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Addicted to Hate: Identity Residual among Former White Supremacists



The process of leaving deeply meaningful and embodied identities can be experienced as a struggle against addiction, with continuing cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses that are involuntary, unwanted, and triggered by environmental factors. Using data derived from a unique set of in-depth life history interviews with 89 former U.S. white supremacists, as well as theories derived from recent advances in cognitive sociology, we examine how a rejected identity can persist despite a desire to change. Disengagement from white supremacy is characterized by substantial lingering effects that subjects describe as addiction. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of identity residual for understanding how people leave and for theories of the self.
American Sociological Review
1 –21
© American Sociological
Association 2017
DOI: 10.1177/0003122417728719
The U.S. white supremacist movement repre-
sents one of the most enduring political sub-
cultures in American history yet is surpris-
ingly one of the least understood. Following
the recent presidential election and the “alt-
right’s” efforts to rebrand white supremacy to
appeal to a younger and more tech-savvy
generation, the movement has received greater
attention (Futrell and Simi 2017). Yet the alt-
right’s veneer of normalcy conceals a much
deeper culture of hate and violence, in which
adherents build a collective identity and par-
ticipate in an all-encompassing movement
lifestyle (Blee 2002; Simi and Futrell 2015).
The hardcore and overt elements of the white
supremacy movement make it one of the most
radical, deviant, and stigmatized social move-
ments in the contemporary United States.1
Progress has been made to understand how
individuals come to enter the white suprema-
cist movement (Blee 2002; Simi, Sporer, and
Bubolz 2016) and the socio-spatial contexts
where collective identity is sustained (Futrell
and Simi 2004), but much less is known about
individual experiences following disengage-
ment from the white supremacist movement.
What happens after people leave such an
intensive and marginalized lifestyle is a diffi-
cult question to answer because scholars tend
to focus primarily on identity transformations
prior to or at the time of mobilization while
neglecting how people may remain tethered to
728719ASRXXX10.1177/0003122417728719American Sociological ReviewSimi et al.
aChapman University
bUniversity of Pittsburgh
cResearch Triangle Institute
dUniversity of Nebraska Omaha
Corresponding Author:
Pete Simi, Chapman University, Department of
Sociology, One University Drive, Orange, CA
Addicted to Hate: Identity
Residual among Former White
Pete Simi,a Kathleen Blee,b
Matthew DeMichele,c and Steven Windischd
The process of leaving deeply meaningful and embodied identities can be experienced as a
struggle against addiction, with continuing cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses
that are involuntary, unwanted, and triggered by environmental factors. Using data derived
from a unique set of in-depth life history interviews with 89 former U.S. white supremacists,
as well as theories derived from recent advances in cognitive sociology, we examine how a
rejected identity can persist despite a desire to change. Disengagement from white supremacy
is characterized by substantial lingering effects that subjects describe as addiction. We
conclude with a discussion of the implications of identity residual for understanding how
people leave and for theories of the self.
addiction, symbolic interactionism, identity, culture, racism
2 American Sociological Review 00(0)
a movement identity even after leaving. More-
over, scholars have emphasized activists’ cog-
nitive and relational transformations in terms
of how individuals embrace new ideas and
build new social networks, but research has
neglected transformations involving deeper
consequences, such as neurophysiological
changes that may operate in more automatic
ways and reflect alterations in bodily and
emotional expressions that endure over time.
To address this gap, we ask the following
question: Why do individuals who have already
rejected white supremacist ideologies and left
the movement (i.e., “formers”) have such a dif-
ficult time shaking their former thoughts, feel-
ings, and bodily reactions, and, in many cases,
come to think of themselves as being addicted
to white supremacism? The issue of addiction
raises central issues in sociology, especially
regarding the relationship between agency and
deterministic forces embedded within biologi-
cal and environmental processes (Emirbayer
and Mische 1998; Hitlin and Kirkpatrick John-
son 2015). Addiction is a concept that repre-
sents a variety of complex, overlapping
processes that implicate social, psychological,
and biological forces. As such, when both lay-
persons and clinicians use the term addiction,
they are essentially referring to a bundle of dif-
ferent characteristics or symptoms. In this
respect, we are less concerned about whether
our subjects are actually addicted to white
supremacy and more concerned with their
descriptions of involuntary and unwanted
thoughts, feelings, bodily responses, and
behavior. To be clear, we are not suggesting
that hate should become a new addiction diag-
nosis, but rather pointing to the ways social
experiences can become so engraved in our
interactions, psyche, and body that the parallels
between identity residual and addiction become
an interesting point of exploration.
This article relies on extensive life history
interviews with 89 former U.S. white suprem-
acist activists who were members of the over-
lapping networks (Burris, Smith, and Strahm
2000) of racist groups in the movement’s four
major branches: Ku Klux Klan, Christian
Identity, neo-Nazi, and racist skinheads
(Barkun 1997; Dobratz and Shanks-Meile
2000; McVeigh 2009). Organizational and
doctrinal differences exist across these net-
works, but all share fundamental ideas such
as the impending catastrophe of “white racial
genocide” and the view that a multicultural
society is antithetical to the interests of European-
Americans (Zeskind 2009).
On the one hand, conventional wisdom
suggests white supremacists are entirely con-
sumed by hatred and thus the prospect of
change seems unlikely (“once a hater, always
a hater”). In this sense, being addicted to hate
might make sense. On the other hand, previ-
ous studies note the high burn-out rate among
members of the white supremacist movement
and the substantial retention efforts initiated
by various groups to sustain participation
(Blee 2002; Simi and Futrell 2015). The ques-
tion is not whether people can leave white
supremacist hate groups, as they clearly do,
but rather what happens after they leave?
White supremacist identity provides an
important case to examine several broader
theoretical concerns. Many treatments of iden-
tity change focus on either the stages of trans-
formation (Athens 1995; Ebaugh 1988;
Prochaska et al. 1991) or the conscious, inten-
tional dimensions of self-change (Giordano,
Cernkovich, and Rudolph 2002; Kiecolt 1994).
Less is known, however, about the neurocogni-
tive dynamics related to involuntary and
unwanted aspects of identity residual. Identi-
ties are constructed and performed through
situational occasions, so when situations are
routinized, insular, and involve extreme hatred,
the persistence of these identities may be much
greater than previously thought. In this sense,
disengagement is not really the end of that
identity. Instead, a whole other layer of
unwanted and involuntary thoughts, feelings,
bodily reactions, and behaviors may persist
and continue to shape a person’s life.
Scholars use the term “disengagement”
(Ebaugh 1988; see also Vaughan 1986; Wright
1991) to describe physical and psychological
withdrawal from particular identities or roles.
Simi et al. 3
The continuing influence an identity or role
may exert following disengagement is what
Ebaugh (1988) refers to as “residual” or
“hangover identity.” More than 50 years ago,
Anslem Strauss (1959:97–98) observed that
disengagement from an identity may generate
reactions similar to addiction: “The fuller
meaning of temptation is this: you are with-
drawing from an old psychological status and
coming into a new, and in doing so something
akin to the withdrawal symptoms of drug
addiction occurs.” But not all identities or
roles involve residual. As Turner (1978:1)
explains, “Some roles are put on and taken off
like clothing without lasting effects. Other
roles are difficult to put aside when a situation
is changed and continue to shape the way in
which many of the individual roles are per-
formed.” Yet, this point tells us little about the
characteristics associated with identities that
result in substantial residual, and few sociolo-
gists since Strauss have considered the addic-
tive qualities that highly salient identities may
produce. As such, our goal here is to analyze
the social processes that produce qualities
similar to addiction after leaving a highly
salient identity. We do so by applying DiMag-
gio’s (2002) typology of cognition to the
experiences of identity residual among for-
mer white supremacists and analyzing how
these individuals develop self-talk strategies
to resist such consequences.
A growing number of studies examine the
factors that prompt the initial point of disen-
gagement, but what happens following a per-
son’s disengagement from a highly salient
identity such as white supremacism has
received little scholarly attention. Existing
studies of disengagement from political
extremism tend to focus on the disengage-
ment process as a discrete end point. Beyond
this end point, individuals are assumed to
begin another phase of life (post-extremism)
that involves a new process of identity forma-
tion with new social roles and networks. In
short, the person starts a new life. But life
does not unfold in this type of linear fashion
with clear-cut phases of beginning and ending
(Wacquant 1990). Rather, as we analyze, a
core identity sometimes lingers in a person’s
life after the person no longer holds that iden-
tity. As such, a former identity never truly
disappears; we thus conceptualize becoming
and disengagement as contiguous and emer-
gent processes deeply tied together and ulti-
mately inseparable.
Our focus is not why white supremacists
disengage,2 but rather the habitual and unwanted
thoughts, feelings, physiological responses, and
behavior that can follow exit. Although we can-
not definitively conclude whether involvement
in hate produces a form of addiction, the empiri-
cal evidence we present provides a strong start-
ing point to further consider the sociological
significance of addiction and the extent to which
social processes are embedded in psychological
and physiological ones. Although the sociologi-
cal literature is rife with references to the addic-
tive qualities associated with identity (e.g.,
hangover, residual), surprisingly few studies
extend beyond the metaphorical to investigate
the empirical overlap between residual and
addiction. We use the term addiction cautiously
in order to avoid older tendencies that patholo-
gized deviant behavior (Lemert 1951). Socio-
logical critiques of psychopathology, however,
sometimes suggest an artificial distinction
between broader social processes and suppos-
edly individual-level phenomena. In contrast,
we consider identity residual and addiction as
reflecting the intersection between psychologi-
cal, biological, and sociological processes.
The possibility of social processes having
addictive qualities is supported by burgeoning
neuroscience research that identifies how the
consumption of licit and illicit drugs activates
certain neural pathways that increase dopamine
in the reward circuit (Goldstein and Volkow
2011). As Reinarman (2005:309) notes, studies
have identified similar neurological conse-
quences for a number of non-drug activities,
such that people will like and thus tend to
repeat ‘‘anything you can do that turns on these
dopamine neurons.’’ This is not a trivial realiza-
tion, but rather points to the possibility that
under certain conditions (e.g., strong ties, high
levels of commitment, long-term exposure)
social environments and related identities may
generate neuro-physiological changes that over
time mimic addiction.
4 American Sociological Review 00(0)
A long tradition within sociology focuses on
the development of different types of identity,
including distinguishing between personal and
collective identities (Burke 1980; Cooley
1902; Mead 1934; Snow 2001; Stryker 1968).
Identities are defined as part of a person’s
overall sense of self—“the meanings one has
as a group member, as a role holder, or as a
person” (Stets and Burke 2003:132)—and
involve “self-cognitions tied to roles and thus
to positions in organized social relations”
(Stryker 2000:28). Identities function at con-
scious levels, through deliberate action, and at
unconscious levels, as individuals process
stimuli without awareness (Burke and Stets
2009; Erikson 1959). One’s degree of commit-
ment to an identity-related role specifies its
salience. Identities, roles, and behavior are
inextricably intertwined. Role behavior is the
basis for identity, and identities strongly move
people to actions that express these meanings
(Stryker 2000). When an identity cuts across
multiple dimensions (personal, social, and col-
lective) and involves a deeply meaningful and
emotion-laden set of associations and commit-
ments, disengagement from that identity is
likely to involve substantial residual (Thoits
1992). These are the kind of identities formed
in marginalized insular groups that cultivate
strong emotions such as extreme hatred.3
Cognitions, Emotions, and Residual
To provide a deeper analysis of residual
related to rejected identities, we turn to recent
developments in cognitive sociology that
integrate advances from the neurosciences
(Cerulo 2010, 2014; Ignatow 2009, 2014).
We rely on several concepts to explain differ-
ent types of cognition and emotion and their
relationship to identity residual. In particular,
automatic cognition characterizes rapid, unin-
tentional thoughts or fast cognition, whereas
deliberate cognition refers to more reflective,
planned thinking, or slow cognition (Cerulo
2010, 2014; DiMaggio 2002). The speed of
cognition has been an area of recent
sociological interest (Moore 2017; Vaisey
2009) and underscores the potential socio-
logical relevance of dual process models from
the cognitive neurosciences (Lizardo et al.
2016). Dual process models argue that
humans rely on two types of cognitive pro-
cessing: system 1 is fast and largely uncon-
scious, and system 2 processing is slower and
conscious (Kahneman 2011; Moore 2017).
Neuroscientists have also described another
dimension of cognition, called hot and cold,
which refers to the extent that emotional affect
is part of a particular cognition. Hot cognition
involves a heightened response to stimuli, one
that is saturated with a high degree of emo-
tion. In contrast, cold refers to unemotional,
calculating thought (Cerulo 2010; Ignatow
2014). The consideration of emotion distin-
guishes the hot–cold continuum from the
automatic–deliberate continuum.
As an effort to synthesize these various
aspects of cognition, DiMaggio (2002) pro-
posed a typology that contrasts four cognitive
combinations across two dimensions: hot–
cold and deliberate–automatic. Cognition that
combines automatic and hot orientations cor-
responds with impulsive, stereotyped action,
such as adherence to a strong and rigid ideol-
ogy, that we argue is most likely to character-
ize experiences with identity residual. Within
the realm of politics, cognitive sociologists
have also examined how the strength of a
person’s ideology can influence cognitive
style such that strong ideologies have “pre-
organized the world so as to make effortless,
efficient associations” (Martin and Desmond
2010:9). Individuals with strong ideologies
hold more available schematic information
than do those with weak ideologies, and thus
they are more likely to engage in automatic
cognition and avoid deliberate cognition. This
characterization is consistent with extreme
hatred, which typically involves rigid bound-
aries of “us” and “them” and various types of
dehumanization (Sternberg 2005). Hot and
automatic cognition related to a strong ideol-
ogy are especially important for understand-
ing potential similarities between addiction
and the persistence of a rejected identity
(Gladwin and Figner 2014).
Simi et al. 5
The strength of ideology is an important
dimension to add to the hot–cold and
automatic–deliberate typology. Related to
ideology, we think two factors are especially
important for understanding when identity
residual is most likely to involve addiction-
like qualities. First, when identities are highly
salient a large portion of a person’s life is
organized around that identity (Burke 1980).
When a highly salient identity involves par-
ticipation in an insular social movement, the
person may develop a dense set of social ties
while simultaneously becoming isolated from
nonmembers (McAdam 1989; Polletta 1999).
The diminished presence of nonmember rela-
tionships magnifies the intensity and influ-
ence of relationships within the movement.
Second, identities that involve extreme
hatred related to group-based prejudices, or what
Fromm (1973) called “character-conditioned
hate,” are likely to produce identity residual.
Part of white supremacism includes a central
focus on hate, which can be defined as a strong
cognitive and emotional disposition toward
particular objects, groups, or individuals
(Sternberg 2005). When directed at a social
group, hate often refers to extreme dislike
associated with prejudice that provokes aggres-
sive impulses (Allport 1954), a process that is
social-interactional as well as neuro-cognitive
(Blee 2004; Zeki and Romaya 2008). Emotion
is an important dimension of social move-
ments more broadly (Berezin 2001; Goodwin,
Jasper, and Polletta 2001; Jasper 1998), but not
all movements focus on extreme hatred in this
respect. Movement identities that do involve
high levels of extreme hatred are thus likely to
produce different types of personal conse-
quences for those activists.
The addiction concept remains somewhat
peripheral within sociology (for exceptions,
see Denzin 1993; Graham et al. 2008; Hughes
2007; Lindesmith [1968] 2008; Ray 1961;
Weinberg 1997, 2000, 2002, 2011), but habit
has received renewed interest (Bennett et al.
2013; Crossley 2013), including recognition
of its long-standing significance within clas-
sical social theory (Camic 1986). The habit-
ual dimensions of behavior are generally
understood as durable generalized disposi-
tions that permeate an entire domain, or even
the entire course, of a person’s life (Bennett
et al. 2013; Camic 1986).
Addiction, on the other hand, can be
defined as thoughts, emotions, bodily experi-
ences, and unwanted behavior of a chronic,
relapsing, and compulsive nature that occur
despite negative consequences and are charac-
terized by episodes where people feel they
have lost control (Boshears, Boeri, and Harbry
2011; Dingel et al. 2012; Marks 1990). Addic-
tion implies an element of unwanted and
negative consequences that are present in
some (but not all) types of habitual behavior.
Although addiction can be understood as a
form of habitual behavior (Graybiel 2008;
LaRose, Lin, and Eastin 2003; Lindesmith
[1968] 2008; Weinberg 1997, 2000, 2002,
2011), the line between habit and addiction is
currently unclear. In colloquial terms, an
addiction is often referred to as a “bad habit”
or a “hard habit to break.” More recently,
neuroscience studies suggest a substantial
overlap between the transition from goal-
directed to habit-driven behavior and addic-
tion (Bergen-Cico et al. 2014; Goldstein and
Volkow 2011; Graybiel 2008). Following
Everitt and Robbins (2005) and Marlatt and
colleagues (1988), we argue that addiction is
a type of habit. Not all habit can be described
as addiction, but all addiction involves habit-
ual behavior. At the same time, it is unclear
how broadly the term addiction should be
applied to habitual behavior, as evidenced in
the controversies over the growing number of
behaviors now referred to as “behavioral
addictions” (e.g., game-playing, Internet use,
excessive sexual behavior) (LaRose et al.
2003; Marks 1990; for a critique of expanded
definitions, see Akers 1991).
6 American Sociological Review 00(0)
Embodying Addiction
To understand how the addictive qualities of
white supremacism are experienced through—
but also projected outward from—the bodies
of participants, we turn to two strands of
scholarship on the social body (Crossley
1995; Howson and Inglis 2001; Turner 1997).
The phenomenological writings of Merleau-
Ponty (1982) are the foundation for one line
of research on the intertwined nature of the
corporal body and subjectivity. In one exam-
ple, he describes how soccer players absorb
the lines of the field into their sense of self
until players and the field in which they play
become indistinguishable. The ways the body
intersects with personal identity, experience,
and perception are similarly described in
scholarship on how physical limitations con-
dition how people see themselves and the
outside world (Turner 1997).
A second line of scholarship considers the
body as a site from which cultural symbols
are projected—for example, in the bodily
performances of various athletes. Although
the two research trajectories are distinct,
Turner (1997) argues that they intersect in
Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, in which the
body is understood as both socially con-
structed to hold cultural representations and
lived within a complex web of social relation-
ships and interactions. Recent sociological
studies of the body draw from both traditions,
such as Wacquant’s (2004; see also Wacquant
2014, 2015) “carnal ethnography” that con-
siders bodily construction and practices in a
boxing gym, or Crossley’s (2001, 2006) work
on “embodied reflexivity” that positions the
body as mediating social practices and per-
sonal intentionality.
This dual theoretical perspective is partic-
ularly useful for understanding the construc-
tion and residual effects of a white supremacist
identity that individuals continue to experi-
ence. Moreover, research on the body is use-
ful for thinking about how addiction to hate
becomes etched in physicality and perfor-
mance while simultaneously serving as a per-
ceptual lens to which people return after
leaving white supremacism. Indeed, addictive-
like qualities are embedded within a broad
range of human behavior, in part because
environmental features are processed through
social (e.g., interaction, networks, situational)
and biological (e.g., physical capacity, size,
attractiveness of stimuli) mechanisms to pro-
duce habitual behavior. Previous studies
highlight the social aspects involved in the
formation of addiction, but less attention has
been given to the possibility that social pro-
cesses themselves may have addictive
Sociologists studying deviance use innova-
tive approaches to gain entry into any subcul-
tural environment, but two factors make
access to former members of organized hate
groups particularly difficult. First, former
white supremacists are often loath to be iden-
tified as such. They fear that information
about their prior affiliations or activities will
expose them to violence by current extrem-
ists, to legal prosecution, or to sanctions by
current employers, neighbors, family mem-
bers, child protection agencies, and others.
Second, unlike current members, former
extremists cannot be found through network
ties or spatial locations, since most seek to
sever all connections to their previous lives.
Because there is no way to compile a list of
former members to serve as a sampling
frame, we identified interviewees by snow-
ball sampling from multiple starts to ensure
variety in the location and type of extremist
group (Wright et al. 1992). We developed
initial contacts for the snowball chains
through a variety of means, including our
research team’s extensive prior research with
active and inactive far-right extremists, iden-
tifying former extremists with a public pres-
ence (e.g., media, book authors, lecture
series), and using referrals from our project
partners.4 Because we used multiple individu-
als to generate unique snowballs, only a small
Simi et al. 7
segment of the participants were acquainted
with each other.
Our sampling method resulted in life his-
tory interviews with 89 former members of
U.S. white supremacist groups. Participants
were interviewed in the places they now live,
with 85 located in 24 states across all regions
of the United States and four in Canada. Par-
ticipants ranged in age from 19 to 61, and
included an unusual gender diversity with 68
men and 21 women. Among respondents, 11
described their current socioeconomic status
as lower class, 42 as working class, 31 as
middle class, and five as upper class. They
had participated in white supremacism from
three to twenty-one years. A large portion had
extensive histories of criminal conduct,
including property offenses such as shoplift-
ing, vandalism, and other forms of property
destruction, and a variety of violent offenses
such as murder, attempted murder, street
fights, violent initiation rituals, and bomb-
making. Of the 89 participants, 69 reported a
history of violent offending, 77 reported a
history of delinquent activity, and 39 had
spent time in prison.
To be clear, the individuals in this sample
no longer identify as “white power” and are
no longer affiliated with organized hate
groups. All of the individuals currently see
themselves as “formers” or something equiv-
alent to a former (e.g., “I’m not involved
anymore,” “I moved on”). In some cases,
individuals have been disengaged for more
than a decade and have experienced substan-
tial changes in their social and cognitive
orientations (e.g., interracial marriage; con-
version to Buddhism). In this sense, the
residual we identify does not reflect individ-
uals moving from a high level of extremism
to a lower level of extremism, but instead
characterizes individuals who experienced
substantial transformation.
Procedures and Data Analysis
We established rapport prior to interviews
through regular contact with participants via
telephone and e-mail. Interviews were con-
ducted using a semi-structured interview
protocol and in private settings such as hotel
rooms and residential homes and public set-
tings such as restaurants and coffee shops.5
Most of the interview was spent eliciting an
in-depth life history to produce narratives that
reflect the complexities and intersectionality of
identity, ideology, and life experiences (McAd-
ams 1997). Subjects were asked to describe
their childhood experiences as an initial start-
ing point. The interviews included questions
about broad phases of the subject’s extremism,
such as entry, involvement, and disengage-
ment, with probes to encourage subjects to
elaborate on aspects of their life histories.
Subjects were periodically asked direct ques-
tions to focus on specific topic areas, but the
interviews relied on an unstructured format
intended to generate unsolicited data embed-
ded in their personal narratives. We view the
elicited narratives as instructive in terms of
assessing how individuals make sense of their
lives (Blee 1996; Copes, Hochstetler, and For-
syth 2013; Giordano et al. 2015; McAdams
1997). Each interview concluded with more
structured questions and scale items to collect
comparable information across interviewees in
terms of risk factors (e.g., history of child
abuse, mental health problems), demographic
information, and criminality. Interviewing for-
mer extremists as opposed to current ones
allowed us to elicit information on highly sen-
sitive issues such as previous involvement in
violence, crime, and substance abuse.
The interviews lasted between four and
more than eight hours and generated 10,882
pages of transcripts, which indicates the level
of detail provided by the life histories. We
used modified grounded theory (Charmaz
2006; see also Berg 2007; Glaser and Strauss
1967; Miles and Huberman 1994), in order
to combine a more open-ended, inductive
approach while also relying on existing litera-
tures and frameworks to guide the research
and help interpret the findings.6 The constant
interaction with data also involved a virtual
ongoing analysis and identification of social
processes that affected each new round of
interviews. The initial data coding began by
reading entire interview transcripts line-by-
line to determine differences and similarities
8 American Sociological Review 00(0)
within and across our subjects. Subsequent
coding techniques helped identify and extract
relevant empirical and conceptual properties
and organize the data into similar concepts.
Inductive codes emerged from the initial
phase of line-by-line analysis (Berg 2007;
Charmaz 2006; Lofland et al. 2006). Deduc-
tive codes were extracted from scholarly lit-
erature on white supremacism, group
affiliation, disengagement, and related topics.
After developing the initial codes, we com-
pared and contrasted data themes, noting rela-
tions between them, and moving back and
forth between first-level data and general
categories (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Miles
and Huberman 1994). Analysis of these inter-
views also required balancing between
accepting and decoding the subjects’ narra-
tives. For example, narrated statements about
addiction may reflect a larger cultural ten-
dency to frame deviant behavior in medical
terms (Conrad 1975; Schneider 2015) and
actors’ tendency to adopt readily available
discursive models that absolve them of
responsibility for past and current behavior.
Yet it is also important to consider the possi-
bility that addictive qualities may actually
characterize certain types of identities. We
return to this issue in the conclusion.
Several limitations of this study are impor-
tant to mention. First, the retrospective nature
of the life history interviews raises questions
about validity and reliability due to memory
erosion, distortion, and selective recall (Bad-
deley 1979). The practice of remembering is a
reconstructive process where memories of
events are typically reinterpreted during each
recall (Bridge and Paller 2012). Despite these
concerns, the rich life history accounts pro-
vide important insight from the subjects’ per-
spective. Second, due to the relatively hidden
nature of this population, we derived the sam-
ple through snowball techniques, which means
it is not representative and we cannot general-
ize from these findings. The goal of a grounded
theory approach, however, is to develop a
conceptual explanation that closely fits the
data (or incidents) the concepts are intended to
represent. Grounded theory is not intended to
provide generalizations, but the hypotheses
developed can be tested in future studies.
Hate as a Totalizing Commitment
Involvement in the white supremacist move-
ment includes a complete identity transforma-
tion, in much the way Lindesmith ([1968]
2008) describes opiate addiction. In addition,
an extensive set of commitments characterize
organized hate groups, similar to communes
and various new religious movements (Kanter
1972), although there is substantial variation
among these groups in terms of adherence to
extreme hatred. White supremacist groups
socialize members by outlining collective
expectations for membership that strongly
emphasize hate-directed beliefs, feelings, and
behavior. Expressing or acting on the basis of
hatred toward non-whites, homosexuals, and
various other perceived “outgroups” is the
primary marker that white supremacists use
to establish group boundaries and ideological
coherence, and they provide the basis for a
broad range of cultural practices that include
everything from violent acts to ordinary life-
style preferences (Simi and Futrell 2015). In
turn, these cultural practices help develop the
solidarity and commitment necessary to sus-
tain a collective identity (Fantasia 1989).
Being a white supremacist is comparable
to holding a “master status” (Hughes 1945):
white supremacy cuts across a person’s mul-
tiple identities, is typically at the core of
one’s self-concept, and occupies a central
position in one’s daily life (Simi and Futrell
2009). The group context of hate, in particu-
lar, offers powerful experiences, which Dur-
kheim ([1915] 1965) called “collective
effervescence,” in which individuals begin
to feel outside of themselves and part of a
larger being (i.e., the group context) (Collins
2004). Indeed, white supremacism involves
vitalizing and reactive emotions (Jasper
1998) and bodily engagement (e.g., ritual-
ized dances, salutes, uniforms, and paramili-
tary training). In turn, disengagement from
Simi et al. 9
white supremacy requires separating from a
central aspect of one’s identity and finding
new friendship networks, systems of sup-
port, music, clothing, and a variety of other
lifestyle changes.
We begin by illustrating how a white
supremacist identity involves a totalizing set
of experiences that permeate all aspects of a
person’s thoughts, emotions, body presenta-
tion, and actions. Doug7 explained the pro-
cess of becoming a white supremacist and the
related lifestyle:
Your whole life is not just an ideology but
when your whole life. . . . We call people a
surfer why? Because they’ve taken on that
image. It’s usually because they embrace
that to a greater degree than somebody
who’s just a casual surfer. I think with an
ideology of skinheads the whole person is
being consumed by the idea of what they’re
embracing and espousing. It is an addiction
because you order your life according to
what you believe or think . . . your life is
ordered according to that pattern. . . . You’re
presenting an image and that projection is
something that’s in your heart. It’s deep-
seated. Not to say something that is deep-
seated can’t be dislodged but it’s about
recreating a new life. (Interview, June 7,
Doug referred to a social evaluation process
in which others come to define the person in
particular ways, a critical component of self-
identification (Cooley 1902; Felson 1985;
Matsueda 1992). For Doug, becoming a white
supremacist formed an identity of how “you
order your life.” White supremacy is about
more than just adhering to certain ideas; it is
an entire way of life that includes parenting,
recreation, and entertainment. In this way,
white supremacism has the deep physical
embodiment of specialized practices that
require strict regimes of rehearsal and mas-
tery; it is akin to ballet dancers, for example,
who feel unable to stop even when their bod-
ies revolt (Aalten 2007).
The intensive nature of white supremacy is
also illustrated by participants’ references to
the lengthy period of time necessary to
remove themselves from this disposition.
Carter, a former member of a paramilitary
compound, described the difficulties he expe-
rienced when leaving the pervasive lifestyle
of white supremacy. As Carter underscores,
hate required substantial time to learn and
even more time to unlearn:
I’ve said before that it took me less than two
years to learn to hate and it took me nine
years to unlearn it. You don’t just stop hat-
ing just like that. There is still a lot of pollu-
tion in there. . . . Since we were religious
[Christian] based, I had to learn to look at
those scriptures differently. That was
hard. For years, I didn’t even pick up a
Bible anymore. I couldn’t read it without
only reading it from the bad point of view. I
just couldn’t see another interpretation of
that. I didn’t want to read it. I was putting
myself under a pressure. . . . Getting that out
of me took . . . I think it was ’92 [nine years]
before I got rid of it all. (Interview, May 20,
Carter’s talk of “pollution in there” is a meta-
phor for both the destructive effects of white
supremacism on his very being and his physical
embodiment of this destruction. The reference
to pollution symbolizes the depth of Carter’s
experience and how profoundly he was affected
by his years as a white supremacist.
Despite clear differences, both Doug’s and
Carter’s statements underscore how much a
person’s life is affected by adopting a white
supremacist lifestyle. Even their relationships
to institutions, such as religion, and their peer
relations became completely defined by this
worldview. Carter, for example, practiced
daily Bible studies and sermons that expressed
a white supremacist interpretation of Chris-
tian doctrine. He was completely enmeshed in
daily rituals and basic living practices organ-
ized around the group’s racist ideology. Cart-
er’s role commitments were so intense that
even after he no longer identified as a white
supremacist, his previous white supremacist
interpretation of the Bible remained involun-
tarily salient. Doug’s experiences represent a
10 American Sociological Review 00(0)
more street-based involvement in white
supremacist activities and included routine
acts of violence to express his commitments.
Whereas Doug and Carter focused on cogni-
tive and emotional aspects of the addiction to
hate, Teddy, a former Hammerskin (racist
skinhead), detailed his bodily sensations:
Being a part of something and having an
ideal and thinking I believed and grabbed a
hold of a certain type of truth, you know,
meaning of life truth. What we’re all seek-
ing for, I guess. . . . It was a high. I’d get
chills and everything when I listened to
Skrewdriver [white power music].8 (Inter-
view, June 26, 2015)
To Teddy, racial hate was not simply what he
believed; it was what he was:
I really believed that I was in the truth. . . . I
liked it because it was my heritage, my
grandma was from Finland and she came
over here and that’s, you know, part of what
I am, you know, all the symbols, the Vikings
and stuff. (Interview, June 26, 2015)
Teddy’s point that he believed he was “in the
truth” is especially revealing in terms of the all-
encompassing and totalizing character of involve-
ment in the white supremacy movement.
The Addictive Qualities of Hate
Because of the intense nature of white
supremacist involvement and the difficulties
associated with disengagement, some formers
described the time period after leaving as a
“recovery process” from an addiction to hate.
In this section, we examine interviews in
which former members explicitly or implic-
itly described addictive qualities of hate. A
small portion of our interviewees reported
that disengagement was “not that hard” (n =
15), but a majority described it as “substan-
tially difficult” (n = 74). Approximately one-
third explicitly described hate as a form of
addiction (n = 35), and a much larger number
recounted urges to return to hate or described
some type of relapse (n = 62).
Formers who described their struggles in
terms of addiction narrated an involuntary
lingering of white supremacist thoughts, feel-
ings, physical responses, and, in some cases,
unwanted behavior. Their residual involved
more than a sense of longing for comradery
and other aspects related to group dynamics;
it was also a deeply ingrained default to hate
that could be overridden or repressed but not
completely erased. In this way, their narra-
tives evoke Merleau-Ponty’s (1982) descrip-
tion of soccer players for whom the rules and
motivations of the game are so deeply inter-
nalized that they seem to operate on auto-
pilot. Melanie, a former member of the
American Nazi Party, talked about racial hate
as something fused into her brain:
Somebody needs to do a study . . . subject us
to the [white power] music, to the literature,
to the racial slurs and watch what fires in
our brains. I guarantee you it’s an addiction.
I can listen to white power music and within
a week be back to that mindset. I know it.
(Interview, October 13, 2015)
Melanie’s comment suggests the automatic
and hot dimensions of cognition related to
white supremacist involvement and the extent
to which these qualities endure over time.
Alicia, a former member of the World Church
of the Creator, also talked about the role of
music in terms of creating enduring thoughts,
feelings, and bodily sensations that remained
years after having listened to the music:
I haven’t listened to Skrewdriver [white
power music band] or any of that crap in so
many years. And even today I have snippets
of songs [in my head]. Odd moments then I
wonder, well it makes one wonder and think
more about hate as an addiction because
there can be so many different aspects of it.
(Interview, June 23, 2012)
Alicia went on to speculate that the types of
affirmation individuals derive from hate
groups, such as pride and respect, reinforce
the lifestyle and worldview. The process is
recursive: white supremacists express their
Simi et al. 11
lifestyle and worldviews through cultural
markers such as white power music and, in
turn, these cultural practices offer powerful
social and psychic rewards. Alicia’s specula-
tions have been confirmed by neuroscience
studies that underscore the broad-based and
intensive nature of social influence on the
human brain (Blakemore 2008; Cozolino
2004; Gazzaniga 1987).
In the next sections, we expand our focus
by examining two types of residual: each type
initiated by a triggering event and, in turn,
characterized by an auto-pilot quality the
interviewees described as “it just happens.”
During the first type of residual, the person’s
previous thoughts, feelings, and bodily reac-
tions related to white supremacy are reacti-
vated, but not necessarily in terms of any
concrete unwanted behavior. The second type
of residual, however, involves a complete,
although relatively short-lived, relapse or
return to their previous identity. In this respect,
the second type of residual is characterized by
a more clearly visible embodiment of their
previous identity, although it is experienced
and described as involuntary and unwanted.
Type 1 Residual: Momentary Flashes
Teddy discussed how watching certain mov-
ies triggers his previous feelings and beliefs
related to white supremacy, and also produces
an involuntary physiological response in the
form of “goose bumps”:
I can’t watch like the old war movies or like
say Inglorious Bastards or, or something
like that, you know, and they show like a, or
like a, the History Channel has the World
War II in HD and they, you know, even
though they’re showing the Germans get-
ting slaughtered and stuff, I still see that,
that, you know, the swastika in the back-
ground, you know. I get a little goose
bumps. I can’t lie, you know. (Interview,
June 26, 2015)
Teddy discussed powerful but relatively short
flashes in which his previously held beliefs
and feelings resurfaced. Flashes and goose
bumps can be understood as expressions of
automatic and hot cognition that characterize
Teddy’s involuntary reaction of pride and
pleasure when encountering images related to
white supremacy. Another participant, Brent,
a former member of Volksfront, reflected on
his taste in music now and in the past:
I don’t have the same thoughts I don’t have
the same feelings but I can’t stop listening to
the music [meaning neo-Nazi rock music]. . . .
It’s pretty catchy fucking rock-n-roll you
know what I mean? You know. Kind of cool.
So I’m reliving some glory fucking days,
this and that. You know, it’s like fucking
good music and except for the lyrics, it’s
some pretty good fucking music man, for the
most part. (Interview, July 27, 2014)
Brent described his persistent attraction to
neo-Nazi music as an involuntary action, and
one he was unable to stop. Although he expe-
rienced this listening as beyond his control, it
served as a pleasant reminder of his past,
despite his current disavowal of the ideas
represented in the lyrics. As Schwarz’s (2015)
fascinating study of “ghetto sounds” illumi-
nates, what and how we hear reflects deeply
held cultural values; environmental sounds
can stimulate a variety of related (and unre-
lated) thoughts and feelings (see also Bryson
1996). At a neurological level, studies have
long shown that different areas of the brain
process music differently than other stimuli
(Davidson et al. 1976; Molfese, Freeman, and
Palermo 1975). Such studies suggest a direct,
lifelong link between music and emotions.
Given this neural differentiation, it is quite
likely that music provides a complimentary
process that facilitates the ability to learn and
associate music with ideology and related
actions (Levitin and Tirovolas 2009). Brent’s
statement suggested that Skrewdriver’s music
evokes feelings and activates memories that
he still finds enjoyable. Memory activation
triggered through distinct musical sounds,
along with the lyrics, allows former extrem-
ists, like Brent, to recall their past selves in
12 American Sociological Review 00(0)
some type of embodied fashion that includes
listening, singing along, and dancing. In turn,
these bodily experiences evoke visceral reac-
tions that can be pleasurable or unpleasurable
as individuals relive their former selves. The
power of these experiences is particularly
evident in Brent’s case, as he continues to
experience residual from his past identity
despite his current marriage to an African
American woman.
Type 2 Residual: Situational Relapse
The second type of residual involves substan-
tial relapses, where individuals fully embody a
return to their previous identity as a white
supremacist. For example, Bonnie described a
recent incident at a Jack in the Box restaurant:
I go through the drive-thru and what’d they
do? They fucked up [my son’s] order and
they didn’t give me tacos or I don’t know.
So I go back in there and his burger’s like
tiny. I’m like, I’m like, “That burger was
$5.00, why is this little?” Okay, well, the
lady, she was, they’re all Mexican. They
hardly speak English and she’s like accusing
me of coming back for free food and I got
pissed off and she was like ignoring me, like
and I’m trying to talk to her and, and she
wouldn’t listen to me and is talking to other
people and accusing me of, “I put them in
your,” “No, you didn’t. I wouldn’t drive all
the way back here if you gave me my food.”
I’m like, “You didn’t give me this, this, and
this.” And so I don’t remember what she
said because I barely understood her. She
wouldn’t give me her name, you know. She
wouldn’t stand close enough where I could
see the, her thing, and she wouldn’t tell me,
I asked for the manager. “Oh, there’s no
manager.” She was really rude and so I told
her, “Fuck you, you fucking Beaner, get the
fuck out of my country,” and I told her,
“White power,” and I walked out and I
threw a heil up [Nazi salute] and I don’t usu-
ally do that shit anymore but I was so angry
and it’s because of everything that’s going
on now. . . . I did it as I was walking out. . . .
I don’t even remember everything I said. I
was so angry. . . . No, all I saw was red and
I saw her and I wanted to fucking beat the
piss out of her. (Interview, July 20, 2015)
The Jack in the Box incident was an unex-
pected and involuntary response to an irritat-
ing but relatively mundane situation. Bonnie’s
reaction, however, reflected an automatic and
hot cognitive style that she described as
highly emotive (“all I saw was red”).
At the conclusion of the incident, Bonnie
reported she was overcome by shame and
disbelief at what had transpired, further illus-
trating that Bonnie experienced the situation
as unwanted and involuntary. Yet, her
response to the momentary relapse did not
seem any less automatic or hot. Bonnie sim-
ply knew and felt that what she did inside the
restaurant was “wrong,” and she was over-
come with sadness by even discussing the
incident. Whereas other individuals reported
responding to residual with deliberate cogni-
tion by initiating different types of self-talk,
we found little evidence in Bonnie’s inter-
view that suggested more deliberate cognition
to offset the residual. In this sense, Bonnie
was still very much wrapped up in her past
identity and unable to find much, if any, emo-
tional distance, which helps explain the sub-
stantial amount of residual she continues to
experience. People are at greater risk of strug-
gling with residual when they are unable to
find an alternative source of self-worth and
affirmation (Vaughan 1986). Bonnie’s case
exemplifies this. Her interview was filled
with markers of shame (e.g., “I feel ashamed
talking about this”; “I don’t leave the house
now without covering the [swastika] tattoo on
my foot”) and a diminished self-worth such
that she did not consider herself “important
enough” to be interviewed.
Bonnie’s exit from hate group involve-
ment was recent, but other individuals whose
disengagements were more distant in time
also reported similar types of relapse. Jack-
son, for example, who left the white suprema-
cist movement more than 15 years ago,
discussed how his daughter’s recent relation-
ship with a Latino person not only made him
angry but forced him to evaluate how much
Simi et al. 13
he had actually changed since exiting the
white supremacist movement:
I reacted like Archie Bucker you know what
I mean? “One of my friends told me my
daughter is getting with a Mexican,” I went
right to her, “Hey is he partly Hispanic?”
“Yeah a little bit.” Oh man I came unhitched.
I was just, I was like, “You are not getting
with him he is this and you can’t because
there is a bloodline,” I was freaked the fuck
out like, “This can’t happen.” I said, “What
the fuck do you think you are doing? Why
did you get with him? You can’t. I swear to
God if you fucking do,” but I made her cry
and all that shit . . . just took me about half-
hour to realize what I did. I mean all this
weird shit comes out, all of this weird
thoughts to counter what you had done.
Because I know I’m not a shallow person
but that’s shallow. That was a shallow
thought process . . . that was shallow think-
ing. It’s Archie Bunker shit. That’s total
fucking ignorant. It was ignorant and then I
was just like don’t fucking think that you
are all cured of fucking racism Mr. Fucking
Racist. I was like damn. (Interview, April
17, 2014)
Jackson’s initial response reflected his pre-
vious beliefs regarding “racial purity” and
“white genocide.” The fear and anger that
accompanied his earlier racist beliefs were
reactivated after Jackson learned about his
daughter’s new romantic partner. Like Bon-
nie, Jackson described his initial reaction in
terms consistent with automatic and hot cog-
nition, but, unlike Bonnie, Jackson’s thinking
transitioned to a more deliberate cognition
style characterized by a careful reconsidera-
tion of his initial reaction. As this transition to
deliberate cognition occurred, the degree of
emotional affect seemed to lessen somewhere
between hot and cold. Compared to Bonnie,
Jackson’s shift to a more deliberate cognitive
style may reflect the relatively lengthy period
of time that has lapsed since his disengage-
ment from white supremacy and the extent to
which he has developed a new identity
focused around civil rights activism. Both
time and a new political orientation may have
helped Jackson develop a more flexible cog-
nitive style that provides censors in terms of
identifying and responding to residual.
Finally, Jackson’s shift from automatic to
deliberate cognition provides support for
models that treat system 1 and system 2 cog-
nition as integrated rather than completely
distinct (Moore 2017).
Self-Talk Strategies to Resist Residual
We now turn to DiMaggio’s (2002) typology
to explore the self-talk strategies former
white supremacists develop to deflect the
involuntary thoughts, feelings, bodily reac-
tions, and unwanted behavior that accompany
the experience of residual. We conceive of
these strategies as “agentic moves” (Giordano
et al. 2002), in which actors willfully influ-
ence their response to situational circum-
stances. As opposed to residual, self-talk
reflects deliberate cognition that ranges
between hot and cold. Darren, for example,
trained himself to “let it go” and “step back”
to prevent himself from slipping into the per-
son he once was:
For me, I still find myself, I’ll start kind of
thinking, you know what I’m a truck driver
and most of the truck drivers in New Mex-
ico are Mexicans. I’m driving down the
road and I got some guy that obviously I
look at his truck and it’s, all right that guy
number one, doesn’t have a license. Number
two he’s illegal in general or whatever, then
he cuts me off. Then the wheels start spin-
ning. And I’ve got to catch myself, no. Let
it go, that’s not how . . . maybe he’s just
having a bad day behind the wheel. I mean
it still happens. . . . Yes, it does. You just
kind of step back and all right. . . . I con-
stantly remind myself, you’re not that guy
anymore, don’t do it. The tendency is
always there. It is very easy to get back into
that mindset. I think that is one of the things
that a lot of people, especially the old timers
that get out, they have a hard time with it,
14 American Sociological Review 00(0)
because you get drawn back into it just by
everyday things that you see. (Interview,
November 6, 2012)
Darren’s self-talk involves reminders to take
the role of others (Mead 1934) to empathize
with the object of his initial anger (“maybe
he’s just having a bad day”). Darren is clearly
trying to avoid the kind of dehumanization
that is a core component of white supremacist
ideology. For Darren, learning new ways to
act requires reminders that his past self need
not be his current or future self. It is not sim-
ply a matter of changing his ideas or acting in
new ways. He had to remember that he was
“not that guy anymore” through repeated self-
coaching. The reminders are an effort to sup-
press certain memories while reinforcing his
new self-image.
In Teddy’s case, Christ is the key to affirm-
ing to himself that he is no longer a white
It’s a struggle, you know. It is but, you
know, I just got to turn to Christ and if I get
them, I just drop on my knees and I just start
praying, you know, and it works but, you
know, you take a, you take a heroin addict
for 30 years, he may be clean and sober 10
years but you dangle a bag of powder, you
know, he’s going to do that little mentality,
so it’s the same, you know. I may not be a
drug addict but I was addicted to that, you
know. I just exchanged one idol for another,
you know. It was and yeah, I can’t, I can’t
lie and say that I don’t, you know, but I just
got to, now I know how to subside all that.
(Interview, June 26, 2015)
The lure of returning to his white supremacist
self is visceral and too powerful for Teddy to
resist on his own. It dangles like “a bag of
[illegal drug] powder,” exciting his bodily
urges to pull him back into an identity and
self that he battled to leave. Even when suc-
cessful at maintaining physical distance from
white supremacy, the effects lingered. Teddy
considered the allure so powerful that he no
longer imagined having an independent, self-
directed self. Instead, Teddy saw himself as
permanently marked by his former role. At
best, he had “exchanged one idol [extremism]
for another [Christ].” Religious conversions
are well-documented sources of self-change
related to criminal behavior and substance
abuse (Maruna, Wilson, and Curran 2006;
Sremac and Ganzevoort 2013). In this respect,
Teddy’s new religious framework became a
substitute of sorts that provided him with the
same type of automatic and hot cognitions
that white supremacy previously did. Although
the content of Teddy’s thinking changed, the
form or structure of his cognitions remained
quite similar.
These former extremists used self-talk as a
strategy to respond to the sudden resurfacing
of thoughts, feelings, physiological responses,
and unwanted behavior associated with their
previous identity as a white supremacist, but
they had mixed results. Self-talk represents a
concrete instance of human reflexivity, or a
dialogue between the more spontaneous “I”
and the more socially constructed “Me”
(Mead 1934; see also Callero 2003). Its stra-
tegic value is multiple. The very act of self-
talk buffers involuntary residual, allowing
formers to suppress manifestations of a self
they no longer embrace. At the same time,
instances of self-talk may contribute to indi-
viduals’ sense of self-efficacy by cumula-
tively demonstrating their ability to “initiate
self change” (Thoits 2003:192; see also Ban-
dura 2001). However, residual may persist
despite self-talk and surface as overt expres-
sions of white supremacy.
Because the process of internalization is
both conscious and unconscious, individuals
can exert agency in varying ways and in vary-
ing capacities (Hitlin and Elder 2007; Hitlin
and Kirkpatrick Johnson 2015; Lizardo 2004).
Emirbayer and Mische (1998; and more
recently Hitlin and Elder 2007) provide impor-
tant theoretical insight about how agency var-
ies according to whether a person is acting
within a set of highly constrained routines or
during a period when routines have been dis-
rupted and opportunities to innovate are more
available. The disruption of a highly salient
identity provides opportunities for a person to
exert agency during an unsettled period of
Simi et al. 15
time (Vaisey 2009). However, if a person’s life
remains unsettled for an extended period of
time, residual may become more persistent
and pervasive as the attraction to return to old
habits may gain prominence.
In this article, we relied on in-depth life his-
tory interviews with a sample of former U.S.
white supremacists to examine the complexi-
ties and difficulties related to exiting a highly
salient identity and the ensuing residual an
actor may experience. Specifically, we high-
lighted the embodied qualities associated
with residual that subjects describe in terms
of addiction. The results suggest that impor-
tant lingering elements continue to manifest
long after a person leaves white supremacy.
Hate groups appear to generate a “phantom
community” (Athens 1992) with persistent
influence on thoughts, feelings, physiological
responses, and behavior.
Residual effects are experienced on multi-
ple levels that are cumulatively described as
addiction. First, residual effects intrude on
cognitive processes, as thoughts from indi-
viduals’ previous extremist lives reappear in
certain situations. Second, residual effects
also involve emotional processes. Unexpected
situational cues may provoke anger and other
negative emotions that coincide with previ-
ously held beliefs about the inferiority of
various outgroups. Furthermore, individuals’
memories of enacting hate and trauma pro-
voke feelings of shame for the harm, damage,
and violence they inflicted. Former extrem-
ists also experience fear about a permanently
damaged self that refuses their efforts to
change and feels involuntarily tethered to
hate. Third, long-term effects are experienced
on a physiological level, as former extremists
describe involuntary and impulsive bodily
sensations that stem from the habitual aspects
of their previous identity. Finally, some
instances of residual involve formers experi-
encing a complete relapse, if only momentar-
ily, where their white supremacist behavior
returns. These instances go beyond fleeting
thoughts or feelings and extend into overt
behavior and affect how individuals conduct
themselves in certain situations.
This study changes how we understand
disengagement from violent extremism spe-
cifically, and residual more broadly, by
emphasizing the long-lasting consequences of
certain types of identities. Our findings indi-
cate that disengagement from white suprema-
cism is much more encompassing than simply
disengaging from its activities or physically
removing oneself from the group. Indeed, in
such cases, leaving can be a very ambiguous
process with no clear demarcation about when
it begins or ends. As our research shows, this
ambiguity is at least partially due to deeply
held and felt aspects that reside outside con-
scious control, elements that are overlooked in
most existing studies of disengagement, defec-
tion, and deradicalization from extremism.
Such omissions reflect a larger sociological
bias that privileges conscious aspects of
human behavior (Hitlin and Kirkpatrick John-
son 2015) while neglecting the physical nature
of social reality (Wacquant 2015). Following
Wacquant (2015), we suggest a holistic under-
standing of identity that goes beyond how one
thinks or feels to include physical embodi-
ment of identities. Such a formulation has
practical implications: effective interventions
may require much greater attention to the
enduring qualities of extremism in order to
offset residual-related issues.
To be clear, we are not arguing that all
forms of deviance are addictive. Instead, we
argue that the distinction between addiction
as an experience with “real” symptomology,
as opposed to the “idea” of addiction as meta-
phorical rhetoric that provides actors with a
frame to understand residual experiences, is
misleading. This type of distinction is unnec-
essary, because the symptoms of addiction are
not experienced outside of linguistic pro-
cesses used to make sense of our experiences
retrospectively. Addiction is often assessed,
in part, by asking individuals about their
experiences in terms of how much they con-
sume a particular substance or whether they
16 American Sociological Review 00(0)
ever feel urges to consume the substance or
engage in a particular behavior (Adams et al.
2004). Although some addictions (e.g., her-
oin) may involve physical symptoms such as
vomiting or tremors, even those experiences
are partially understood through a series of
linguistic devices and involve important psy-
chological and social dimensions. In short,
the idea that interviewees may be using addic-
tion purely as a rhetorical device reifies an
overly rigid distinction between “real” and
“discursive” (Hughes 2007).
This article provides an important first step
toward examining the addictive qualities of
identity residual. The case of white supremacist
identity residual raises a number of intriguing
questions future research should address. First,
what are the differences between individual
trajectories of disengagement that involve sub-
stantial residual compared to those that do not?
In particular, it would be useful for future stud-
ies to more carefully trace how individuals’
network embeddedness during involvement
shapes their experiences following disengage-
ment. Additional analyses are also necessary to
more closely examine the situational dynamics
related to specific episodes of residual and to
focus more on the neurocognitive qualities
of identity residual. Toward this end, we sug-
gest incorporating neuroimaging experimental
designs as a means to gather neurophysiologi-
cal data that can be integrated with self-report
interviews or survey data. Finally, future
research should compare former activists across
a broad range of social movements, including
other movements that may also emphasize
extreme hatred (e.g., violent jihadists) as well
as former members from other violent but less
political subcultures (e.g., conventional street
Recognizing the addictive qualities of
identity has substantial theoretical implica-
tions. Identities may be constructed and per-
formed through situational occasions, but
when these situations are routinized, insular,
and involve extreme hatred, the persistence of
these identities may be much greater than pre-
viously thought. In this sense, disengagement
is not really the end of that identity. Instead, a
whole other layer of unwanted and involun-
tary thoughts, feelings, bodily responses and
behaviors may persist and continue to shape a
person’s life. We do not endorse the idea of
“once a hater, always a hater,” but there may
be shreds of truth in this statement: any kind
of powerful identity will leave traces on the
remainder of a person’s life. The point is not
that change is impossible, but rather transfor-
mation is never complete nor total and some
past identities linger while continuing to shape
future selves. Individuals need to understand
how these past identities may continue to
shape their lives, rather than remain unaware
of these influences.
We are grateful to the ASR editors and anonymous
reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions.
This project was supported by Award No: 2014-ZA-BX-
0005, the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, the Harry Frank
Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Consortium
for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism
(START) project, “Recruitment and Radicalization
among US Far-Right Terrorists,” as well as the Depart-
ment of Homeland Science and Technology Directorate’s
Office of University Programs through Award Number
2012-ST-061-CS0001, Center for the Study of Terrorism
and Behavior (CSTAB) 2.1 made to START to investi-
gate the understanding and countering of terrorism
within the United States. The opinions, findings, and
conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publi-
cation/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and
do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of
Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, START,
or the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
1. The current political moment complicates the issue
of white supremacist marginalization. Clearly a
long history of institutional white supremacy has
been part of the United States since the founding of
the Republic; however, the post-WWII era has been
characterized by a growing trend toward multicul-
turalism, with widespread social changes spurred
by a broad constellation of progressive social move-
ments. During this period, a white backlash has
consistently been present and, in varying degrees,
influential. In the most recent presidential election,
Simi et al. 17
however, this backlash became more overt and less
coded than in previous decades.
2. Previous studies have found multiple social fac-
tors that contribute to disengagement from white
supremacist groups, including the positive role
of significant others (Aho 1994; Gadd 2006), the
inability to maintain employment (Bjørgo 2011),
violence (Blazak 2004; Gallant 2014), and incar-
ceration (Bubolz and Simi 2015). Activists may
experience less “biographical availability” due to
factors such as marital responsibilities and raising
children (Bjørgo 1997; Bjørgo and Horgan 2009),
or they may “mature out” of the movement and
desire a more conventional lifestyle (Bjørgo 1997,
2011). Disengagement has been tied to psychologi-
cal factors such as burnout or disillusionment that
stem from differences between expectations and
reality (Aho 1994; Bubolz and Simi 2015; Kim-
mel 2007), as well as dissatisfaction with a group’s
activities, lack of loyalty among members, and the
way younger members are manipulated by veterans
(Bjørgo 2011; Gadd 2006), or moral uneasiness with
movement ideology and activities (Bjørgo 1997).
3. In the terrorism and extremist literature, scholars
conceptualize the processes of exiting as disen-
gagement and deradicalization. The former refers to
disassociating with extremist groups or individuals
by ending behaviors related to extremism, whereas
deradicalization refers to a more complete cogni-
tive shift or transformation (Bubolz and Simi 2015;
Horgan 2009).
4. We benefited from advice from three prominent
human rights groups: the Anti-Defamation League,
the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Southern
Poverty Law Center; and from an outreach organi-
zation, Life After Hate, that assists individuals leav-
ing far-right extremist groups.
5. There was a high degree of overlap between the indi-
vidual interviewers, as each interview was conducted
with the same interview protocol and a subsample of
interviews were conducted by multiple interviewers,
which increased our ability to maintain consistency
among interviewer behaviors. To increase inter-
viewer consistency, the research team met in person
for interview training and logistics planning prior to
the initiation of any data collection. During the pro-
cess of data collection, the research team regularly
debriefed via telephone conference calls and in-
person meetings that included detailed discussions
related to research methodology and design.
6. All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed
with only minor edits.
7. Pseudonyms are used for all interviewees. To hide
the identity of interviewees, we did not refer to them
by name during interviews. If a name was mentioned
inadvertently, this was stricken from the transcripts.
8. A vibrant and influential “white power” rock
music element provides powerful social rituals that
reinforce far-right-wing ideology and belonging.
Skrewdriver is one of the most prominent of these
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Pete Simi is an Associate Professor in the Department of
Sociology and Director of the Earl Babbie Research
Center at Chapman University. He has published widely
on the issues of political violence, social movements,
street gangs, and juvenile delinquency. His co-authored
book with Robert Futrell, American Swastika: Inside the
White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate,
received a 2010 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book
Award. His research has received support from the
National Science Foundation, Department of Justice,
Department of Homeland Security, Harry Frank Gug-
genheim Foundation, and Department of Defense.
Kathleen Blee is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at
the University of Pittsburgh. She has written extensively
about organized white supremacism, including Inside
Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement and
Women in the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s, as
well as methodological approaches and the politics and
ethics of studying racist hate groups and strategies for
combatting racial hate. She has also studied progressive
social movements, including Democracy in the Making:
How Activist Groups Form, and, with Dwight Billings,
the origin of regional poverty in The Road to Poverty: The
Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia.
Matthew DeMichele, a Senior Research Sociologist in
the Center for Justice, Safety, and Resilience, has con-
ducted criminal justice research for over 15 years focus-
ing on correctional population trends, risk prediction,
community corrections, and domestic extremism. He uses
mixed methods approaches to investigate complex prob-
lems facing criminal justice systems within the United
States and abroad. He is currently Principal Investigator
for two Department of Justice (DOJ) funded studies and
for a validation study of the Arnold Foundation’s pretrial
risk assessment instrument, and he is the Project Director
for a MacArthur Foundation initiative evaluation.
Steven Windisch is a 3rd year doctoral student in the
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the Uni-
versity of Nebraska Omaha. His research interests
include domestic terrorism, extremist radicalization,
violence, street gangs, collective behavior, social move-
ments, and qualitative research methods. Currently, Ste-
ven is working as a research assistant on two National
Institute of Justice research grants and is an awardee of a
terrorism research award through START at the Univer-
sity of Maryland. Steven is also the current editorial
assistant at Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways
toward Terrorism and Genocide.
... 68 Disengaging from such deeply meaningful and salient identities can even result in involuntary cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses akin to withdrawal from substance addiction. 69 Hence, it appears that the earliest phases of deradicalization and disengagement pathways are likely a time for high vulnerability to the negative impact of perceived meaninglessness, insignificance, and self-blame that might result in recidivism or re-offending. Therefore, DDPs are often confronted with their clients 'falling into a black hole' of meaninglessness and lack of purpose, which can become a critical aspect of success or failure of the deradicalization and disengagement process. ...
... Specifically, while families often expressed some form of disapproval to relatives involved in WSE, these responses were often limited to "staying out of trouble." DHS and other key stakeholders may consider highlighting the non-legal ramifications of extremist participation such as long-term "identity residual" associated with hate (Simi, Blee, DeMichele, & Windisch, 2017). Moreover, efforts should be made to increase parents' reliance on governmental or non-governmental agencies to support interventions as well as youth and social services in terms of providing counseling that focuses on both non-white supremacist extremism issues (e.g., academic failure, generic delinquency) and white supremacist extremism issues. ...
... The term "far right" is used to describe groups that express verbal support for nativism and exclusionary populism, and those who advocate violence to these ends. White supremacist groups have a more explicit racist underpinning and often direct hatred toward non-white people, members of the queer community, and anyone they regard as an "out-group" or a threat to the white population (Simi et al., 2017). In our analysis, we view Pegida Canada as a fluid association of people expressing a range of nativist and white supremacist sentiments. ...
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The Western world has witnessed an enormous rise of exclusionary populism; some of it expressed by politicians, and much of it promoted by online extremist groups. The Internet can be seen as a suitable medium for delivering hate speech anonymously and without penalty. Such hate speech encourages fear and hatred towards Muslims. Contemporary anti-Muslim racism has its roots in colonialism and Orientalist ideology. Although hate crimes are thought of as being physical and in-person, they often involve public speech, much of which now happens online. In the Canadian context, hate speech has gained public expression with the emergence of the People's Party of Canada (PPC) and through the growth of online groups that advocate the exclusion of non-white or non-Western people, especially Muslims. Using critical discourse analysis, we analyze the expressions of such sentiments on the Facebook page of Pegida Canada. We consider how the group's Facebook presence contributes to anti-Muslim racism and what this tells us about the rise of exclusionary populism. Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West-PEGIDA Pegida Canada is a group of like-minded Canadians that are bringing awareness to the people in regards to threats to our great country. We want to preserve our culture. We are labelled by the leftists as a white supremacist or neo-Nazi-based movement, and that is so far from the truth. We respect the First Nations cultures that were here before colonisation. We also respect Veterans and those men and women who still serve to protect our great country.-Pegida Canada, Disclaimer
Who joins extremist movements? Answering this question is beset by methodological challenges as survey techniques are infeasible and selective samples provide no counterfactual. Recruits can be assigned to contextual units, but this is vulnerable to problems of ecological inference. In this article, we elaborate a technique that combines survey and ecological approaches. The Bayesian hierarchical case–control design that we propose allows us to identify individual-level and contextual factors patterning the incidence of recruitment to extremism, while accounting for spatial autocorrelation, rare events, and contamination. We empirically validate our approach by matching a sample of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters from nine MENA countries with representative population surveys enumerated shortly before recruits joined the movement. High-status individuals in their early twenties with college education were more likely to join ISIS. There is more mixed evidence for relative deprivation. The accompanying extremeR package provides functionality for applied researchers to implement our approach.
Cognition and emotion are foundational for many of the mechanisms proposed behind racist movement recruitment and mobilization. Cognition and emotion are, of course, incredibly general terms that capture a range of psychological and social‐psychological phenomena. Cognition refers to the set of mental processes behind knowledge acquisition, storage, and usage; and emotion refers to the range of sudden, short‐term neurobiological reactions to environmental stimuli as well as to more durable affective dispositions that one might call “moods” or “feelings.”
White Power music (WPM) expresses the ideology of white people who see themselves as an embattled minority at risk of extinction in the increasingly multicultural societies of Europe and North America. WPM is an important cultural resource used to promote, spread, and fund a decentralized and loosely coupled movement and is best identified by its lyrical content. WPM emerged in the late 1970s among radical right‐wing political parties in Great Britain and has expanded globally since. Originating from a small scene tightly connected to larger youth movements, particularly punk and skinhead, it has developed a distinct identity that facilitates and disseminates supremacist thinking and tactics. To understand WPM's relationship to the larger far‐right movement, scholars often studied it as a loose collection of geographically differentiated local music scenes. WPM scenes are collections of events and experiences bridging varying social contexts, yet strategically designed to promote the resilience and longevity of the White Power (WP) movement. WPM events are defined by the performance of musicians whose song lyrics express movement‐specific ideologies and promote WP goals and behaviors. The supremacist messages of WPM are authenticated by the social activities of the community surrounding the music. Related events, such as shows or festivals, serve as venues of recruitment, socialization, and commitment, as well as generators of material resources.
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Robert Futrell and Pete Simi on the simmering sentiments and political fortunes of White supremacists.
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Dual-process theories of cognition within sociology have received increasing attention from both supporters and critics. One limitation in this debate, however, is the common absence of empirical evidence to back dual-process claims. Here, I provide such evidence for dual-process cognition using measures of response latency in formal data collected in conjunction with an ethnographic study of atheists and evangelicals. I use timed responses to help make sense of evangelicals' language that frames 'religion' as negative but 'Christ-following' as positive. The data suggests that despite these Christians expressing a concept of the self that rejects 'religion,' deep dispositions remain associating religion as a positive entity, not a negative one. I further argue that the significance of dual-process theories to sociology is in untangling such complex webs of identity discourse by distinguishing between immediate responses primarily due to fast cognition and those that are further mediated by slower, more deliberate cognition.
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In this paper we introduce the idea of the dual process framework (DPF), an interdisciplinary approach to the study of learning, memory, thinking, and action. Departing from the successful reception of Vaisey (2009), we suggest that intradisciplinary debates in sociology regarding the merits of “dual process” formulations can benefit from a better understanding of the theoretical foundations of these models in cognitive and social psychology. We argue that the key is to distinguish the general DPF from more specific applications to particular domains, which we refer to as dual process models (DPMs). We show how different DPMs can be applied to a variety of analytically distinct issues of interest to cultural sociologists beyond specific issues related to morality, such as culture in learning, culture in memory, culture in thinking, and culture in acting processes. We close by outlining the implications of our argument for relevant work in cultural sociology.
This introductory chapter begins with a discussion of how emotions have played almost no role in theories of social movements and collective action since the end of the 1960s. It then suggests that although emotions are not explicitly theorized or even recognized, they are nonetheless present in many of the concepts that scholars have used to extend our understanding of social movements in recent years. Mobilizing structures, frames, collective identity, political opportunities — much of the causal force attributed to these concepts comes from the emotions involved in them. An overview of the subsequent chapters is also presented.