Skip to main content

Why do racists and anti-Semites kill?

By Kathleen Blee
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kathleen Blee: Belonging to hate groups motivates racists and anti-Semites to kill
  • Blee: People drift into hate groups for white power music, or the allure of aggression
  • Blee: They come to think the white race is under threat and violence is the only answer
  • She says Kansas killings not isolated act: Racist groups underscore and fuel violence

Editor's note: Kathleen Blee is distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She has published extensively on why people join racist groups, including the book "Inside Organized Racism" (University of California Press, 2002). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Why would somebody kill complete strangers near a Jewish center, as happened Sunday outside Kansas City? Or open fire at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee two years ago? Or shoot a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, as the nation witnessed in 2009?

The most common answer is that such perpetrators are irrational and full of hate. That they resent Jews, Sikhs and anyone different from them. And that they look for opportunities to act on their hate.

Kathleen Blee
Kathleen Blee

This is true. But it is only part of the explanation. And perhaps not the most important part.

The people who kill strangers in the name of white or Aryan supremacy do hate. But their hatred is shaped and given direction by the shadowy world of organized racism.

The 73-year-old accused in the Kansas City killings, Frazier Glenn Cross -- also known as Frazier Glenn Miller -- was a longstanding activist in white supremacist, neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups with a lengthy track record of violence and attempted violence. Wade Michael Page, identified in the Milwaukee-area murders, was a 40-year-old racist skinhead and mainstay of the white power music scene. James von Brunn, 88, charged in the attack on the Holocaust Museum, drifted around the edges of white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups and ran a website of racial hate.

It is not correct to think of organized racism as simply how people express their hatred of others. Organized racism shapes racial hatred. It takes racism and gives it urgency and direction. It turns racists into racist terrorists.

Frazier Glenn Cross, a 73-year-old Missouri man with a long history of spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric, is seen in a police car Sunday, April 13. He is suspected of fatally shooting three people: a boy and his grandfather outside a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas, and a woman at a nearby assisted-living facility. Frazier Glenn Cross, a 73-year-old Missouri man with a long history of spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric, is seen in a police car Sunday, April 13. He is suspected of fatally shooting three people: a boy and his grandfather outside a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas, and a woman at a nearby assisted-living facility.
Deadly shootings in Kansas City suburb
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
Photos: Deadly shootings in Kansas Photos: Deadly shootings in Kansas
Hear suspect's anti-Semitic rants
Accused Kansas shooter's racist politics
Kansas suspect's hometown 'not surprised'

Consider what happens as people join racist groups. Certainly, some people are attracted to skinhead gangs or Ku Klux Klan chapters or neo-Nazi groups because they dislike nonwhites. But others slide into this world with less clear motives.

Opinion: U.S. right wing extremists more deadly than jihadists

They might not even particularly hate nonwhites or Jews. Instead, they drift into white power music scenes and become acquainted with neo-Nazi skinheads. Or they are befriended by people who seem to share their concerns about crime, the perceived deterioration of their children's schools or the degradation of the environment; these friends then introduce them to racial explanations and racial solutions for crime, schools and the environment. Or they are pulled in by the allure of violence and aggression without much thought for its racial targets.

Regardless of how they enter, the web of Klan, neo-Nazi, racist skinhead and white supremacist groups organizes and intensifies how people hate. It teaches them to hate in a specific way and toward a specific end. In a world with its own distorted racial ideas, recruits learn that Jews are the enemy, the source of evil, the hidden conspirators who control the world and choke off the aspirations of Aryan peoples. They learn that the white race is on the brink of extermination due to a "race suicide" as nonwhites have more babies than whites. They learn that whites are the real racial victims, oppressed by all others.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that in a world of racial enemies and devastating racial threats, violence is easily understood as an answer. Even as a necessity.

The violence expressed in Sunday's shooting outside Kansas City should not be dismissed as the isolated act of a deranged man. Like the terrible acts that proceeded and will no doubt follow, the Kansas events are the product of a world in which violence is too often portrayed as a means and an end.

What the killings say about U.S. hate groups

People from this world who shoot innocent people in parking lots, in museums, in community centers do so for a reason. They have learned to see this as their mission. It is the same mission that drives them to post websites with the most virulent expressions of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. And draw swastikas on billboards. And march down city streets. And burn crosses. It is the mission of terrorism, the desire to inflict fear, to damage a community by attacking or threatening its members. It is a plan that organized racism teaches and that its members sometimes tragically enact.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT