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What happens when militant white supremacists reject their identity as white supremacists? Scholars Pete Simi, Kathleen Blee, Matthew DeMichele, and Steven Windisch interviewed eighty-nine former members of white supremacist organizations in an effort to find out. They discovered that the process of disengagement from the “totalizing commitment” and “complete identity transformation” of hate is much like that of an addict trying to stay clean.

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The four researchers ask, “Why do individuals who have already rejected white supremacist ideologies and left the movement have such a difficult time shaking their former thoughts, feelings, and bodily reactions, and, in many cases, come to think of themselves as being addicted to white supremacism?”

To find answers, they looked to former members of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian Identity, as well as neo-Nazis and racist skinheads, to elucidate the appeal, persistence, and lingering effects of adherence to white supremacist ideology.

Their survey included sixty-eight men and twenty-one women, ranging in age from nineteen to sixty-one. They had been members of white supremacist groups for as few as three and as many as twenty-one years. Many had histories of criminal conduct, from shoplifting to murder. At the time of the survey, eleven described themselves as lower class; forty-three as working class; thirty-one as middle class; and five as upper class.

According to the researchers, white supremacists use hatred of “outgroups” to “establish group boundaries and ideological coherence.” Their identification allows them to “feel outside of themselves and part of a larger being.” It’s not just belief; it’s a life and a lifestyle. One “former” says it took “less than two years to learn hate and […] nine years to unlearn it.”

Noting that drug use triggers dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps us feel good, Simi et al. point out that certain conditions, like having strong ties, high levels of commitment, and long-term exposure, reinforce the urge to repeat actions that release dopamine in the brain. “Social environments and related identities may generate neuro-physiological changes that over time mimic addiction,” they write.

Identity, in this view, becomes a dopamine activator, and this is particularly true of a collective identify formed by “marginalized insular groups that cultivate strong emotions such as extreme hatred.” This is likely to produce “continuing cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses that are involuntary, unwanted, and triggered by environmental factors,” even among those who remove themselves from the context of these groups.

The authors do not endorse the idea of “once a hater, always a hater” but do argue that “any kind of powerful identity will leave traces on the remainder of a person’s life.” Change is possible, but past identities may linger “while continuing to shape future selves.”

One participant in the survey, a former racist skinhead known as Doug, noted that white supremacy was about how “you order your life,” every aspect of it. “You’re presenting an image and projection is something that’s in your heart. It’s deep-seated,” he said. “Not to say something that is deep-seated can’t be dislodged but it’s about recreating a new life.”

Considering alt-right “efforts to rebrand white supremacy to appeal to a younger and more tech-savvy generation,” as the researchers put it, creating new lives away from the violence of the movement has become more important than ever.

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American Sociological Review, Vol. 82, No. 6 (December 2017), pp. 1167-1187
American Sociological Association