Thoughts on Continuity and Change in White Power Movement Recruitment Strategies in the United States

By Betty A. Dobratz and Lisa K. Waldner

We focus on a few aspects of a very complex set of questions about recruitment in the white power movement (WPM), including cultural influences on the WPM, whether framing of recruitment strategies have changed, and what the future may hold for the WPM.  We discuss the perceptions of WPM members (WPMMs) in part because we agree with W. I. Thomas’s Theorem that perceptions can have real consequences whether rooted in fact or not (Robertson 1981:289).

We believe it important to place possible changes in WPM recruitment strategies in a broad historical and cultural perspective recognizing that societal changes beyond the control of movement members have affected WPM framing of issues.  The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, were instrumental in revitalizing a white supremacist countermovement and shaping it (Durham 2007; Omi and Winant 1994; Dobratz and Waldner forthcoming).   White supremacists experienced “a crisis of identity engendered by the 1960s.  The far right was attempting to develop a new white identity, to reassert the very meaning of whiteness, which had been rendered unstable and unclear by the minority challenges of the 1960s” (Omi and Winant 1994:120).   The CRM was relatively successful in promoting an ideology of equality of opportunity and stigmatizing blatant expressions of racism. Thus the WPM had to adjust its framing of issues to attract new members and create a new white identity.  WPMMs tried to argue that all they wanted was equality.  They proclaimed they were victims of discrimination due to policies like Affirmative Action that created special privileges for minorities.  In part to recruit members, whites were framed as the victims of hate who needed to save white culture (Berbrier 1998, 2000).

Racial separation was framed as a strategy to save the white race and attract members in the face of increasing desegregation in society.  White-controlled spaces could result ultimately in a white homeland (Dobratz and Shanks-Meile 1997).  WPMMs hoped such places would attract numerous recruits by offering them a safe haven.  Caiana, della Porta, and Wagemann  (2012:208) describe this strategy:  “Following increasing stigmatization of discourse of ethnic superiority, old racist-supremacist frames are also accompanied by a new discourse of defence of ethnic purity through separateness.”   WPMMs themselves are divided over strategy preferences related to meaning and use of the terms white supremacist and white separatist (Dobratz and Shanks-Meile 2006).  A very recent example of attempted white separatism involves Paul Craig Cobb buying land and hoping to recruit WPM sympathizers  to settle in Leith, North Dakota so they could control the community (see news stories by SPLC, LA Times, and Indian Country Today).

Ezekiel (1995) argued that what attracts many to the WPM is its possibility for violence although the typical member is not fanatical.  Our data, collected mainly with Stephanie Shanks Meile, support this;  87.5% (119 of 136) believed that violence was justified in the movement.  Leaderless resistance (LR), or the use of lone wolf terrorism, has been debated as an alternative or complementary strategy to above ground activities.  Most of those we queried about LR gave offensive responses (e.g., advance movement goals) as well as defensive ones (e.g., protect my family) when asked under what conditions violence would be justified.  Those that supported LR were more concerned about the WPM being infiltrated and more likely to reject having WPMMs run for political office, a strategy associated with institutionalized politics (Dobratz and Waldner 2012).

The availability and use of the internet and social media in general have certainly affected society and social movements making it easier to communicate and, according to the WPMMs, provide an important alternative to the “liberal media” and greater access to the middle class.   Raymond Barrett, who left the WPM, told us that “the internet has made it almost ‘too easy’ to get information” which resulted in “armchair activists” and “internet warriors” who “play ‘tough guy’ behind the safety of a computer screen….the internet put a face on hate… just as we could reach out to the world, the world could look in on us. And many in the Movement have reacted with paranoia.”  It does not seem that the use of the internet has resulted in the significant growth that the WPM hoped and others feared.

What does the future hold for the WPM?  We believe the movement will remain at the margins and at times grow somewhat and other times decline as long as race remains part of the fabric of society.  The search for racial identity will continue among a few. The WPM has adjusted to some changes in society by reframing its rhetoric and trying to find safe places, but this has not resulted in sustained growth. The WPM is under great scrutiny by government and nongovernmental organizations (Michael 2003) heightening potential costs of involvement.  Violent acts of terrorism, especially by lone wolves, will occur but most likely sporadically although their effects could be significant.  Since the WPM really did not revitalize itself and grow dramatically when Obama was running for President or currently during his administration, it is difficult to believe it will thrive unless cultural values in society change dramatically.  We recognize that racism persists in the mainstream, but that does not necessarily facilitate success in the WPM or what Blee (2002) calls extraordinary racism.  Other conservative movements like the Tea Party may develop and attract potential supporters of the WPM in the short run.  We (Dobratz and Waldner forthcoming) agree with Caiani et al. (2012), Durham (2007), and Omi and Winant (1994) that the centrality of racist ideology constrains the possible growth of this movement in contemporary society.


Berbrier, Mitch. 1998. “’Half the Battle’: Cultural Resonance, Framing Processes, and Ethnic Affectations in Contemporary White Separatist Rhetoric.” Social Problems 45:431-450.

———. 2000. “The Victim Ideology of White Supremacists and White Separatists in the United States.” Sociological Focus 33:175-191.

Blee, Kathleen. 2002.  Inside Organized Racism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Caiani, Manuela, Donatella della Porta, and Claudius Wagemann.  2012.  Mobilizing on the Extreme Right:  Germany, Italy, and the United States. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Dobratz, Betty A. and Stephanie Shanks-Meile. 1997. “White Power, White Pride!”The White Separatist Movement in the United States. NY: Twayne.

———.  2006. “The Strategy of White Separatism.” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 34:49-79.

Dobratz, Betty A., and Lisa K. Waldner. 2012. “Repertoires of Contention: White Separatist Views on the Use of Violence and Leaderless Resistance.” Mobilization 17:49-66.

———. Forthcoming. “The Cultural Repertoire of the White Power Movement in the United States.”  In Miller-Idriss, Cynthia and Fabian Virchow, eds. Cultural Dimensions of Right-Wing Extremism in Comparative Perspective. Wiesbaden Germany: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Durham, Martin.  2007.  White Rage:  The Extreme Right and American Politics.  New York: Routledge.

Ezekiel, Raphael. 1995. The Racist Mind. New York: Viking.

Michael, George. 2003.  Confronting Right-Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the USA. London: Routledge.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States. New York: Routledge.

Robertson, Ian. 1981. Sociology. N.Y.: Worth.



1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Racist and Racial Justice Movements

One response to “Thoughts on Continuity and Change in White Power Movement Recruitment Strategies in the United States

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