Our misconceived picture of racists

We typically associate racism with loners, men or the economically marginalized. However, this is not necessarily the case, according to Kathleen M. Blee.

Ku Klux Klan is one of the racist Groups Kethleen Blee has studied. (Photo: KKK night rally in Chicago c1920, Wikimedia commons)

- Such misconceptions arise because media and scholars focus on two groups of racial extremists:the self-proclaimed leaders and those arrested for catastrophic acts of violence.But most racial extremists do not fit into either of these groups, says Blee.

She is Professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburg in the US. For over 30 years she has dedicated her research to racism and extremism, and she has interviewed a number of members of extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.

On the 22nd of October she will be giving this years’ Eilert Sundt lecture at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Oslo.

Complex women

One of Blee’s findings is that racists and extremists are much more complicated than they appear at first glance, even though she points out that she firmly disagree with their views and actions.

- Perhaps the most striking aspect of getting to know people in racial extremism is that they are almost never like the stereotype we have of such people.

One such misconception is related to gender, far from all of these people are men. In neo-Nazi groups, women often play central roles and can be full participants in the group's violence. 

- The Ku Klux Klan is more traditional in its approach to gender and Klanwomen are mostly in the background, helping male leaders prepare rallies and teaching children the tenets of Klan beliefs.But even in KKK, things are changing and one major Klan has a woman in an important leadership role.

Need of understanding

Blee draws attention to the invaluable insight of talking directly to group members of racial extremist groups. This approach gives an understanding beyond reading the propaganda produced by the groups.

She firmly believes that a better understanding of the people drawn to racism and extremism is the way to prevent violence and discrimination.

- I am convinced that we can make progress in preventing people from joining racist groups and convincing current racial extremists to leave the movement if we better understand this world.

Many forms of racism

Racism is far from dead; it rather takes on many forms that have led to considerable conflict in many places around the world, according to Blee.

- Xenophobic attacks against people who are different from the majority population in a country, efforts to ban or restrict immigration by people from certain countries, racist views of Muslims and Jews, and conflict among ethnic or religious groups that takes a racist form are, sadly, evident across the world, she says.

- Looking at the US today, is there more or less racism than when you started your research 30 years ago?

- Over the past 30 years, there is less overt racist talk among whites, especially talk that describes nonwhites as inferior to whites.

On the other hand, there is still considerable cultural racism, referring to the belief that nonwhites are held back by the traits common to their group culture such as a low work ethic.

Blee finds that discrimination against nonwhites has become less overt over the last 30 years. However, it has been replaced by discrimination of nonwhites on nonracial grounds.

- An example is laws that make it more difficult for poor people to vote in states in which a significant proportion of poor people are nonwhite.

- What would be your best advice against racism and extremism?

- My advice is that racism and extremism is best addressed firstly by being open in naming it when it occurs.Extremist groups are best confronted by exposing their beliefs and tactics, especially to the young people who they often seek to recruit, says Kathleen M. Blee.

 

By Gro Lien Garbo, Amalie Kvame Holm
Published Oct. 20, 2015 2:50 PM - Last modified Oct. 20, 2015 2:50 PM