Winning Over White Supremacists–One Hater at a Time

Image from American

I am writing this piece with images of the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol still very fresh in my mind. It is a huge stretch to think of those brutal, sadistic, remorseless thugs and imagine summoning an iota of compassion for them. But others of their ilk–and many psychologists and researchers–say that’s precisely what’s needed.

They call themselves the “formers”: former Klansman, neo-Nazis, or generic white supremacists or other racial extremists who are now devoted to guiding those who’d followed similar paths to come to a better life.

Christian Picciolini is one of them. As a 14-year-old, he’d joined a violent group of white power adherents who became the “Hammerskin Nation.” As he described his feelings to Dave Davies in an NPR interview, the group threw him a “lifeline of acceptance…I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before—as if I was a part of something greater than myself.”

From that point, Davies writes, Picciolini fronted for a “white power punk band, White American Youth, writing and performing songs that inspired others to commit racist acts of violence.”

Music, it seems, is a key element in the white supremacy movement. In Picciolini’s case, music was also much more.

Eight years later, in the act of beating up a young Black man, “His eyes locked with his victim, and he felt a surprising sense of empathy.”

That was the beginning of the end of the neo-Nazi part of his life. But the greater impetus came when he opened a record store in Chicago to sell white power music (imported from various parts of the world).

To expand his clientele, he added punk-rock, heavy metal, and hip hop music. Among his customers were Black, Jewish, and gay people.

They knew, he said,

“how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.

“What it came down to was I was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it.

“I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with—that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me. Music brought me in, but in many ways it also brought me out.”

He left the movement.

In 2011, he co-founded a non-profit organization called Life After Hate, which helps members of hate groups choose a different path. In the 2018 NPR interview, he estimated he’d helped more than 100 people leave the extremist movement that had once consumed him.

“[Neo-Nazis] know that I’m a danger to them because I understand what they understand—but I also understand the truth.”

The premise is that though there was a “lifeline of acceptance” to draw Picciolini into that violent world, there was no such thing to help him get out. And there are many more like him. Life After Hate is designed to provide that help.

I watched a discussion about “Life After Hate,” sponsored by the Center for Humane Technology, which I’ve written about before. One of the speakers was Life After Hate’s co-founder and executive director, Sammy Rengel, who was a different sort of hater. He was a gang leader fighting white supremacists who saw himself as a revolutionary filled with rage and violence against law enforcement, government, and all white people.

The other speakers were Dmitri Kalantzis, who heads communications for Life After Hate, and Vidya Ramalingam, who collaborates with the group through the organization she founded, Moonshot CVE, which seeks to use technology to expand the outreach of the efforts to win over extremists.

The program was moderated by David Jay of the Center for Humane Technology.

Interestingly, the speakers were unanimous in their assessments of the needs of these people whom most of us have written off as hopeless—as well as the approaches that work.

And the big surprise to me was that ideology was not in the forefront.

Kalantzis said “the process of radicalization sometimes has nothing to do with ideology—at least initially.” It follows then, that “deradicalization isn’t about the ideology: it’s about helping the person behind the ideology.”

Rengel concurred with what Picciolini had expressed:

If you’re compassionate to someone hateful, they may respond more than if you’re judgmental.”

Ramalingam, a woman of color who has devoted her adult life to combating white supremacy, actually spent two years getting to know these people so she would be better able to reach them. She noted that when her organization sends individuals Internet messages to test which ones garner the best responses, those that focus on ideology simply don’t resonate.

But one of the most effective, including with QAnon devotees, was “anger and grief can be isolating.”

Ramalingam said:

“Armed groups reflect on the actions and behaviors of their loved ones and on their own needs for self care. Frustration, loneliness can be a driver.”

These people are “self-aware of their own needs and are looking for support.” Thus, those who seek to win them over should offer care when they are most in need.

If all of this sounds like being mushy-headed toward people who seem to us undeserving of such attention, Rengel stressed that you don’t have to feel you’re conceding your own values and beliefs, but in order to continue the conversation, you don’t simply condemn the values and beliefs of the person you’re trying to make a “former” extremist. As someone else said: “You condemn the racism–not the racist.”

Empathy and compassion, Rengel said, are combined with accountability and justice. The goal is restorative justice—focusing on rehabilitation and reconciliation with victims and the larger community—rather than punishment and vengeance. (I admit to having a hard time picturing this approach with some of those January 6th rioters.)

Skilled listening, Rengel stressed, can help the individual move from an emphasis on “my rights” to an appreciation of the rights of others.

Kalantzis confirmed that for many “formers,” accountability provided the pathway to change. “Deradicalization takes a lot of work. It’s not a linear journey.”

Exit services are hugely important, he said. “It takes society to accept an individual back into society.”

As in many things in life, timing is everything. Jay, the moderator, stated that he’d learned from a social media platform manager that when this company removes hateful messages, they contact the sender and explain why they’ve done so. Twenty-five per cent sent apologies and said they didn’t realize how racist their comments sounded.

Jay saw a lost opportunity: if the social media company had directed those expressing regret to a source for guidance, it might have prevented further radicalization.

It’s probably true that many of the January 6th insurrectionists could not be reached by the methods described above. But if it’s possible to make any kind of dent in the numbers of extremists, perhaps Life After Hate and organizations like it are worthy of our support.

Recall that Christian Picciolini was once writing songs encouraging violent racist acts and beating up Black people, and now he’s encouraging others who might be willing to commit such acts to pursue a different path.

Shane Johnson, a second-generation KKK member in Indiana, was described in a lengthy Mother Jones article as a vicious, angry person who beat up a Black man in front of the victim’s wife and children for no reason. The tattoo around Johnson’s neck reads “Jesus Was Not a Jew.”

But in jail for his crime, he felt remorse about what he’d done to that family. He came to see his life differently and escaped from the Klan, only to be beaten to near death by his former friends and family. Eventually, he, too found his way to Life After Hate, where he’s an anti-hate advocate. He calls himself “a civil rights activist.”

The Mother Jones article stated that:

“Confronting white supremacists online and in the streets may feel personally gratifying and politically urgent. Yet…deradicalization activists argue that much of what the left thinks it knows about shutting down racist extremists is misplaced. When it comes to changing individuals, denunciation may counteract rather than hasten deradicalization.

“If that seems like surrender, consider that some researchers who study hate groups think we should view violent extremism not only as a problem of ideology, but also as a problem of addiction: a craving for group identity, adrenaline, and the psycho­logical kick of hatred. As with substance addiction, there may be no silver bullet for curing extremism, only a lifelong battle to leave such impulses behind.

“Researchers have just started to understand possible connections between participation in hate movements and addiction. A recent peer-reviewed study by [sociologist Peter] Simi and three co-researchers found that intense experiences with violence and music can trigger dopamine responses similar to drug use.

“Over time, they found, extremist identities ‘may generate neuro-­psychological changes that…mimic addiction.’ Extrem­ists may beat people up or listen to hate music both to reinforce their beliefs and to get a kick. ‘I can listen to white-power music and within a week be back in that mindset,’ a former member of the American Nazi Party told Simi. ‘I guarantee you it’s an addiction.’”

It appears that a multi-pronged effort is needed to heighten the white supremacists’ willingness to enter a different world and to reinforce their ability to remain in the new milieu. This is a topic that has been gaining attention as the problem has grown, and will surely receive more careful examination in the wake of the Capitol insurrection.

Interestingly, President Obama had awarded Life After Hate a $400,000 grant in January, 2017, to both expand its efforts and help the Department of Homeland Security identify and oppose hate groups. In June, 2017, the Trump administration revoked that grant.

Seven weeks later, the infamous Charlottesville, Virginia, “rally” took place. Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists while continuing his attacks on immigrants led to greater public awareness of Life After Hate, and contributions rose from $32,000 to almost $800,000. One donation, of $50,000, came from quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

How do these approaches strike you? Encouraging? Enlightened? Wrong-headed? Other? I am wondering if an individual’s expressing and demonstrating remorse might be an important indicator of whether the efforts would succeed. That question did not arise in my research.


55 thoughts on “Winning Over White Supremacists–One Hater at a Time

  1. It’s an interesting concept, and the examples given show that it does work in at least some cases. I know, too, that a lot of the people who wind up members of extremist groups are lonely or social misfits who easily get drawn into any group that offers them acceptance and a social circle and a sense of purpose. If they’d happened to run into some other group — extreme left, or some religious cult — instead of a far-right gang, they might well have been absorbed into that instead, and then adopted whatever ideology and beliefs were necessary to fit in.

    It won’t work with everybody, because not everybody who joins such groups does so for those kinds of reasons. Some people are sadists and seek out any group that provides an outlet for their cruelty. Some people really do hate certain categories of people and seek out an organization that shares their hatred — for them, the ideology really does precede the group affiliation. And violent extremist groups do manage to recruit members even in cultures where social relationships are typically deeper and more inclusive than in the shallow and superficial American culture (I’m thinking of the Middle East, where the same types of people who become Proud Boys or neo-Nazis here end up joining militant jihadist groups). But if Life After Hate’s approach can reform even a fraction of the membership of such violent gangs, it’s well worth it, both to reduce the size of the problem and to provide the authorities with the help of cooperative former members who know and understand the gangs.

    I do have one reservation. How do those black people who were beaten up by Picciolini during his former life feel about his redemption? Shane Johnson apparently served some time behind bars for his crime, but unless I missed something, it’s not clear whether Picciolini did. Crimes need to be paid for, out of respect for the victims, if nothing else; and not everyone deserves redemption.

    Still, as a practical matter, the successes of the approach you describe are encouraging.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. People are complicated and I’m not sure that there really is an empirical answer to your questions, Annie. I think that there needs to be a lot more research, both of the journey into and out of hate groups. I do believe in redemption, but I know not everyone wants to change.



      Liked by 1 person

      1. There will certainly be more research, Tengrain. And I agree there’s no single answer: . But I do think that hard though it is to “condemn the racism, not the racist,” there are lots of possibilities in that approach.

        Nice to see you here. Thanks for commenting! I’d respond to a lot more of your interesting posts if you weren’t so prolific!

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Infidel: As I read your point about the same extremists being drawn to ideological polar opposites, I wondered why I’d been surprised that ideology was often not the prime reason. I’ve made this connection many times, as people found on one end of the spectrum subsequently show up on the other.

      I can’t answer your question about whether Picciolini served jail time; it’s conceivable he stopped himself in time and the victim didn’t press charges. I touched briefly on the issue of remorse: I do think its presence makes a person much more likely to adapt to change. Picciolini is worth googling; he’s really accomplishing. good things —even internationally.

      As to your reference to jihadists, I’m fairly certain I’ve read about those who have renounced violence.

      I wrestle with the idea of restorative justice; it fits so well into my basic belief system. And yet…

      Liked by 3 people

    3. Sorry to disagree, Infidel, but crimes do not have to be paid for, at least not in punishment. Retributive justice is the worst possible form of justice, it is built on vengeance, and blocks redemption in the cultural sense. Restorative justice is the real key to a better society. This said from personal experience. But restorative justice is not well understood by most white cultures. The “state” religion teaches us an eye for an eye, instead of a heart for a heart. If an eye for an eye ever worked, our society would have less imprisoned human beings. We actually have more than we should, because even mostly good people like you still believe crimes have to be paid for. Ask the victim of a violent crime if inside their heart they would prefer to see the perpetrator punished, or helped to understand why what they did was the wrong choice? Nine out of ten will not choose punishment, and seven will even offer to help that perpetrator to learn how to live a better life.
      An eye for an eye is inhumane, and it is time for the judges, juries, and executioners to understand this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rawgod: I appreciate this comment and think it’s an important contribution to the discussion. I mentioned that despite my world view, I struggle with the concept of restorative justice. Your response made me revisit and clarified my thinking. “A heart for a heart” resonates with me, and I thank you.


      2. No problem, annie. I actually tried to leave another comment on your blog, but was prevented from doing so by Word Press. I wanted to expand on my own processing of your post, but could not. I do not understand why.
        Restorative justice is very high on my list of things to be changed in our society, not just for moving away from hatred, but for moving away from retributive justice in almost all instances. I want to say all, but I am not yet sure what to do with psychopaths and sociopaths, murderers and rapists. Given what these people do it is hard to imagine how to help them, but still we must learn how to try better. There has to be a way, in my way of thinking.
        Likewise, how do we treat 64,000,000 people at a time who believe Trump is a god-like creature. You cannot put them in restorative classrooms, they will just feed off each other. You cannot put then in prisons, the sheer number of them is unworkable. You cannot send them somewhere else, that would be diastrous to whomever is there now. (Think of what happened in Australia!) Being Canadian, I could just call this America”s problem, but we have the same problem here, on a relative scale.
        I lost that commentlkv, but this was the gist of it, I think. I touched on a lot more tidbits, but those are gone for now. Maybe I will remember at a later date. Or maybe not…


      1. Thanks so much, Judy.

        Might you have Jill Dennison’s and/or Fandango’s emails? I got big red warnings on both that accounts could be compromised—not to click on links or respond—and to report the issue. I took screen shots to report to WP, but I don’t know how to get to them directly.


      2. I’m doing it now, Judy. WP advised me to change all my passwords, so that took some time. But since I had given them the information, and they’d informed me it was a spam, not a virus, it’s possible they took care of it and it’s no longer an issue. Thanks very much for your help.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. While it may “work in at least some cases” (quoting Infidel753), I suspect that the vast majority of such people will die as they lived: unrepentant. Nonetheless, if only one individual in a thousand (or even in a million) can be brought to ‘see the light,’ a “multi-pronged effort” will not be in vain.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this post, Annie. I’ve been wondering how we can possibly bridge to those whose behaviors and beliefs are so radically different from our own? Where to start? What’s the common ground? Here, finally, is an approach — and what could it hurt? It’s a beginning. It’s bound to work for some — the alienated, the lonely, the bullied . . . Agree with others here that it isn’t a cure-all — sociopaths, for example, or sadists will be unmoved. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Thanks for sharing this little bit of hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re most welcome, Denise. Certain a step in the right direction. You might enjoy the Mother Jones article; I couldn’t use as much of it as I’d like—including the story of the former KKK guy, Johnson.


  4. P.S. I still want to see Trump and the other Congressmen and Senators with no spine, no character, no moral compass, booted form office and/or in jail as the shoe fits. But as to the white supremacist mobsters, I’m willing to work with them.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Annie … this is a GREAT piece. I would like to re-blog it tomorrow … er, this afternoon (I lost track of time and just realized it is after 4:00 a.m.) if you don’t mind. Thank you for sharing this … it gives us hope.


  6. Yes Annie, enlightening to read about “Life After Hate”, which I will eagerly support. It’s chilling, but unfortunately not surprising to learn that their grant was revoked. If anything inspired me about our last administration, it was my recurring desire to be nothing like them. I’m encouraged that those with firsthand knowledge, like Mr. Picciolini, are dedicated to stamping it out.
    Last March, when my workplace was shut down, I frequently wondered about people whose lives revolved around participating in large group activities and how they were coping without their “addiction”. Even though the internet provides all sorts of ways to communicate, some found it convenient to call this pandemic a “hoax” and choose to go maskless as most of the mob was while attacking our Capitol. It horrifies me to recall that scene, but I’m hopeful that the Biden administration will do all it can to deal with such extremism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Fred–

      Interesting that you had that thought about people in large group activities and “addiction.” It’s widely believed that without the Big Lie from trump and his supporters in Congress, January 6th would have been far less likely. When you consider the purported impetus for the attack on Michigan’s Capitol and Gov. Whitmer, it was “loss of freedom” over her mask-wearing requirements. Though there would probably have been another motivator for the extremism without either of those two, it will be interesting to see if future historians and sociologists find the pandemic yet another ember that encouraged the combustion.


  7. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    In the wee hours this morning, as I was trying to catch up and visit a few friends’ blogs that I had not visited recently, I came across one that gave me pause. Since the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, extremist white supremacist groups have been much on our mind. It is easy to lump them together and think of those who perpetrate such crimes as something less than human, but … sometimes they just need somebody to show them that love is better than hate. Please take a few minutes to read Annie’s excellent post … you won’t regret it! Thank you, Annie, for the time and effort you spent on this … very thought-provoking!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Annie, great post. “Life after Hate” is an incredibly good name for an organization focused on change. I was sharing just today with an adult working with youth on civil discourse and addressing polarization about the success of a African-American man named Daryl Davis. Davis has talked over 200 members of the KKK to give up their robes and quit. How does he do it? He talks to them and asks questions. Then he listens and asks some more. He says people just want to be heard and often no one wants to listen. By listening it offers an avenue for them to hear him.

    In the absence of such exposure to people with different looks, colors, ethnicities, etc., fear seeps in. They become susceptible to fear mongers like the former president who uses fear as a tool to divide and conquer. The other thing I think we all can do is DO NOT BITE ON NAME-CALLING. When I see name calling, I see a person with a weak or no argument. The answer is not to cheapen the discussion with more name calling. That is precisely what the name caller wants – a mud fight. We should ignore name callers or offer a retort, I am happy to discuss your arguments, but name calling is not an argument.

    Listening, questioning, diplomatic push back will get us further.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This article and comments brought up so many snippets for me.
    First, it reminds me of your post on hunters recruited to help protect lions against poaching.
    Keith’s comment reminded me of a psych project I read about – college students were recruited for a study on attractiveness. Like many studies, the real reason was something else. The students were shown pictures of faces and asked to rate them for attractiveness. The sessions recurred a few times during the semester. At the end, the results were shared – those faces that the study participants saw most often were gradually ranked higher in attractiveness. Conclusion: familiar faces are more attractive, so exposure to people who are different breaks down a human tendency to view unfamiliar facial features negatively. Pretty much the reason for bussing, wasn’t it?
    Infidel’s comment reminds me that families are not always supportive. Some families support certain family members at the expense of anyone else. I am sure that some such influential members could drag their whole family into a cult if the cult is to their liking.
    And the comments on how to tell which people may be reachable reminded me of a story about Wallace. He was supposedly befriending black people, getting close to them in order to damage them and their communities, but getting to know them as *real* friends – and real people – ruined this plan. When he died his service was attended by hundreds and for this reason. Perhaps the only way to tell is to try it. Those who can outgrow the hate can be friends, can begin to see a different group as other humans. Those who cannot will refuse to be friends or will only fake empathy.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Because for many people politics is as deeply engrained as religion, bringing someone to the “other side” is extremely difficult. So it’s encouraging that some Qanon and other folks ultimately see the light. On the minus side, however, these people are often shunned by family and friends. A recent example is Rep. Adam Kinzinger, whose family accused him of being a member of the “devil’s army” because he was one of the few Republicans who condemned the January 6 insurrection and voted to impeach Trump. Kinzinger isn’t perfect (he’s anti-choice), but like the people mentioned in this post he showed courage.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I wholeheartedly agree with the approach. It’s the only way to turn people around. The technique described here is a personalized version of what humans have practiced in diplomatic circles for centuries. Confrontation begets confrontation. Those who hope to convince others need to begin with a peace offering, be open-minded, and an empathetic listener. I just read an article in the Harvard Review called Persuading the Unpersuadable. In that case, the article talks about trying to get the ear of a narcissistic, bullying boss, but again, there are parallels. People will only start listening to what you have to say after you’ve gained their trust.

    The more posts, articles, films… on this subject the better. Social media has accelerated our ability to spew out rapid-fire, often snarky, sometimes witty, repartee that mainly serves the author’s momentary ego but does nothing to forward an agenda. We need a collective change in attitude about how to effectively deal with an opponent. Thanks for another excellent post on a super important topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I was about halfway through when I thought of the similarities to substance addiction, and then you put it across so well. This, for me, is where the real conversation lies. It’s all very well (and correct) to say ‘it must never happen again’, but unless we have a path to redemption for these extremists who have gone so far astray, then the root cause of the problem remains. Fascinating topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does seem that addiction in various forms is a prominent issue. And while Johnson had trouble with drugs and alcohol, Picciolini had his music. In one post I wrote about music and the brain, one expert discussed the dopamine associated with music, which initiates pleasurable feelings but can progress to become highly addictive.

      The entire concept of Life after Hate, I think, makes what seems like an intractable problem more manageable.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I do not see this approach as controversial in the least. But then I grew up in a Christian home where “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemy” were taught as the standard.
    So even if we struggled to live it in practice we knew that doing unto others as we would have them do unto us was how things should be done.

    It appears from reading comments here that these bedrock principles of the Christianity that was once woven into American society are no longer widely accepted.

    As you might guess, I agree that the approach you report is a good thing. Hearts are only changed one at a time and that’s really the only way things will improve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a continuing struggle to find compassion for people who are doing odious things and are harming other people. But as you can see, I was impressed by the Life After Hate approach, and these folks seem to be successful in changing hearts one at a time. (They’ve had their own internal organizational squabbles to overcome as well, indicating their own personal foibles sometimes interfere with their mission. It’s hard work.)

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I don’t see that I commented on this at the time Annie, but it does remind me of the novel by Jodi Piccoult – Small Great Things – I found the book interesting as it dealt with how a person becomes a white supremacist – truly her best novel ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I can’t believe you also hit on music as a strategy. Apparently gaslighting acts on the same deep part of the brain as gaslighting. Perhaps music could also be part of the solution. This was a fascinacting post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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