I have lived in Lynchburg, Virginia for 55 years. I went to law school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I lived there for three years. I never have met a white supremacist member of a hate group in all my years in that part of the country. That is not what our central Virginia community is about. And Terry McAuliffe, our governor, was right when he said these people needed to go home. They're not of Virginia.” Jerry Falwell Jr., on ABC’s “This Week” (August, 20, 2010)
Political pundits on the Sunday (Aug. 20, 2017) news programs argued that Neo-Nazis, KKK, white supremacists, anti-Semites, Patriot militias, and white nationalists are evil but the influence on our communities is small. Representative Scott Taylor (Republican, VA) identified organized hate as a “very, very small piece of the population.” Mr. Farwell, President of Liberty University and quoted above, suggested that Virginia is free of organized hate. Sadly, such descriptions are not only wrong but ignore the significant risks—risks to our children and youth—associated with such denial.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC, 2017), there are 917 organized hate groups in the US. These groups, which are dispersed across the country, with 42 in Virginia alone, have an insidious impact on our neighborhoods (see the SPLC Hate Map). Additionally, there are 375 Patriot/Militia groups spread across the US. To put these numbers in perspective, there are 240 teams affiliated with the Major League Baseball clubs. It is unrealistic to argue that these groups do not develop in and promote ongoing cultures of hate, intolerance, and bias within our communities.
Additionally, organized hate is just the tip of the iceberg. In 1998, the SPLC reported, “Hate sites increase online, now numbering 163 in the 34 months since the first hate site went live.” By 2010, the Simon Wiesenthal Center documented “11,500 different hate sites - a 20 per cent increase over last year's study.” Today, hate is pervasive online. Any child or young adult with access to a computer, tablet, or smart phone will eventually come in contact with hate online. It is not a matter of if they will stumble across a hate site online but rather when and why. Most importantly, how will your child be targeted?
Hate groups target children, teens, and young adults, particularly for recruitment. Recent scenes from Charlottesville were largely young white men marching and chanting vile neo-Nazi slogans while carrying torches. Family members of these young men identified from video clips and photos expressed surprise and denounced their children and brothers. So how did these young men become so radicalized? Chances are they found a hate community on the Internet.
Hate groups recruit online via a variety of means. Most parents are probably aware of online hate sites and may even have put parental controls on computers to block out these sites. However, hate is often spread through free downloads of racist music, online video games (e.g., “Ethnic Cleansing: The Game”), chat rooms, viral emails, YouTube, blog sites such as WordPress, Twitter, etc. Social media is designed to help individuals build friendships and communities. As such, it also is an ideal forum for hate. Individuals meet, become friends, and are groomed by hate mentors. It is a path for youth to be influenced and become more extreme in their views. Sadly, it is also a path for the creation of “lone wolves” such as the young man who drove his car into peaceful protesters in Charlottesville killing Heather Heyer.
Additionally, there are hate sites, which endeavor to pass as legitimate sources of information. These “cloaked” sites mask hate in a veneer of acceptability. For example, if your child is assigned to do a paper on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, they may do an online search and stumble across www.martinlutherking.org. This site, with all the trappings of legitimacy, is actually a vile, racist misrepresentation of Dr. King and his work. The site is sponsored by and links to Stormfront, one of the largest online White Nationalists websites, which also provide online access to other hate groups. A simple search for terms such as Martin Luther King, Jew, LGBT, immigrant, etc. leads to a wealth of useful information but also to destructive webpages.
Adolescents and young adults are the prime target for recruitment. Hate groups, much like cults, seek out kids who are disillusioned, searching to find bonds of community, looking for a place of belonging, hope, and sense of status/power. Hate groups seek to fulfill these psychological needs. Blee (2002) in her research on why women join hate groups found that they joined because of “proffered images of community, identity, hope, and purpose” (p. 29)—the hate came later. Levin and McDevitt (2002) found that marginalized teens were also drawn to hate groups for a sense of family, belonging, and acceptance. As such, online hate groups seek to recruit vulnerable individuals, particularly kids and young adults, and then indoctrinate these youth into hate. Of course, when young adults move away from home, they may become increasingly vulnerable.
In addition to recruitment, children and young adults are too frequently targeted and bullied based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, intellectual or physical ability, and other diversity status. Online hate has an impact on their physical, social, and psychological well-being. Within schools, students may live and study within the same academic setting but have very different experiences within that environment due to an ongoing underground culture of hate and bias often manifested via social media. Such negative experiences impact health, quality of learning, academic performance, and retention of children who are the targets of hate.
So what can we as parents and communities do to help children traverse these dangerous online waters?
1. Parents need to talk to their children about the presence of online hate groups. Partners Against Hate in cooperation with the US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Department of Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, has put together a guide entitled, Hate on the Internet: A Response Guide for Educators and Families. This guide provides extensive information about hate online but also tools for talking with your kids about online hate. Another good source of information is Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, Facing Online Hate.
2. Parents and educators must work to help children develop and enhance their critical thinking skills. We must teach children to question online information, ask questions, seek out information and alternate explanations, evaluate evidence, become aware of biases, and articulate clearly their arguments and positions. Psychologist William Klemm has written Teaching Children to Think with lots of good links related to critical thinking.
3. In this day and age of “fake news” and an increasing number of news agencies with very specific target audiences, it is important that students also develop basic information and science literacy. Although focused on classroom teaching, psychologist Susan Nolan provides some excellent information aimed at teaching such literacy skills entitled Critical Thinking and Information Fluency: Fake News in the Classroom.
4. As parents, educators, and members of the community, we must foster in our children an appreciation and respect for diversity as well as fundamental human rights. Teaching Tolerance and Facing History and Ourselves are both good sites with information aimed at educators but useful for all who care about teaching their children about diversity. Another good source of information for parents is Janet Gonzalez-Mena and Dora Pulido-Tobiassens' article Teaching Diversity: A Place to Begin. The United Nations Association has put together curriculum materials related to teaching human rights as part of the Model UN program.
5. Parents must be vigilant in the same way they approach concerns about sexual predators online. As such, parents need to control and monitor their children’s computer use, their apps, and their online friends. There is a significant amount of information available online as well as in books aimed at keeping your kids safe in cyberspace (e.g., How do I keep my children safe online? What the security experts tell their kids).
6. Look for the warning signs. Pay attention to signs that perhaps your child is becoming radicalized, biased, or hateful. After Charlottesville, many a friend or teacher noted that they had concerns about an individual as they has witnessed a rise in that person’s hate speech. So pay attention to what you child is saying, doing, or with whom they are associating and take action. Don’t just assume that hate is a phase and ignore it. Also, look for the visual symbols of hate. The Anti-Defamation League provides a Hate on Display™ Hate Symbols Database, which can be useful in identifying hate-based logos on t-shirts, hats, or drawings.
7. The American Psychological Association has put together resources that can be valuable when discussing issues such as racism or confronting hate with your child. See, for example:
8. Remember that children and young adults who are drawn to hate groups often are just looking for a place to belong. As such, endeavor to provide your kids with productive alternatives whether through school, sports, outside organizations (e.g., religious, social, activity-based), and other groups through which they can build bonds of friendship, a sense of status, and personal accomplishment. Parental guidance, including guidance about friends and social affiliations, is imperative in protecting children and young adults from hate groups.
So, chances are you wouldn’t want your child to have lunch with a member of the KKK or a White Nationalist or a neo-Nazi. Yet, if they have access to the Internet, such evils may be uninvited guests at lunch. Be vigilant, be caring, and teach your children life's lessons aimed at respect and caring for all human beings.
Blee, K. M. (2002). Inside organized racism: Women in the hate movement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Levin, J., & McDevitt, J. (2002). Hate crimes revisited: America’s war on those who are different. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Simon Wiesenthal Center (2010). Press release. Retrieved from http://www.wiesenthal.com/site/apps/s/content.asp?c=lsKWLbPJLnF&b=4442915&ct=8430507
Southern Poverty Law Center (1998, Winter). Number hate sites increase online. Intelligence Report. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/1998/number-hate-sites-increase-online
Southern Poverty Law Center (2017, Spring). The year in hate and extremism. Intelligence Report. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2017/year-hate-and-extremism