We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating—black people can’t rid white America of its cancerous racism—that’s going to be an inside job, by them, for them. As we mark the one-year anniversary of the bloody disaster that was the so-called Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., it behooves us to start reckoning with the birth stain that touches all who live here, especially in the Trump era, where division and othering give some a semblance of identity and purpose.
The Root was able to catch up with a prominent former skinhead, Christian Picciolini, to discuss the new documentary he hosts airing tonight on MSNBC—Breaking Hate. In the hour-long special, Picciolini brings together a former white supremacist who participated in the Charlottesville riots with the mother of Heather Heyer, the anti-racist protestor killed by a virulent white supremacist.
Picciolini chops it up with us about how Trump is indeed the man in white supremacist circles, how these violent groups are targeting vulnerable young people online, and his thoughts on how to fix this (which he acknowledges may not be popular.)
The Root: Any thoughts on today’s Unite the Right 2 protest in D.C. today?
Christian Picciolini: Well, I would assume that the counter-protest is going to be exponentially larger than the white nationalist march. It’s really interesting, because a lot of leaders from last year, with the exception of Jason Kessler, have actually told people not to go. Now, that’s what they’re saying publicly, who knows what they’re saying privately, could be a big ploy. I don’t think they’re going to be in Charlottesville, which I think is a good thing because they’re still reeling from what happened last year and it’s going to take some time to heal. I think they’re going to show up in D.C. absolutely because it literally is the front yard of the White House, and they feel very supported by the president.
TR: How has Trump’s presidency helped to spread this movement of hate?
CP: I take it from the words of white supremacists themselves who say they love Trump and he’s their guy. Plus all his policies. All his policies have been about division and marginalization of people of color and it’s all been very supportive of white American culture.
TR: Would you say that white nationalists are feeling more emboldened these days?
CP: Yes, they are. It’s a really fast-growing social movement. Really, it’s not about ideology, it’s about a broken search for identity, community and purpose. And I can tell you it’s about purpose because I have Jewish mothers who contact me each week who say that their Jewish son has got a Swastika tattoo; or Mexican young people who are denying the Holocaust, they’re posting white nationalist propaganda. From my perspective, there are so many people who are joining this movement because they are accepted by it. I think we have to do a better job of raising and teaching our children [anti-racism] from the day they are born because the pre-radicalization starts the minute they have trauma or abandonment or have untreated mental health issues, or marginalization or being bullied.
TR: How has this white nationalist movement metastasized in the age of social media?
CP: White nationalist recruiters are very savvy at finding those young people. They’re going online in gaming forums, in depression forums, in autism forums, in multi-player gaming headsets. So they’re going to the places where marginalized people are. Unfortunately, the way the algorithms are, you’re sucked in once you start landing on these [racist sites]. The internet loves to curate these things for us. So you read a Breitbart story on Milo Yiannopoulos and suddenly you’re getting ads for Infowars and Holocaust denial sites, and the Council for Conservative Citizens where Dylan Roof landed after the Trayvon Martin shooting and saw black on white crime statistics that were completely falsified.
TR: How much responsibility to do these online publishers like Twitter have to stop hate speech?
CP: Companies like [Facebook, Apple, YouTube] are like a multi-unit apartment building. If there’s a tenant who is damaging the other tenants or damaging the building, or hurting somebody else in the neighborhood, I feel like that landlord has the responsibility to remove that tenant. And I applaud the other platforms for doing it. I think that it’s disappointing that Twitter is not a part of that. Twitter has said they can’t find the instances where Alex Jones broke the rules, but people have come out and found the instances where he had. Here you have a company with 3,500 people who couldn’t find one instance of policy violation, but two guys on the internet were able to come up with a whole list of things that violated. I don’t know why they’re making these decisions but I do know that they’re probably in business right now because of the president of the United States.
TR: What are your thoughts on this new movement by anti-racists to not participate in any media that gives a platform to avowed white supremacists?
CP: I can’t speak for the anti-racists or the counter-protesters that don’t want to speak on camera, but a white nationalist is not going to tell you the truth, no matter what platform they’re on. Whether it’s their own podcast or in mainstream media. They’re not going to tell you the truth, so if you want the truth about what white nationalists stand for, you need to talk to a former. Someone who was there, someone who saw it and got out and can tell you what it’s about. Not put somebody on who will spread propaganda. I think we need to talk about this, we shouldn’t sweep it under the rug. We need to talk about it but we need to talk about it in a way that presents a solution. We have to present solutions; we already know the problem exists, many people swept it under the rug, some people like me were complicit in it. But this is something that has been happening in our country for 500 years. And it hasn’t stopped.
TR: In the documentary, you profile a young man born into extreme poverty, who was bullied by black kids, his mom was physically abused and on drugs. But what of folks who are college educated white nationalists? What’s their excuse?
CP: Richard Spencer is a perfect example. He’s educated, his family has money, father is a world-class ophthalmologist surgeon, his mother is heiress to a Louisiana cotton farm. So what possibly happened to him could do that? You don’t know if there’s any underlying abuse, or if a divorce happened. I know people who come from great families but their dad committed suicide when they were 7. They live in the suburbs, but it was just something that person could never deal with. I think we have to get away from that idea that racists are born that way.
TR: I want to push back on that a little bit, because aren’t all white people indoctrinated as racists in America? No, you may not be holding a tiki torch on a college campus, but you voted for Donald Trump, and excuse his racism, so...
CP: The reason I became a racist is that I felt abandoned by my parents and because they were immigrants working seven days a week, 14 hours a day, and I thought what did I do to push them away? I wasn’t mature enough, and I got recruited when I was 14, and in order to keep that family and get an identity … there were all sorts of issues with identity crisis there were massive abandonment issues; at a young age, I started getting depressed and eventually I started projecting that self-hatred onto other people because it was the only way I could feel better about myself. It doesn’t matter if you’re dirt poor, or if you’re from a Jewish family—if the conditions are right, it’s really easy for someone to swoop in and identify you, whether it’s the Islamic State or a Neo-Nazi or a gang leader or anyone who is trying to manipulate you based on your fears or your isolation, or you trying to find out who you are.
TR: What are the solutions as you say?
CP: We need to acknowledge it. We still have not ever acknowledged our own holocaust that happened in this country which happened with Africans and with Natives. We need to start acknowledging that calling America a “nation of immigrants” is a really privileged statement. It’s a nation of immigrants, it’s a nation of Natives, and it’s a nation of the ancestors of the enslaved. That is what America is.
Also, and this is not really going to be a popular thing, but every person I’ve ever worked with—and I’ve helped over 200 people disengage and even my own story—was the empathy from the people that we least deserved it from when we least deserved it. That was the most powerful thing. Now I’m not saying it’s the responsibility of people of color, or the victims, or anyone’s responsibility to do that, but I can tell you it’s the only thing I’ve seen break hate. Hatred is born of fear, it’s born of ignorance. Fear is its father, and isolation is its mother. We’re afraid of something we don’t understand, and sometimes we become hateful towards it. White people have to understand and acknowledge the privilege, the control that we’ve enjoyed and say this shouldn’t feel like oppression that we’re losing this, it should feel like equalization. And if everybody is equal and has the same access to opportunity, it helps everybody.
Breaking Hate, produced by Part2 Pictures, premieres Sunday, Aug. 12 at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC. Check listings for re-broadcasts and to stream online.
Look to The Root for continuing our conversation with Christian Picciolini, as we delve into how white supremacists have targeted law enforcement and the military for infiltration.