What Risk Factors Make Young People Vulnerable to Recruitment?
We don’t know all of the risk factors that make a young person vulnerable to white nationalist recruitment. Research indicates that certain types of background conditions are common among those who respond to white nationalism, but every case is unique. It’s important to bear in mind that the great majority of adolescents encounter these sorts of personal and social issues without turning to any form of political extremism.
So while we discuss below a number of known risk factors, these should not be viewed as predictors of white nationalist engagement. They may, however, help explain how a young person who has in fact become involved with the movement felt attracted to it, and suggest ways to help these young people disengage by addressing the underlying issues that initially motivated their involvement.
And in terms of prevention, understanding these stress factors and providing extra support for young people who experience them—before a white nationalist does—may also strengthen a young person’s resistance to recruitment.
Gender and masculinity
Members of white nationalist groups are overwhelmingly white males. This is true for both old-style skinhead or neo-Nazi groups, and for more recently emerging groups that stress political activism. Boys and young men who feel unsure of their masculine identities tend to be more vulnerable. White nationalism offers a clear path to proving masculinity through aggression and provides a group of comrades who support one another in training for or displaying aggression.
History of bullying or social trauma
Young people of either gender who have been routinely subjected to bullying at school or at home are more vulnerable to white nationalist recruitment. Feelings of shame and humiliation are heavy burdens, and one way to escape the pain is to inflict humiliation on others. Because white nationalism in America stigmatizes non-white minorities, it offers white youths who have suffered bullying an opportunity to exchange roles, joining with others to targeting a different group.
Alienation from other social groups
Networks of mutually supportive friends are important, and a young person’s network may frequently shift. White nationalist recruitment is an invitation to join a radically different social network. Its appeal may be strongest to young people of either gender who have lost attachments to other friendship groups or have been excluded by others. And once new recruits express tentative interest in white nationalism, their old friends may become even more distant, thus increasing the attraction of the new white nationalist friends.
A sense of grievance
White nationalist engagement is not generally linked to conditions such as poverty or unemployment. The most common white nationalist recruit has a middle-class background. But white nationalism often appeals to people who feel that changing conditions have deprived them of opportunities they think others have. A father’s job loss, a family’s income decline, fewer summer jobs, and a general feeling of downward mobility can lead to a sense that the world has given a young person a bad deal. A young person may manage these personal disappointments by accepting the idea that society has turned against white people and unfairly privileges non-whites.
A sense of idealism
It may seem strange, but some young people are led to white nationalism through an idealistic search for a way to make the world better. White nationalists say that evil forces are destroying a virtuous country that was founded on moral principles somehow characteristic of white people. A vulnerable young person may believe that committing to the movement is an act of ethical heroism.
We can see this idea in the lyrics of white power music, which can be a strong element in attracting young people to the movement. While the sound and the appearance of the performers may seem to reflect only violence and hate, the words often include a powerful message of idealism:
It seems that life is going to be uphill all the way
But you won’t yield, it’s no surrender until your dying day
For your ideals mean more to you than very life itself
For the pride you feel is all you need, it’s more than any wealth
- Skrewdriver, “I Can See the Fire”
We often view anger at injustice and a passionate commitment to fighting for a cause as positive traits in a young person. But when combined with trauma, alienation, or a sense of grievance, these commitments can also open a gateway for white nationalist recruitment.
Other risk factors
Young people in the white nationalist movement are sometimes led to it by family members who are already committed or who are newly engaged and actively recruiting. Friends or classmates who model white nationalist identity can draw more young people to the movement. And among young women who become engaged in the movement, many are following the lead of a romantic partner. Histories of criminal activity and incarceration play an important role for some young people, as the environments of criminal gangs and prisons are arenas of white nationalist spread.
Major sources for the section on gender and masculinity include Michael Kimmel’s Healing from Hate, which emphasizes the role that masculinity plays in radicalization, and Christian Picciolini’s Breaking Hate. For a discussion of women in the white nationalist movement, see Caroline Kitchener, The Women Behind the ‘Alt-Right’.
Kimmel and Picciolini are also key sources for the role that trauma and shame play in making kids vulnerable to white nationalist engagement. Picciolini is particularly focused on this issue. He sees the attraction of white nationalism as based on typical teenage searches for identity, community, and purpose, with a critical factor being the presence of what he calls individual “potholes,” unresolved traumas centered on experiences of shame. The documentary video Healing from Hate explores the role of trauma in individual cases, through conversations with former white nationalists.
The key role that grievance and a sense of unfairness play in radicalization of all kinds, including white nationalism, is the core thesis of Why People Radicalize, by Kees van den Bos.
Research on vulnerability is also explored in J.L. Berger, Extremism, and discussed in Preben Bertelsen, Danish Preventive Measures and De-radicalization Strategies: The Aarhus Model, which examines conditions that led to radicalization in a European context.
One important theme shared by all these sources is that poverty or unemployment alone are not risk factors. However, in contexts of rapid economic or social change, those with fewer resources are more likely to perceive their situations as unjust, especially when compared to others who have fared better during periods of transition.
“Women comprise about a quarter of the white supremacist movement.”
- Michael Kimmel, Healing from Hate, 162
“The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence. The purpose of violence is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it, as far as possible, with its opposite, pride.”
- Quoted in Kimmel, Healing from Hate, 19
“Hatred for others often reveals itself as the projection of gaping deficits of love or respect for oneself.”
- Christian Picciolini, Breaking Hate, 136
Updated, October 2021