White Supremacy Movement

Abby L Ferber. Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society. Ed. Richard T. Schaefer. Vol. 3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008.

The White supremacy movement is a social movement consisting of a diverse array of groups and organizations often considered "extremist" and violent in their hatred of non-Whites and desire to establish a separate White homeland. This movement has existed for almost 150 years, and it has proven extremely malleable. This entry describes the history of this movement, characteristics of its membership, and the ideology that is common to White supremacist groups.

History and Membership

The Ku Klux Klan, historically the most influential White supremacist organization in the United States, was founded in 1865 as a secret fraternal order for Civil War veterans of the Confederate states. The Klan led a reign of terror between 1867 and 1871, torturing and killing thousands of Blacks. With the institutionalization of Jim Crow segregation and the accompanying security of White domination, the Klan temporarily disbanded, but was glorified and romanticized in accounts such as Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman (1905) and the subsequent film Birth of a Nation (1915). The Klan reemerged in 1915, and, in 1925, membership reached an all-time high of 4 to 5 million. In contrast with the Ku Klux Klan's long history, grounded in mainstream politics in the United States, the American Nazi Party (ANP) never gained many members. Founded in 1958 by George Lincoln Rockwell, the party honored the legacy of Hitler and the German Nazis. Rockwell was subsequently assassinated, but the ANP was the predecessor to a variety of neo-Nazi splinter groups.

The contemporary White supremacy movement in the United States has grown out of the ideology and traditions of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis/neo-Nazis. In 2005, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 803 active hate groups in the United States (this includes a small number of hate groups that are not White supremacist groups, such as Black separatists), a 33% increase since 2000. There are a wide variety of White supremacist organizations, ranging from neo-Nazis and Klan groups to Christian identity adherents and skin-heads. While some organizations are attempting to move into the political mainstream, others are becoming increasingly violent. The movement is in a constant state of flux, with groups merging and disintegrating and new ones emerging each year.

Researchers disagree regarding terminology. References to this movement may use the language of White supremacy, organized hate groups, White nationalism, White separatism, or White power. Most of the organizations themselves prefer the terms White separatist or White nationalist, highlighting the movement's ultimate goal of geographic separation of the White race from all non-Whites, including Jews. Contemporary debates revolve around how to most accurately label the movement and identify its key branches today. Traditionally, most scholars have utilized a typology similar to that of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which now divides the movement into neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, racist skinheads, and neo-Confederates. Key neo-Nazi organizations include the National Alliance, National Vanguard, White Revolution, and the National Socialist Movement. The largest Klan groups today are the Imperial Klans of America and the Brotherhood of the Klans. In recent years, the strength of the Klan has increased as membership in neo-Nazi groups has declined. However, there is always a great deal of movement of members from one organization to another. The racist skinheads tend to be the least organized branch and attract younger, more migratory members. In 2005, racist skinhead groups increased almost 20%. The broad term neo-Confederates includes hate groups, as well as groups that would not be considered hate groups. The more extremist advocate breaking the country into racial states. Chip Berlet and Stanislav Vysotsky argue that rather than focusing on distinct organizations, we should instead think of the movement as composed of religious, political, and youth cultural organizations. This approach instead directs our attention to characteristics of group ideology and activity.

Over the past decade, the movement has focused efforts on recruiting young people via the White power music industry and the World Wide Web. White power music has gained a sizable following among White teenagers and has facilitated the development of a self-contained youth culture. At the same time, hundreds of explicitly hateful Web sites have attempted to spread White supremacist ideology to unsuspecting youth. Many of these sites target middle- and upper-middle-class educated youths. These sites provide the movement with the ability to reach a wide audience with little money or effort and provide viewers with seemingly intellectual material, privacy, and anonymity. Via the Internet and the World Wide Web, far more people read White supremacist publications and Web sites than actually join organizations. In this sense, the impact of the movement extends far beyond its membership. In 2005, there were 524 U.S.-based hate sites, a 12% increase over 2004. Over the past decade, the Internet has also facilitated the forging of a strong international movement.

Despite stereotypes of movement members as deviants, members of White supremacist organizations resemble the general population in terms of education level, occupation, and income. Hate groups are especially successful recruiting in communities hard-hit by economic downturns. The growing wealth gap in the United States means that people at all economic levels are facing thwarted dreams and perceive themselves as doing poorly.

Many scholars argue that gender is central to understanding this movement's attraction and holding on to members and may be key to developing more successful strategies of resistance. The organizations attract primarily men; however, in recent years, many groups have targeted women for recruitment in order to stabilize their membership base. Within the movement, women tend to be relegated to subordinate roles. While increasing numbers of women are joining the movement, research shows that women often do not share the ideology of the movement and may instead be searching for a sense of community and meaning that comes from being a part of a larger movement. Despite the growing numbers of women in the movement, it remains centrally concerned with preserving White male privilege. Recent research suggests that women may play an important role in bringing men out of the movement.

White supremacists recruit new members based on the assumption that the White race is under attack and faces the threat of genocide. U.S. society has experienced tremendous social change in recent decades, sparked by the Civil Rights Movement, the women's movement, and the gay and lesbian movement. More recently, debates over immigration, affirmative action, welfare, and other highly politicized and racialized topics have been perceived by many White men as attacks against them, against not only their racial privilege, but their identity as men. For the organized White supremacist movement, concerned primarily with preserving whiteness and White privilege, these changes are particularly disturbing. What it means to be a White man is no longer secure, and White male privilege no longer proceeds unquestioned. Many sociologists have described a contemporary "crisis of masculinity." In concert with economic dislocations and insecurity, many White men believe they are being denied the opportunity to achieve the "American dream," which they see as their birthright. While the tactics of the White supremacist movement are extreme, especially the encouragement of violence, they are part of a broader cultural backlash to movements for equality. Organizing against the advances fought for by the civil rights, women's, and gay and lesbian movements, these organizations seek to roll back the advances that have been achieved and reassert White, male, heterosexual hegemony.

The White supremacist movement is founded upon historically mainstream views about race and gender. This movement has always accepted the entrenched view of race in the United States, which defines whiteness by White purity. They hold tight to the "one-drop rule," defining Whites as those who are racially pure. White supremacist organizations are most likely to flourish in communities that are most sympathetic to racist beliefs. Research reveals that many Americans share the views of White supremacists, even if they are not members of the movement. For example, sociologists have documented that the majority of Whites embrace stereotypes that Blacks are inferior and lazy, that Jews are moneygrubbing, and that discrimination against people of color is a thing of the past. Less than 10% of hate crimes are actually committed by members of White supremacist organizations. The presence of the movement nevertheless serves to encourage hate-motivated violence, providing a voice, community, and sense of legitimacy for a wider audience. As survey research reveals, White supremacists articulate the wider concerns shared by many Americans, as well as a comprehensive ideology that enables a broader audience to interpret their own experiences and concerns. The White supremacist movement and the broader White supremacist culture have a symbiotic relationship, each contributing to the strength of the other.


Despite disagreements among organizations and individual activists, the movement is united by a shared belief system. The key overarching frames uniting the movement are dualism, conspiracism, and apocalypticism. Dualism divides the world into opposing forces of good and evil, right and wrong, Whites and non-Whites. White supremacist literature argues that there has long been a Jewish conspiracy to eliminate the White race and that all historic political events are shaped by this vast conspiracy. White supremacist ideology argues that these eternal enemies will face a coming Apocalypse, a race war that will change the world as we know it and reveal the White race as victorious.

White supremacists believe that racial and gender differences are essential and unchanging, given either by God or by biology. Social inequality is seen as a reflection of the natural order. Race and gender dualisms intersect here to define Whites as superior to non-Whites and men as superior to women. This naturalized hierarchy places White men securely at the top. Jews are constructed as the ultimate enemy, trying to race-mix the White race into oblivion. People of color and women are defined as inferior to White men, and it is believed to be the duty of White men to protect innocent White women and children from the brainwashing Jews, who control the world, and the criminal, animal-like Blacks and other people of color. The movement's fear of White genocide leads to an obsession with controlling White women's sexuality and reproduction.

White supremacist ideology thus offers itself as the antidote to America's current social problems (crime, immigration, corruption, etc.) by promising to empower White men to regain control of the nation and solve our social ills. White men are encouraged to become "real men" by standing up and protecting White women, reasserting their place in the natural hierarchy, and saving the White race. Some groups advocate for separate, homogeneous, racial states, while others seek to cleanse the earth of all non-Whites. For adherents, the only way to secure the future of the White race is through the creation of a racially pure homeland.

Despite ongoing fluctuations and disarray, the White supremacist movement is an entrenched feature of the U.S. social movement landscape. The specific organizations, leaders, and tactics may change, but the basic belief structure has changed very little over time and is closely tied to more-mainstream assumptions about race and inequality.