The Six Flavors of White Supremacy

Do you have to pick just one?


A Department of Homeland Security report, titled “Domestic Extremism Lexicon” (PDF), has been making the rounds on the Internet after being published last Thursday on the Daily Beast. The final entry in the 11-page document notes that there are six categories of “white supremacists” in the United States: neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, Christian Identity, racist skinhead, Nordic mysticism, and Aryan prison gangs. Do you have to belong to one or the other?

No, there’s a fair bit of crossover. Two of the listed groups—Christian Identity and Nordic mysticism—are religious sects, and membership in them is mutually exclusive. But the other four movements have more of a political or criminal character, and some people may identify with more than one.

The Ku Klux Klan is the oldest white supremacist organization on the government list. It dates back to 1865, though at this point the KKK has splintered into a number of independent klan groups. (After a period of decline in the early 2000s, which coincided with a rise in neo-Nazi groups, the Klan seems to be strengthening: The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 31 new chapters in 2008.) Neo-Nazi groups appeared in the United States in the 1950s and more or less share the same ideology as the Klan, plus the added factor that they revere the Third Reich. Some prominent neo-Nazi organizations include the National Socialist Movement, Aryan Nation, and the National Alliance.

Racist skinheads, who tend to align closely with neo-Nazism,are a subset of the larger skinhead subculture that started among ska-loving, working-class British youths in the 1960s. The racist version—exemplified by organizations like Volksfront or the Vinlanders Social Club—started spreading in the United States in the 1980s. Their membership tends to skew younger than those of the KKK or neo-Nazis. The racist skinheads generally prefer street brawling to other, more organized forms of violence. Once you join a specific organization, like Aryan Nation or Volksfront, you’re generally expected to remain loyal to that group. People do change alliances, though, and many white supremacists aren’t card-carrying members of any particular organization.

Aryan prison gangs stand further outside the white supremacy mainstream. They began forming once states started desegregating jails—the oldest, the Aryan Brotherhood, began in California in the 1960s, with others cropping up in the 1980s. In the beginning, they were largely independent of established white supremacist groups, but the arrival of the Internet has led to some osmosis between prison gangs and other, older organizations. One major distinction, though, is that the prisoners tend to be more flexible in their racism than members of other white supremacist groups, since their criminal goals usually take precedence over ideology. Aryan prison gangs have been known to form alliances with minority gangs, for example, and won’t shy away from selling drugs to white customers.

Christian Identity is the larger of the two religious sects listed in the DHS memo, with an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 followers in North America. Though there’s no centralized church, adherents generally believe that white Europeans are the descendants of the tribes of Israel and are therefore God’s true—and only—chosen people. Some hold that Jews are the children of Eve and the Serpent; they may also believe that nonwhites are actually an earlier, inferior race of beings, created prior to Adam and Eve.

Neo-Nordic paganism appeared in the United States in the 1970s and ‘80s as part of a larger trend of pagan religions, like Wicca and Druidism. The racist offshoot of this religious movement is referred to as either Odinism or WotanismOdin and Wotan being different names for the chief Norse god. (David Lane, a leading white nationalist, preferred Wotanism because it contained the acronym WOTAN, or “Will of the Aryan Nation.”) White supremacists were drawn to the faith both because it represents an “authentically” white religion—as opposed to Christianity, which has its roots in the Middle East—and because of its emphasis on warrior culture.

Though you can find members of each white supremacy group in every part of the United States, there are some hotspots. Missouri, for example, is a stronghold of Christian Identity adherents while Southern California has a large population of racist skinheads. The vast majority of Klan groups are located in the South and the Midwest. Once they’re out of jail, Aryan prison gangs tend to congregate in areas where meth—their preferred product—is the drug of choice.

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Explainer thanks Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League.