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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT