For those aware of them, all the signs were there with James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old charged this week with murder after driving into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va, and killing Heather Heyer.
Fields’s high-school history teacher has described him as infatuated with Nazis as early as his freshman year of high school. Fields has a history of abusing his mother. Domestic violence is not always a predictor of terrorist behavior. But it is a common thread in the backgrounds of men who engage in terrorism.
Though the white supremacist group Vanguard America insists Fields was not a member of their organization, he was photographed standing with them, wearing one of their shirts, and carrying one of their shields. Just as you might get a free tote bag at an event, the shirts and shields are a way to solicit new members. For people who only think of something as racism when it includes Klan robes or swastikas, Vanguard America’s uniform of a white polo shirt and khakis wouldn’t immediately raise any red flags.
That under-the-radar presentation fits with new recruitment measures being used by white supremacist groups to lure children into their movements. Cartoon characters like Pepe the Frog have been co-opted as symbols of this new wave of hate. Micro-celebrities on Instagram and YouTube, often called influencers, peddle racism alongside workout gear.
One of the most notable example is Felix Kjellberg, known on YouTube as PewDiePie. With upward of 53 million subscribers and billions of views for his videos, he has made a fortune — and even netted a partnership with Disney-owned Maker Studios.
His videos had regular anti-Semitic or Nazi-themed content, but it wasn’t until he solicited performers on a freelance site to write “Death to All Jews” — which he later claimed was a joke — that his partners at Disney, YouTube, and Google rushed to distance themselves.
PewDiePie’s comments have made him popular with neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which describes him as “our guy.”
“He could be doing all this only to stir things up and get free publicity,” the website said. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, since the effect is the same; it normalizes Nazism, and marginalizes our enemies.”
Videos like PewDiePie’s help prime kids for a practice called “red pilling,” which takes its name from the movie “The Matrix,” where the red pill supposedly opens one’s mind to “truth.” Red pill practitioners, usually an older teen or adult, preach that white people are the real victims. Lines like “illegals come here and go to college for free” or “affirmative action is why you didn’t get into school” are common. Users of the technique attack programs that fund education for undocumented students with financial need, but proclaim it is unfair that kids with wealthier parents have to pay for college. And they of course avoid mentioning scholarships and programs that help low-income students of all races. White supremacist recruiters know that nurturing and playing on a false sense of unfairness is more effective than overt calls for hatred or violence.
One reason it’s effective is that covert racism is normalized, and even passively encouraged, by “colorblind” parents who fail to interrogate their own harmful beliefs, like blaming low pay, crime, or losing a job on people from marginalized communities.
By reflecting the mundane racism a child has heard at home, and then pushing it further, racist recruiters can convince kids they are preserving white identity.
Once that’s done, it’s easier to draw young people to a hateful, intimidating march like the one that took place in Charlottesville.
Recruiters of course claim that people like Fields and Dylann Roof, who shot nine African-American churchgoers, are rogue outliers, and that their violence has nothing to do with white nationalist ideology that names nonwhites as the enemy. That’s obviously not true, but it’s a convenient claim that makes their cause seem less objectionable.
Today’s racist recruiters are more subtle than those of the past. And that’s why it’s vitally important that everyone be aware of their techniques and alert to warning signs. And understand this reality: Bigotry breeds best in ignorance, and that knows no age limits.
Mikki Kendall is a writer and cultural critic with a focus on feminism, race, and representation. She can be found on Twitter @karnythia.