Randy Blazak On Why White Supremacy Persists
Portland, Oregon, has a reputation as a city with progressive values, a love of nature, a strong LGBTQ community, and a heavily Democratic voter base. The television comedy Portlandia satirized it as the home of women-only bookstores and restaurants where diners can visit the farm that raised the chicken on the menu. But Oregon also has another, less-well-known identity as the only state to have been admitted to the union with a law in its constitution excluding black people. Though the law was repealed in 1926, this unsettling history has drawn many racist organizations to the state over the years.
It has also attracted one of the nation’s foremost experts on hate groups, Randy Blazak. A former professor of sociology at Portland State University who also taught at the University of Oregon, Blazak has monitored the activities of racist skinheads, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen, as well as newer far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. As chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes (CAHC), he’s worked with government agencies and community and civil-rights groups to combat racism and protect those targeted by it. According to an annual FBI report, hate crimes against persons (as opposed to property) reached a sixteen-year high nationally in 2018, with notable increases in attacks against Latinos and transgender people.
The left-wing antifascist group Antifa also has a large presence in Portland and is known for clashing with ideological opponents in the streets, sometimes damaging property and assaulting Proud Boys and others. The CAHC does not support such tactics and rejects “violence in any form, including against those who may perpetrate hate.”
Blazak grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a notable gathering place for the Ku Klux Klan. While doing research for his master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, he went undercover to study racist skinheads and learn what motivated their hatred. He challenges the idea that we should automatically shun anyone who has held racist views. His research has shown that people who join hate groups are often motivated by economic uncertainty, alienation, and “old-school” masculinity, and over time they can change their views: a racist skinhead may become a “SHARP,” a Skinhead Against Racial Prejudice.
Blazak is married to Mexican artist and writer Andrea Blazak-Barrios, and he left his position at Portland State University in 2015 to stay home with their daughter and work as a consultant and speaker. He currently teaches at Portland Community College and is the co-author of Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws and editor of the anthology Hate Offenders (randyblazak.com). He’s been an expert witness in court cases ranging from homicides to “a case about a teenager who got a bit crazy in a mosh pit.” He’s worked with the National Institute of Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center and has appeared on the BBC, NPR, CNN, and Al Jazeera. Since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Blazak has increasingly been asked to explain phenomena not just on the fringe but in the political mainstream.
Before becoming a leading expert on hate, Blazak was manager of the Atlanta rock band Drivin’ N Cryin’, and the modest Portland bungalow he shares with his wife and daughter also houses a substantial record collection. He says he’s witnessed, through his wife’s experience, how the racist, anti-immigrant politics of the Trump administration create fear. Lately his work has focused on collective trauma suffered by members of marginalized communities. In conversation he often interrupts his observations with asides about music or irrepressible chuckles that belie the seriousness of his work.
Schmid: You’ve described Stone Mountain, Georgia, as a “Klan town.”
Blazak: Yes, the Klan town.
Schmid: How did growing up there shape you and your work?
Blazak: Well, first of all, I wasn’t born there. My family is from Ohio, and my dad worked in the steel industry. When the industry collapsed, we moved south and ended up in Stone Mountain in 1972. One of the first things I learned as an eight-year-old newcomer was: the Civil War never ended. [Laughs.] I was branded not only a Yankee but a “damn Yankee,” which is a Yankee who moves to the South and stays.
Stone Mountain has a giant carving of three Confederate “heroes”: Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee. If I couldn’t immediately name who was depicted on Stone Mountain, I would get punched. I had a friend whose dad played guitar and knew all these great country songs, like “Wildwood Weed.” I liked the man, but he was a known member of the Klan. Until the 1980s the Klan held regular rallies every Labor Day on property around Stone Mountain. The lake I swam in as a kid is named for the family of James Venable, who founded and was a longtime leader of the National Knights faction of the Klan.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s schools in DeKalb County weren’t integrated through forced busing, but we had something called “majority-to-minority transfer”: if you went to a school where you were in the racial majority, you could voluntarily transfer to a school where you would be in the minority. Not a lot of white kids decided to go to majority-black schools, but there were some black kids who came to majority-white schools hoping to get a better education. As the number of black students at my school increased, the Klan showed up to hand out flyers on the edge of the parking lot. I remember a man dressed in normal clothes, but with a Klan pin, handing out literature about how the “invasion” of black people would bring crime, rape, drugs, and gangs. And the next day the flyers would be all over the school. It just breaks my heart to think about those black students who left their neighborhoods in search of better schools and then had to deal with this.
As a kid I did have the feeling that my neighborhood was changing, and I was conflicted about it. The music that I loved most had black roots. A black friend in my folk-guitar class had turned me on to early hip-hop and reggae. Music was my world. But I also was susceptible to the Klan’s message. For our senior ring we could pick the stone, and for mine — which is somewhere in this house — I picked mother-of-pearl, as sort of a subtle white-power symbol. I wanted to defend my whiteness against all this change. I didn’t really have the intellectual tools to make sense of what was happening. I was probably one of those kids who would say, “I’m not racist, but . . .”
Then I went off to Emory University and took a sociology class. It was as if a light went on. They should have called that class “Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong,” because it helped explain things that I had just sort of accepted in my hometown.
Schmid: Some skinheads stole your Vespa scooter in 1986. You’ve described this as a pivotal moment. What happened, and why did it become so important to you?
Blazak: I had been a fan of British “mod” subculture since I was fifteen years old. [The mods were youths who wore tailored clothes, rode Vespa scooters, and listened to R & B and early British rock bands. — Ed.] In college I sold my car and bought a Vespa. I was part of a little scooter gang in Atlanta. We would protest whatever Ronald Reagan was doing that week, and we started having run-ins with the local skinheads. They would show up at demonstrations to defend Reagan and label us all communists. Sounds familiar, right?
When I was in grad school, my scooter went missing. Someone told me the skinheads had stolen it and set it on fire in a field. Suddenly this skinhead problem was serious, now that it had affected me. [Laughs.] The skinheads may have been harassing people of color, women, and feminists, but now that they’d stolen my scooter, it was personal.
So I switched the focus of my master’s thesis. Until that point I’d been working on something about shipping trends in the Netherlands in the 1600s, but I had no passion for it. Then the skinhead thing came along, and I had passion for that.
Schmid: As research for your master’s thesis, you hung out with racist skinheads in Orlando, Florida, for thirteen months. What was that like?
Blazak: I’d decided that the most effective way to do my research was to go into the movement as if I were a sympathizer and find out what motivated them. The skinheads in Atlanta knew me, so I went to stay with my younger brother in Orlando. I located the skinheads there and played the part of a sympathetic, naive white guy. I let them recruit me at a Danzig show.
It was both exciting and scary. I got off on being a spy in this alternate universe, but there was always a risk of discovery. The skinheads were highly paranoid about infiltration by police, civil-rights groups, and journalists, so I was always being asked questions. When I finished my master’s thesis in 1991, I was glad that part was over. But I wanted to turn it into a dissertation, which meant I had to show that these racist groups weren’t just a Southern phenomenon. I had to do more interviews and more infiltration in places like Chicago, which was really the birthplace of American skinheads. Those guys are hyperviolent, and that was a bit dodgy. I also went to Europe and did interviews in Berlin with neo-Nazis who claimed their grandparents had been in the SS [Schutzstaffel, among the most brutal and feared Nazi groups — Ed.].
Schmid: When you went undercover, did you look the part? Did you shave your head and wear steel-toed boots?
Blazak: I played the role of a subculture kid they could recruit. At the Danzig show I had on my jean jacket with the Metallica patch. If I had shaved my head, I wouldn’t really be the one asking questions. I would already know what it was to be a skinhead. So I always played the naive guy on the margins, which gave me permission to ask questions like “What’s ZOG?” [ZOG, or Zionist Occupied Government, is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about Jews secretly controlling Western governments from the shadows. — Ed.]
It was a weird world. One time I went in for a meeting with my adviser, and I had this shiner. My eye wasn’t swollen shut, but I had a pretty good bruise there. “What happened to you?” he said.
“Oh, I’m just working on research,” I said.
Schmid: Did that happen in a mosh pit?
Blazak: No, there was a fight at a skinhead house over who was whiter: One guy had brown eyes, and a guy with blue eyes said, “I bet you have something in your history that makes you not white.” The brown-eyed guy was offended, and a fight broke out. They were rolling around on the ground when the blue-eyed guy bit a chunk of the brown-eyed guy’s ear off. Blood was spurting, and I was trying to break up the fight, because I was the most sober person there. That’s when I got punched in the face.
But that’s not the end of the story. They had a house cat named Adolf, and the cat grabbed the ear and ran under the house with it. [Laughs.] I swear to God. I was together enough to know that if we got the ear, we could take it to the hospital, and they could sew it back on. So there were drunk skinheads in the crawl space calling, “Adolf! Adolf!” Meanwhile blood was pouring out of this guy’s head. Finally we went to the hospital without the ear. The doctor offered to take skin off the guy’s butt and fashion something that looked like that part of his ear, and all the skinheads immediately started calling him Butthead. So he said no and left. He might have had a big chunk missing out of his ear, but nobody was calling him Butthead.
One thing I learned from that incident was that most of the violence these guys committed was among themselves. They talked a lot about going out and beating up people and racial holy war, but mostly they were trying to prove to one another how tough they were. I began to look at their racist posturing as a performance of masculinity. That helped me frame what was going on. Until then, I’d focused on the changing economy, deindustrialization under Reaganomics. Now I realized these guys also saw gay rights and feminism as an attack on their masculinity.
Read the full interview at thesunmagazine.org