Interviewing members of the white power movement in the United States: Reflections on research strategies and challenges of right-wing extremists

In this chapter we explore selected methodological aspects and issues related to researching the white power movement in the United States during the last several decades. Typically, published articles and books are the final polished products of research emphasizing significant findings and do not provide much detail on the research process itself. As George succinctly concluded, ‘A piece of research does not progress in the way it is “written up” for publication’ (quoted in Merton, 1968: 157). After examining 41 articles including interviews with extremists, Harris, Simi, and Ligon (2016) recommended that researchers increasingly rely on interviewing and provide greater methodological transparency and consistency.

Given this increased focus on interviewing and transparency, we discuss our own work on right-wing extremism that used interviewing and observation of US white power rallies and other events starting May 29, 1992 with a rally of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Dubuque Iowa and ending with the National Socialist Movement’s rally in Kansas Gity Missouri November 8-9, 2013. These events typically occurred over a two-day period, although some took place for one day and others (for example, Aryan Nations’ “World Congresses”) for three days. Speeches by prominent supporters of white power ideology were often on the agenda. When it was possible, we contacted potential participants in advance to ask about interviews, but mainly we requested interviews during the events although we also did some telephone interviewing. We first review the work of three other authors on this topic and then we examine in depth our research on white power supporters in which we consider questionnaire development, gaining access to events, our emotions, use of rapport and empathy, and stigmatization of researchers on right-wing extremism.

Significant right-wing extremist white power research of three authors

First, we examine the work of three scholars who have interviewed white power activists between the 1990s and early 2000s and provided relatively contrasting yet rather extensive methodological information. Each author has numerous publications, but we highlight their methodology based on their books. Our major criterion was that they actually talked with white power supporters and used their discussions with them when reporting their findings. We know two of them personally and the third was quite helpful when contacted.

Jeffrey Kaplan, a scholar of religion on millenarian movements, right-wing extremism and terrorism, uses an interpretive perspective to ‘translate the perceptions of the subject movement into a text that provides the academic audience with an insight into the group and lives of its members’ (Kaplan, 2016: 46). The interpretive approach is not intended to ‘explain away’ or excuse violence that has originated from millenarian movements, although the much greater resources and power of the federal government indicates they have greater burden to avoid confrontation (Kaplan, 2016: 39, 44). Kaplan (2016: 39) suggests that a Weberian detachment is needed with the researcher placing his or her own preconceptions and biases in abeyance as much as possible in order to provide the adherent’s view of the world ‘regardless of how repugnant that view may be to a mainstream audience’ (Kaplan, 2016: 48).

He believes research like his requires considerable interaction with both leaders and supporters and it could take years ‘to earn even a qualified degree of trust’ as one interacts with members and their families (Kaplan, 2016: 39—40). Developing rapport is not easy. If achieved, it influences both the scholar and the movement. Kaplan (2016: 31) defines empathy as ‘the ability to “see through the eyes of the other.’” The researcher must be careful not to become ‘captured by the movement’s worldview’ (Kaplan, 2016: 39).

Kaplan (2016: 177) discovered those studied were ‘considerably less threatening than their public image’ although they did have repugnant political views and fantastically eccentric interpretations of sacred text. He described them as isolated and strange people who felt too much and understood too little and who ‘In their words and deeds they harmed mainly themselves and their families’ (Kaplan, 2016: 10). What is especially significant for Kaplan (2016: 11) is the following:

the fact that the ‘we’ and ‘they’ are both human beings and have important commonalities ... by failing to recognize the humanity which binds us together, we lose the opportunity to do what anti-racism should be about: to try to bring the angry and the outcast back into our midst.

Kaplan (2016: 3) strongly believes demonization of the radical right does not facilitate our understanding of them. Participant/observer methodology and face-to-face interviewing, especially if conducted in the interviewee’s home, are important since they provide nonverbal information and ‘the aura of demonization ... fades away’.

Kathleen Blee (2002), a sociologist, engaged in in-depth, unstructured lifehistory interviews to study women in contemporary racist groups focusing on tensions created by their inclusion in the movement. Life histories provided unstructured presentations of women’s life stories and personal narratives that have a beginning, middle, and end (Blee, 2002). Their material helps determine social identities and ideology as well as provide semantic context for their statements and can uncover possible patterns to peoples’ political and personal lives. She acknowledges that respondent statements still need to be treated with caution and some events may be distorted by memory or omitted or downplayed so the results of narratives can be both ‘revealing and concealing’ (Blee, 2002: 203, 10).

Blee used her personal contacts, parole officers, correctional officials, journalists, newspaper reporters, former and current racial activists, attorneys, police and criminal investigators, etc. to help identify potential respondents. She told them upfront that she did not share their beliefs and was actually quite opposed to them but promised to portray them accurately. She maintains her method provided a more representative sample than snowballing or interviewees based on their accessibility to the researcher. She interviewed both leaders and rank-and-file members from a variety of age groups.

Blee believed standard interviews are less useful than life histories because the former were likely to provide little beyond slogans and propaganda and could lead to problems determining the causal relationship between racist attitudes and movement involvement. Other researchers have relied mainly on hate group literature to answer these questions but that typically does not reveal whether activists have read this literature or how they interpret such propaganda. She also cites the work of ethnographer Barrie Thorne who saw fieldwork as adventure: ‘venturing into exciting, taboo, dangerous, perhaps enticing social circumstances; getting the flavor of participation, living out moments of high drama; but in some ultimate way having a cop-out, a built-in escape, a point of outside leverage that full participants lack’ (Blee, 2002: 13).

As a woman Blee believed she was safer because she was less likely to be perceived as challenging or a threat. She became more afraid when she understood her white skin offered her less protection than she initially believed. Although researchers rarely discuss their emotions in publications, Blee (2002: 12) mentioned ‘walking a tightrope’ between keeping a distance that showed she rejected their views and developing enough rapport so women would share their life history. Standard methods of gaining rapport such as agreeing with their beliefs and sharing details of one’s personal life weren’t realistic so Blee (2002: 12) used indirect and fragile measures such as sharing concerns about one’s body image once it was mentioned by the interviewee. She (2002: 13) felt relying on rapport was problematic but even more challenging was the ‘prospect of developing empathy for a racist activist whose life is given meaning and purpose by the desire to annihilate you or others.’ She identified mixed feelings regarding her work with respondents including fear yet intriguing, exciting yet horrifying. She became less afraid although ‘not unafraid’ (Blee, 2002: 18-19). As her fears declined, she felt so did her analytical edge (Blee, 2002: 19).

Sociologists Pete Simi and Robert Futrell used ethnography as their main methodology. Simi (Simi and Futrell, 2010; Simi, Futrell, and Bubolz, 2016) developed extensive contact with white power activists as he ‘conducted unobtrusive nonconfrontational field observations as both a participant and observer ... and relied on an empathetic nonjudgmental interaction style to build rapport and gain insight’ (Simi et al., 2016: 496). He used a snowball approach that ultimately allowed him contact with each of the major branches of the white power movement. He credits his ability to drink lots of beer and still control his faculties as means for gaining rapport. He describes himself ‘As a relatively nondescript “white guy’”, enabling him to blend into Aryan events.

Although he remained unharmed, Simi was occasionally accused of being an agent provocateur or allied with law enforcement and threatened with bodily harm. He (Simi and Futrell, 2010: 129) found participant observation ‘requires compromise of one’s beliefs and values to avoid conflicts.’ For example, he outwardly portrayed himself as sympathetic to the Aryan cause despite his personal rejection of racist and anti-Semitic views. He found participant observations and interviews ‘emotionally exhausting’ (Simi and Futrell, 2010: 129). He argued that deception was necessary to build rapport in this risky environment including laughing at racist jokes and agreeing when Aryans discussed white genocide. He recognized that some researchers take the honest and direct approach making it clear they aren’t open to recruitment and don’t share the same beliefs, but he felt that such an approach would compromise

the degree of intersubjectivity the ethnography can reach. I tried as much as possible to understand Aryans from that point of view... . I felt a tremendous amount of internal guilt and discomfort. The perversity and illogic of their world astounded me. Yet in many ways the form of Aryans’ lives was far more ordinary than I expected.

(Simi and Futrell, 2010: 130)

The authors faced methodological issues due to the secrecy in the movement and respondent engagement in illegal activities (Simi et al., 2016: 496).

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