Psychology Sociology

The KKK Unmasked

...those who advocate for these ideas perceive themselves as victims in a world where their status has come under question.

Due to the recent horrific events, I decided to deviate from my series on identity to weigh in on the state of race relations in America. This is a major focus in my course on violence and society and an important issue I’ve previously discussed in my post on how the KKK is recruiting veterans.

When I posted my article on the KKK two years ago, I started it by stating the following: “The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) might sound like a cultural relic, hardly taken seriously in the 21st century, but it is actively recruiting American Veterans.” Who would have guessed the state of public discourse would come so far since then. Along with Nazism, these “cultural relics” have been revitalized by an unmasked mob of protesters openly advocating for white supremacy. To make matters worse, the president himself is apparently unwilling to fully denounce the movement.

So what is going on in the minds of those drawn to the ideas?

According to recent research by psychologists who surveyed 447 alt-right supporters:

…results suggest that members of the alt-right feel that the social positions of their favored groups are under threat…

Feeling like victims, their activities are conceived as a form of “justice”. As I stated in my previous article on the KKK, their group was birthed as a support-group for disenfranchised and disgruntled confederate veterans. Here is their original mandate:

“To protect the weak, innocent and defenseless from the indignities, wrongs, and outrage of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal; to relieve the injured and oppressed especially the widows and orphans of ex-Confederate soldiers”

Taking out the last line, one might mistake this for a contemporary social justice initiative or a counter-terrorist mandate. How could this be the mandate of one of the most infamous hate groups? This is because throughout history, the most extreme acts of violence are often committed for a perceived sense of justice.

There are many examples of violent conflicts throughout the history where this is the case, including the early crusades and countless acts of both domestic and international terrorism. Even murder-suicides are shown to result from this sense of justice, as argued by Thomas Joiner in The Perversion of Virtue.

So if “all sides” are motivated by the same sense of perceived “justice”, who is to blame? Whose version of “justice” is based in facts and whose is a perversion of fact?

Let’s take a closer look at the reasoning behind the white supremacists in the study mentioned above. The psychologists state:

…supremacists were most notably distinct from populists in their willingness to derogate other groups, including but not limited to Blacks. To illustrate, in addition to perceiving Black people half-way between the ape-like human ancestor and the modern “full” human (M = 51.45, SD= 33.35), supremacists similarly dehumanized Democrats (M = 52.15, SD= 33.90) and journalists from mainstream media outlets (M = 51.48, SD = 34.29), and rated both Muslims (M = 44.78, SD= 34.68) and feminists (M= 46.88, SD = 34.19) closer to the ape-like human ancestor than the modern human.

This bias stems from a racist narrative in early “scientific” accounts where whiteness was associated with the Ancient Greeks and their supposed “evolved” form of facial flatness, as represented in the following image:

When it comes to fact, anyone advocating for white supremacy has distorted reality to fit their idea of justice. Although it is obvious that racism is wrong, it is important to recognize that those who advocate for these ideas perceive themselves as victims in a world where their status has come under question. A 2014 study in Psychological Science corroborates this point:

…making the changing national racial demographics salient led White Americans (regardless of political affiliation) to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly. Moreover, the results implicate group-status threat as the mechanism underlying these effects. Taken together, this work suggests that the increasing diversity of the nation may engender a widening partisan divide.

Like the recent resurgence of open white supremacy, it is important to unmask the truth behind their motives through open discussion. Bringing these ideas out of the dark allows us to shine the light of reason on them. This is one goal I’ve maintained throughout my sociology courses and one I also uphold on this blog. I am interested in hearing your perspective, so feel free to share your own ideas and experiences.


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21 comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I’m also writing about this subject from the LOST CAUSE perspective. Since I’m from the south, I have first hand acquaintance with the types of people and the personalities of which you write. The two sides which fought the Civil War both used scripture to undergird their “holy cause.” As a pastor, I often remind people God’s word can’t be used to justify our will or our desires. I have great difficulty with the familiarity of alt-tight folks and conservative religious folks, especially if the latter won’t disavow them for their claims of racial superiority (that’s what having a separate white nation means–it follows from OT racial purity laws for the ancient Jews). I could go on & on, but then I would fill a document! There’s way too much hitler and far too little well grounded theology to call these alt right people anything but a dangerous cult.

  2. I once read about a black pastor who started getting vile phone calls from an old man who belonged to the KKK. The pastor didn’t hang up. He didn’t retaliate. He spoke loving words to that man. Eventually, they became friends. The old man was lonely and depressed. The pastor went to see him and brought him to church.

    “Overcome evil with good.” I guess it is the only way. It sounds crazy, but God’s ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts. When I first read about the Confederate statues coming down, I knew there would be horrible repercussions. I thought about what Jesus would do about statues of men who did wrong. He wouldn’t do anything, I’m sure of that.

    Would loving our enemy change them in this case. Maybe a few, but not the majority. Still, I think it is always best to go with God’s ideas rather than our own. Can we debate and show the KKK members facts and plead with them to be merciful and loving. Yes, we could, but again not many would choose the good path.

    I have a deep personal wish the United States would split into two countries. I suppose that will never happen. I have read California, Oregon and Washington State have people there supporting the idea of joining Canada. I live in Canada now. I have dual citizenship. I love Canada; it’s a wonderful country and I would love to see some of the States join up with us.

    1. Thank you for sharing this story! I agree that facts don’t tend to win people over. The sentiment you shared is one I’ve actually written quite a bit about in my recent articles and book on “Facilitating Change”.

      Also, glad to hear you love Canada! I am also from Canada and love it quite a bit!

  3. I would recommend researching the alt-right to find out what they believe. They are not KKK or Nazis, though those guys do exist on the right. After about 30 hours of watching their youtube content I would call them white nationalists and not supremists. I’ll do my best to sum it up here. They are a response to what they perceive to be a culture that is becoming increasingly anti-white. They see the shifting demographics of the native European homelands as an attempt to blend out the white race. They see how the racial make up of the US has changed since the 1960s through immigration and believe that progressive forces are trying to make whites a minority in America. They do not want to hurt people of other races. They want to “partition off” a section of the US and make it whites only. They feel that it’s the only way they can advocate for their own interests without being foiled by an increasing non-white minority block in conjunction with progressive whites. Any attempt to silence them confirms their fears and reinforces their arguments so you can’t fight them that way. If anything the way Virginia police behaved and the way the news media is portraying them will only grow their movement. If you want to fight them then let them speak and rebut their ideas. The alt-right marched on Charlottesville because they felt their heritage as white Americans was under attack, not to intimidate minorities.

    1. First of all, Alise, alt-right is just a euphemism for the extreme groups that make up its members (pro-Confederate, KKK, pro-Nazi, white nationalist, white supremacist, and some fundamentalist Christian theocrats). The term alt-right was made up by white supremacist, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer to make his ideology sound more acceptable. If you’re correct (and I’m not convinced) that white nationalists just want “to ‘partition off’ a section of the US and make it whites only” and “not want to hurt people of other races,” it’s still important to understand how they arrive at that “solution” for their fear. Why do they see the gains of others as a threatening loss for themselves? Why do they think being a minority is unacceptable? Could it be they assume the way they have treated minorities will be the treatment they receive?

      Although humans evolved in tribes and have difficulty overcoming tribal mentality, we CAN learn to view humanity as one race. A good start is the perspective of Carl Sagan in his essay “Pale Blue Dot” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p86BPM1GV8M — written for a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe 3.7 billion miles from earth. The path to a better world is not through anyone’s paranoid fears. It is through a radical view of humanity as one interdependent clan. Like it or not, we are all in this together. The alt-right ideology is dangerous and destructive.

  4. Compelling topic Steve, thanks for your insights. I had an impromptu reflection on related topics… (I’ve gone a little off-topic here, but in a systems-theoretical sense, it is all connected.)

    I am interested to reflect upon the extent to which technological facilitation now plays a role in creating active social and cultural bonds and networks between what may otherwise have been unconnected individuals or small groups. Complex, emergent information networks and social interdependecies are breathing new life into political ideologies which, while already ensconced in some demographics and communities and (as you indicate) also actively and selectively engaged in targetted recruiting, otherwise may have been dying the slow death of atrophy and irrelevance which eventually comes to most unrepentant irrational anachronisms.

    The curiosity of information networks (i.e. technologically-mediated social networks) is the extent to which the distributed, “virtual” nature of such systems might give them the appearance of more significance or mass-density (and effect) than they might otherwise possess. This kind of systemic hydra represents a non-trivial “wicked” problem for governance and education or otherwise information-systems interdiction. Where so-called “alt-right” ideologies intersect with those other and associated “victim” ideologies and conspiracy theorists of all flavours appears to be a particularly fertile ground for the emergence of various martyrdom pathologies.

    An unremitting and endemic problem that exists in our contemporary massively inter-networked, complex (effectively – non-linear) social and cultural systems is that of a certain ecological or evolutionary principle. In every instance and locale or informational context where we (global governance, law, policing) have attempted to crush, disempower or delegitimate the purveyors of politically-motivated ideology/violence, it appears to unwittingly generate new opportunities and niche contexts into which new actors/nodes insert themselves or from which they emerge. Like as in an evolutionary context, successful behaviours breed (- select for -) successful behaviours and this creates an unsavoury enigma for governance and education/interdiction in this context.

    The problem of politically-motivated violence in its current distributed and diverse manifestations (i.e. not specific to any particular ideology or cultural, national or international context) is symptomatic of something else perhaps indistinct, uncertain or as yet only partially identified. While it is possible to isolate this particular issue of white supremacy in North America to some extent for any kind of intelligible functional analysis, I wonder: 1) the extent to which all political violence (of which there unfortunately are so many flavours, internationally) exists on a spectrum which indicates similar psychological and socio-cultural motivations/impulses which might indicate some abstract unity of interdictive technology or approach; and, 2) if, in terms of information and communications networks, any successful interdiction must exist on more than just an orthodox hierarchical strategy (mirroring government and governance) but also at the distributed, decentralised and self-organising network level that these problematic and destructive ideologies are themselves capitalising on.

    1. If you had been inclusive in your description of the people in costumes filled with hatred and violence you would have pictured both sides of the current protest scene and I then would agree with you they must be stopped.

  5. Great post. I strongly agree that although white supremacy is definitely condemnable, it is also important to truly find out what is hiding beneath it and what drives one to adopt such extreme ideologies. Understanding is key to a solution.
    It was also interesting to hear about the so-called ‘association’ of whiteness to the Ancient Greeks and therefore to ‘evolution’. It has always troubled me how racism as a phenomenon even began occurring in the first place. I mean yeah, slavery definitely played a role, but how does a person even begin to recognize another person as something foreign to them. It seems so odd to me.
    Anyways, once again, great post.

  6. It’s spookily similar to the ISIS mentality.
    With ISIS, the individuals believe that their way of life (i.e. strictly adhering to Islam) was under threat by ‘infidels’. They also seem to use attacks as a form of justice

  7. What I find interesting is the mandate quoted sounds similar to James 1:27, a bible quote about orphans and widows. A counterfeit Christian can be caught when they take take a verse and twist it to their liking. The real Christian verse does not limit to one set of people: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
    James 1:27 NIV
    http://bible.com/111/jas.1.27.NIV

    There is also a sense of purity in that verse as it sounds like a way to achieve perfection so I can see why they once twisted this to form their mandate. I think the current trend is a mixture of ego and fear. All we can do is remind people of our history as to why we don’t tolerate racism.

  8. Great post. There’s so much behind all of the hatred and anger that I’m scared it will never be resolved. But I just have to have the hope that new leadership, such as yours, will arise to help us confront all of the real issues causing this mess.

  9. It may be that “the most extreme acts of violence are often committed for a perceived sense of justice.” But I wonder, unless it is an attempt to right the wrongs of perceived injustices against oneself. Too often, it seems to me, we are fed the notion that we are victims of outside forces, immigrants given advantages we are not, governments pandering to ethnic minorities, foreigners, usually dark, taking away jobs even though, truth be told, I really don’t want to scrub latrines, or work in fields picking berries. If I’m a failure, if my life is lousy, it’s not my fault, I’ve worked hard and see others doing less and getting more. It’s a picture of victimhood and largely untrue, I suspect. Too many gripe about workmates doing less and getting more, who know how to game the “system” while the “honest”, the “real” worker, usually me, gets left behind. The world is full of victims and those political opportunists feeding the line that that is so. Too many look outwardly to excuse they lack of successes when the real culprit can often be found simply by looking in the mirror. Racism and bigotry are just mad attempts to somehow grasp the brass ring even as we flee the ugly truth of what we are: miserable souls incapable of even reflection or honesty.

    1. Great reflection! Thank you for sharing your personal experience. I agree that a victim mentality is not generally productive on an individual level. Although this is the case, there are still real victims in the world, since we are far from a state of complete equality. Would you have any suggestions on how a victimized group might advocate for themselves without falling prey to an unhelpful victim mentality?

      1. All I would suggest is not allow oneself to be defined by anyone. It is important to be armed with knowledge and facts. That may not change the mind of those who refuse to be informed their minds closed and as useful as a rock not allowing for growth; but it may do wonders for those standing on the sidelines uncertain of where they stand. One voice heard may lead to a chorus; it’s the chorus we need.

    2. I like what you’re saying here. I also have noticed the trend of victimhood as a prized goal. It is the ultimate blanket we can comfort ourselves with when looking at our lack of success or maybe the “unfair” success of others. A post you may be interested in (not mine, this isn’t a plug) is one by Jonathan Haidt on the source of microaggressions. He talks about the movement from the culture of Honor (think the wild west, standing your ground, iron on your hip) to the culture of Dignity (I may suffer, but you can’t break me) to the culture of victimhood (running to an authority to plea for them to help you; finding peer groups to mob the perceived predator). Of course, he goes into much greater depth and breadth on the topic than I can here.

      You can find the article here, I think you’ll enjoy it: http://righteousmind.com/where-microaggressions-really-come-from/

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