How White Supremacists Use Victimhood to Recruit

A sociologist explores how racists paint themselves as the innocent ones.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

As they marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday, the pack of white supremacists chanted “you will not replace us.” Their rallying cry prompted a viral Twitter thread in which the user Julius Goat asked, “Replaced as ... what?”

“I would so love to see these people get all the oppression they insist they receive, just for a year. Just to see,” he wrote.

It may seem puzzling that the racism of these white men—the most powerful group of people in the world—is motivated by a sense that they’ll be wiped away somehow. But according to research on white supremacists, a sense of victimhood is exactly what groups like these use to grow their cause.

In a 2000 article, the sociologist Mitch Berbrier examined dozens of white supremacist media appearances and publications and discovered a pattern of carefully crafted victim ideology. Victimhood, it seemed, is how the groups assured themselves they weren’t being racist—the excuse being that, hey, they’re suffering too.

In his study, Berbrier found that white supremacists believe:

(1) that whites are victims of discrimination

White supremacists seem aggrieved by their sense that civil rights movement has tipped the balance in favor of minority groups. Here, Berbrier cites David Duke’s organization, the National Association for the Advancement of White People, as positioning itself as a counterpoint to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:

The NAACP promotes racial discrimination by seeking discriminatory policies against white people in employment, promotions, scholarships, and in college and union admittance, while the NAAWP seeks equal opportunity for all, with preference for the hardest-working, most talented, and best-qualified ... The NAAWP seeks greater racial understanding and goodwill by showing that when all things are considered, blacks have enjoyed far more benefits from whites than they have endured privation. American blacks have the highest standard of living, the greatest educational and employment opportunity, and by far the most democratic and civil rights of any blacks anywhere in the world. (NAAWP News, 1980)

The group’s newsletter, the NAAWP News, ran items with headlines such as "Anti-White Discrimination Accelerates,” Berbrier notes. Today, this sentiment survives as the myth that affirmative action, for instance, constitutes “reverse racism.”

(2) that their rights are being abrogated

As a corollary, white supremacists believe whites are denied the right to their own publications and advocacy groups—a right enjoyed by minority groups. As the KKK leader Thom Robb put it in 1992, according to the study: “The issue isn't who's superior ... Even if we [whites] were nothing but a race of cavemen, we still have a right to preserve our heritage and culture and give that to our children. Nobody has the right to deny that from us. And that is the attempt that's being done today.”

(3) that they are stigmatized if they express "pride”

Berbrier points to the following quote in a 1991 issue of The Populist Observer, the newsletter of the Populist Party: “Blacks, Orientals, Indians and Hispanics are taught to love their history, while whites are being taught to hate their own.”

According to Berbrier’s analysis, these supremacist groups feel that if whites do express pride in their heritage, they are branded racists and bigots. He writes that their euphemisms, like “heritage preservation” are so-called “ethnic affectations designed to destigmatize white supremacists and separatists alike by implying that they are just another ethnic group with similar needs.”

This is reflected in the obsession with Norse culture and mythology among some of today’s white supremacists. Since this paper was published, at least six domestic terror plots were conducted by so-called “Odinists”—racist adherents of an ancient religion, as Reveal News reported. The rituals of the Odinists—using Germanic phrases and drinking mead from horns—seem like attempts to recapture a bygone time in an all-white land.

One adherent, a Holocaust denier named Brandon Lashbrook, explained the appeal of the religion to reporter Will Carless: “Races just don’t really mix well, especially if whites are the minority among other racial groups—if we’re under attack or we’re threatened. It just doesn’t ever work in our favor.”

(4) that they are being psychologically affected through the loss of self-esteem

Berbrier points to examples of supremacist literature that claim the inability to express white pride produces a feeling of being “crushed” and the “Nordic spirit” being “broken down.” One news item in the NAAWP News pointed to a high suicide rate among white men as a sign of this supposed despair. Consequences—even imaginary ones—are essential to painting yourself as a victim, according to the sociological theory of "the dramatization of injury and innocence.” In other words, you’re just a blameless bystander; your attackers are everywhere, and they wish you harm.

(5) that the end product of all of this is the elimination of "the white race."

White supremacists fear the white “race” will be “eliminated” through intermarriage, immigration, and low birth rates among whites. The solution, to them, is racial segregation: the ultimate safe place in which to breed only among your own people. "Only in isolation, both physical-mental and genetic can Caucasians survive either here or in the world,” wrote one supremacist in a letter, according to Berbrier. “It has gotten to a point of not being a matter of ‘white, Caucasian' supremacy but rather survival.”

These claims of subjugation may seem silly coming from whites, a group that still earns more, lives longer, and feels overall happier than African Americans do. But as Berbrier shows, victimhood is a powerful psychological mechanism for recruiting members, galvanizing around a cause, and forming what is essentially a support group—for people who really don’t need support.

As Berbrier writes, the psychology of victimhood has come in especially handy for white supremacists when their tactics get violent, as they did on Saturday. “This could be manifest as the argument that white supremacists are simply concerned with the survival of their people,” Berbrier writes, “and that if some on the fringe feel that urgent action is required as a result of dangers posed by sinister outside forces, that is understandable.”