and gratifying as such victories are, they do not halt the hate.
Our nation today is torn with bigotry and racial strife. Hate crimes are at an all-time high, and there is too much loose talk that blames immigrants and nonwhites for the economic difficulties our country faces at the end of the cold war.
The Southern Poverty Law Center began a project in 1991 called Teaching Tolerance. Its aim is to provide educators with ready-to-use materials that promote interracial and intercultural understanding beginning in kindergarten.
We urgently need to reach students with messages of humanity before the messages of hate take root. Law enforcement and the law center will continue to fight organized hate groups in the courts. But the real victory, the only one that can last, must be won in the hearts of our young people.