A Library of White-Supremacist Hand Gestures

The Anti-Defamation League has published an online catalog of the symbols, flags, and slogans used by hate groups. Is this an educational tool or a portal for perverse curiosity?

In the online library of white-supremacist symbology, one may find the following: No fewer than 18 kinds of crosses, illustrated in various colors. The numbers 12, 13, 14, 18, 28, 38, 43, and more, all of which denote specific skinhead messages. Menacing tattoos on irritated-looking white skin, and weird contortions of white fingers. Flags, slogans, hand gestures, T-shirt art, and logos; sketched illustrations and actual photographs of burning crosses.

It's right there on the Anti-Defamation League's website: Its "visual database of extremist symbols, logos, and tattoos" relaunched yesterday, adding about six dozen new symbols and a host of technological improvements to the online archive of supremacist illustrations. They call it exactly what it is: "Hate on Display."

Mark Pitcavage, ADL's director of investigative research, said the database has existed in a scaled-down form for around 15 years. When it was originally launched—"with 1999 technology," he noted—it quickly became the most popular part of the organization's website. It's been used by police officers, teachers, religious leaders, military recruiters, and more; it's intended as a resource to help people recognize hate-related graffiti that shows up on the side of a school, skinhead tattoos on potential employees, or even signs of a potential hate crime. "There are hundreds of different uses," Pitcavage said. "We want the general public, if they encounter these symbols, to recognize them."

Some of the symbols were surprising: Band logos that have been co-opted into Aryan flags; random combinations of letters and numbers that seem totally normal, but apparently carry hateful meanings; and slogans that protest against "anti-racist skinheads," a seemingly paradoxical group of people. Pitcavage said his team is "constantly bombarded with the symbols of hate groups," but they have a careful selection process for what they include. "This database could be a whole lot larger, but we’re not going to put up a symbol of some sort of group that’s small and that we think is going to be ephemeral."

For all the good this database can do, like helping police recognize hate-related violence or teachers spot early signs of gang activity, it seems like a fraught educational tool for the Internet age. The dark corners of the web would exist without the ADL's help—a quick Google search reveals a world of hate-filled message boards, declaration-filled blogs, and prideful, racist YouTube videos. Still, it's difficult not to feel morbid fascination scrolling through column after column of supremacist symbols; it's like reading the diary of a murderer or seeing the sterile dissection of an alien species. For being so simple, symbols convey incredibly complex and detailed meaning; these symbols, in particular, invite a perverse sociological curiosity about the logic of extreme racism and bigotry.

This is the awkward, almost distasteful dimension of this kind of database, which literally puts "hate on display": It may be operationally useful or even empathy-inspiring, but it's also fascinating both intellectually and in a way that appeals to our baser instincts. That doesn't make it bad or unhelpful, but it does illuminate a strong motivation for learning. People want to understand the freaks who are human beings, an obtuse species that has taught itself to scream racial epithets and decorate its bodies with art galleries of anger. In some ways, suburban soccer moms and casual city dwellers are much harder to understand than bigoted hate groups—white supremacists see the world in an clearly twisted way, whereas subtle, graceful bigotry is much harder to penetrate. Clicking through a catalog of obvious hatred is an attempt to dissect how hatred works, maybe even with a vague hope of controlling it.

When I asked Pitcavage about this quality of the ADL's database, he was unmoved. "In the 20 years of dealing with extremist related issues, I have not encountered that," he said. "People who have a morbid fascination with extremism—those people tend not to gravitate toward something as mundane as symbology."