Skip to main content

Why do racists and anti-Semites kill?

By Kathleen Blee
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
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
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT