White Supremacists by the Numbers

What’s up with 14 and 88? And what about the shaved heads and white tuxedos?

Daniel Cowart (left) and Paul Schlesselman

Law enforcement officials in Tennessee have arrested two white supremacists who planned to assassinate Barack Obama, the New York Times reported Monday. The skinheads had a scheme to attack the presidential candidate while wearing white tuxedos and top hats. They also intended to murder 88 people and behead 14 African-American children—numbers that “have special significance in the white power movement,” according to the Times. What’s the deal with these skinhead numbers and fashion choices? (Note: A few of the links in this article go to white-supremacist Web sites.)

88 and 14. As the Times article explained, the number 88 represents the phrase “Heil Hitler,” because H is the eighth letter in the alphabet. White supremacists are also fond of the number 18 to represent the initials A.H. (Other tight-knit groups use a similar code: The Hells Angels, for example, are attached to the number 81.)

The late David Lane, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and co-founder of a white-power revolutionary group, detailed his philosophy in an article called “88 Precepts.” (Precept No. 11: “Beware of verbose doctrines.”) The number 14 refers to a 14-word mission statement he wrote while propagandizing from federal prison: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Magic numbers abound among white supremacists. The digits 4/20 celebrate Hitler’s birthday, and the number 5 represents resistance to law enforcement in the form of this five-word response to interrogation: “I have nothing to say.” The number 311 refers to the Ku Klux Klan, because K is the 11th letter, repeated three times. So does 33/6—that’s three times 11, with the number six standing for the current period of the Klan’s history, which the group has divided into six eras.

Shaved heads. The white supremacist hairdo goes back to 1960s British politics. The original skinheads were not necessarily racists but rather young men whose aesthetic celebrated reggae and ska music and the masculine English worker. As the decade progressed, some skinheads fell under the influence of anti-immigration politicians who warned of an imminent race war. The group splintered into a militant wing (with no hair) and an apolitical wing (with short hair). The skinheads transitioned to a new musical genre called “Oi!” and British neo-Nazi musicians soon followed. As skinheads moved toward white supremacism, white supremacists flocked to the skinheads. Still, not all skinheads today are part of the white-power movement.

White tuxedos and top hats. This one is a little more obscure. The all-white outfits might refer to the hood and robe of the Klan. Or they might be a nod to the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange. In that book (and the subsequent Stanley Kubrick film), a group of violent youths called droogs, clad in white jumpsuits and bowler hats, terrorizes England by night. In the 1970s, some English skinheads donned the white outfit and dubbed themselves “Clockwork Orange skins.” Supporting this theory is that one of the would-be assassins in Tennessee appears to be wearing eye makeup in photos. Eye makeup is not associated with the white supremacist movement in the United States, but it was an aspect of the droog aesthetic. However, one of the youths was also involved in the Goth subculture, in which makeup is common.

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Explainer thanks Timothy Brown of Northeastern University and Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League.