On a cloudy Saturday in early 2012, I took my kids to a playground located near a small pond in the center of a rural town in upstate New York. While my kids were busying themselves in the playground, I walked to a small gazebo near the pond. When I entered the gazebo, I found out that all its walls were sprayed with racial slurs. I was surprised, after all, that town was considered by many as “almost” a suburb of New York City, and part of an upscale socio-economic area. It took me a few years to learn that what I have witnessed reflected the new geography of the American white supremacist subculture.
In the last decade, my team and I compiled a dataset that documents more than 5000 violent incidents that were motivated by far-right ideology. These incidents occurred in the United States between 1990–2018 and aimed against property and human targets. This data unveiled some important and surprising comprehensions about the geographical spread of the violence perpetrated by White supremacists, neo-Nazis, Skinheads, and modern militias. Moreover, it provides valuable insights about the factors which facilitate far-right violence and how we can counter it.
A geospatial analysis of far-right violence in the US reveals that diversity drives far-right violence.
The most ethnically diverse states in the country (such as California, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersy, and Florida) are also the ones that experience the highest levels of hate violence.
In contrast, states which were perceived for many years as the hotbed of white supremacy and racial conflicts, the Deep Southern states, experience much less violence. Except for Texas, none of them are ranked in the top 15 in terms of the number of far-right attacks.
How can we explain the significant correlation between the state’s ethnic/racial diversity and the level of violence it is experiencing, even when controlling for other factors, such as population size? After all, most of the states which suffer the highest levels of hate-related violence are considered hubs of progressive politics and social tolerance, especially towards minorities. In order to answer this question, it is vital to consider two related dynamics.
First, the relative size of the Hispanic and Asian population, and especially their growth rate, seems to be the most significant predictor of the level of far-right violence at the state level. Hence, areas which are experiencing demographic diversification, and mainly the absorption of non-white populations, are the ones that are also enduring the highest levels of far-right violence.
A second dynamic is the increasing upwards mobilization of minority groups in the last couple of decades, especially of Hispanic and Asian Americans, which leads many of them to relocate to the suburbs or more rural towns, which are still close to metropolitan areas.
The outcome of these two dynamics is that communities, which until recently were reasonably homogeneous and experienced limited interactions with minority groups, are experiencing changes in their demographics and social, cultural, and political characteristics. It is not completely surprising then that some members of these communities, who feel that such changes are breaking the traditional social and economic fabric of their town, express their dissatisfaction via militant activism.
Further intensify such dynamic is the association which many veterans suburbanites perceive between the arrival of the new population, especially Asian Americans, and increased competition in the labor market, especially over middle-class job opportunities (which demand a college degree).
The current spread of hate violence to rural and suburban communities in “Blue” states reflects a profound policy failure. The diversification of entire communities presented substantial challenges to local municipalities, which most lacked any systematic policy mechanism that can help with the effective integration of the non-white “newcomers.” In many cases, these led to changes in the cultural and social practices of these communities, which unsurprisingly led to a backlash and acts of hate violence.
Countering violent radicalization, especially from the far-right, demands not just engaging with individuals who are already members of far-right groups but also developing policies that can facilitate better integration of immigrants or minorities into communities that had little past experience with ethnic and religious diversity. We should focus on preventing social situations that will drive people to the open hands of far-right groups and not just trying to de-radicalize those who are already embraced militant far-right ideology.