Nobody is born racist, but you also cannot deny that it is alive and well in the hearts of too many.
Why does this extreme hatred exist at a time when people are more interconnected than ever before? According to Christian Picciolini, a former Neo-Nazi who recently did an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit, fear, feelings of inadequacy, and a desire to belong are the chief culprits.
Picciolini is a former member of one of America's first Neo-Nazi gangs, the Chicago Area Skinheads/Romantic Violence. He first became involved with the group when he was 14 years old.
Picciolini left the gang after seven years and has since sought to make amends. He co-founded a group called Life After Hate, which helps combat right-wing extremism and provides support for members of extremist groups seeking a more enlightened path. He's also written an autobiography of his experiences.
In the AMA, Picciolini explained that the gang, though ignorant and misguided, offered a sense of inclusion that people of every color and creed seek. The key to battling these kinds of groups, then, is to cut off the member base by offering an alternative way of belonging. If they are to have a better life, they need to be shown that such a life exists.
Here are seven overarching lessons to be learned from Picciolini's experiences:
1. The term "skinhead" doesn't necessarily mean "racist."
"Serious question. What exactly goes through the mind of a skinhead? Why does he hate so much?"
"First, not all skinheads are racist. There are anti-racist skinheads, communist skins, traditional/apolitical skins etc...
My brand of skinhead was racist/neo-nazi. We were angry, blaming, unwilling to accept responsibility ourselves for our own shortcomings. If something was wrong, it was because of "jews" or "blacks"...not, because I have no education or training and I'm lazy.
I hated because I was ignorant and I blamed others for my shortcomings"
2. His hatred did not come naturally; it was programmed in.
"You mention being 'indoctrinated' into the group. What form did this take? Did you posses any racist views prior to joining the gang, or were they developed during your membership?"
"Repetition of thought. Rhetoric. Reinforcement of insecurities backed by promises of comfort, power, and supremacy. Music was the most effective propaganda tool for white power skinheads in the 80s and 90s. Even now.
I was not raised to be a racist. In fact, my parents came to this country in the 60s from Italy and they were often the victims of prejudice themselves. I formed these opinions on my own because I was searching for meaning. I wanted to fit in. When I met a group that I thought filled those needs, I was like putty."
3. The origins of his involvement with the Neo-Nazis were based on a need to fit in.
"What made you want to join Romantic Violence? What can we do to make sure today's youth aren't susceptible to the same kind of influence?"
"I was a lonely 14 year old kid that was hungry to do something that mattered -- that meant something. I joined because I was ambitious and susceptible. I was targeted by a recruiter, a charismatic individual.
We need to provide education and services geared towards young kids to keep them engaged...at a young age. People usually join extremist groups/gangs/etc because there are no other opportunities."
4. Fear of change, rather than sincerely-held beliefs, may keep some bound to their old ways of thinking.
"How many members do change? Is the story of a teenage kid getting involved in a gang, then leaving in their 20's a common one?"
"I think many change their beliefs but just don't have anyone to talk to about it. Their past drags them down like an anchor and they never seem to heal internally and lead positive lives. There were no support groups for this before Life After Hate.
On the other hand, others never do change and continue down a dark path."
5. The same things that led him to extremism are what allow ISIS to recruit so many followers.
"As a reformed extremist, how do you view our current (US Govt) approach to preventing extremist in our country?
The concern I have is that we have documented and/or recorded (by the internet or NSA) all of the youthful stupidity of all our country and many who would have outgrown this ignorance (as you did) may forever be labeled as a threat and never outgrow it. This may lead many to believe all hope is lost...
How do you respond to this?
tl:dr... kids do stupid shit and because it is forever recorded (and they know it), they will chose to keep on instead of reforming... what think you?"
"I don't really know what our govt is doing to stem extremism. I think there is a concern, but the concern is mitigated by poor programs and band-aid reform.
re: Internet. It's no different than a 14 year old black inner city youth who gets busted with a dime bag of weed. That stays with them forever and hurts his/her chances for success even though they may have grown out of it. Judge people based on their character, not past discretions."
"How do you think the world should handle ISIS?"
"We need to provide young people with opportunity so that ISIS isn't a viable option. ISIS is being effective because they are promising a perceived paradise situation, though it's all a lie, to young marginalized and disenfranchised people."
6. Deep down, he knew what he was doing was wrong.
"What was the first moment you realized that what you were doing in the extremist group was wrong and hateful? What other discoveries and occurrences led you to realize your extremism?"
"I wasn't raised racist, so I had small moments of doubt throughout my whole 7 year involvement. It didn't make sense 100% of the time. But my first real "moment of clarity" came when a group of us attacked a group of black youth at a McDonalds. They shot at us and when the gun jammed, we beat the gunman. While kicking him, I had a moment of empathy and it stung me."
7. Technology can be a blessing and a curse.
How so you think technology helps or hinders hate groups now? I'd think that tech used for recruitment could would be largest boon. Do you consider location tracking a concern for most members of similar groups? (I figure lower on totem pole louder the digital presence?)
"I think it helps AND hurts. It helps extremist groups because the reach is broader (social media), it's relatively anonymous, and it's cheap to use to recruit and disseminate propaganda. People can be racist without having to do it in person. The internet acts as a buffer. It hurts because it has a much more effective close rate (referring to recruiting) if it's performed by a face to face interaction. Closing the deal and keeping engaged has to be done in a high touch way."
Reading Picciolini's answers is difficult at times.
It's hard to imagine so much hatred and so many vile acts committed solely out of the desire to fit in. But his words offer a ray of hope: people, no matter how deeply-held their hatred might be, can and do change. Compassion, it turns out, is contagious.
If you know someone who demonstrates extreme prejudice against others based on ethnicity or religion, please send them Picciolini's words and help them let go of their hatred.
[Image credit: iStockphoto/stevanovicigor]