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White Supremacy Was Her World. And Then She Left. – The New York Times


The Sunday Review editor Honor Jones wrote about our decision to publish this story about the white supremacy movement in Friday’s edition of our Opinion Today newsletter.

SEATTLE — Mount Rainier bobbed in the rearview mirror as Corinna Olsen drove north. In the passenger seat, I felt a soft bump against my back whenever she pumped the brakes. It came from a human head. Behind me, wrapped in opaque plastic, was a dead body.

Ms. Olsen is an embalmer, and her Dodge minivan is retrofitted for her job — instead of seats, the back holds two gurneys. She had picked up this particular body from a county coroner’s office for transport to a funeral home. I was along for the ride because I was writing a book about hate in America, and Ms. Olsen used to be a white nationalist.

“I’ve been trying to decide which is the lesser of two evils, blacks or Mexicans,” she wrote in a post on Stormfront, the hate movement’s oldest online forum, in 2008. She went on to describe racist stereotypes, tarring Black people as criminals and saying Mexicans have too many kids.

Her language was cruel but familiar, drawing from America’s communal well of white supremacy. Many white Americans are quick to distinguish between everyday prejudice and radical bigotry, but it’s a false distinction. White nationalists make explicit ideas that are already coded or veiled in the wider white imagination. Hate is what many people would see if they looked in a fun-house mirror: a distorted but still recognizable reflection.

It is important to acknowledge this ugly truth if we hope to understand events now unfolding across the country.

Thousands of white people are joining protests against police brutality. Polls show a surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and three-quarters of Americans believe racial discrimination is a serious problem, a 25-point jump from five years ago. These developments are heartening in a country that has refused a meaningful reckoning with racism for the last 400 years.

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Protesters against the killing of George Floyd marching in Los Angeles last month.  Polls show a surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that this moment heralds a future of unprecedented harmony.

There are questions about whether white lip service will translate into sustained anti-racist action, and about what the same people who condemn unlawful killings of Black Americans might have to say about less violent manifestations of racism, ones that benefit them. There is also the inevitability of backlash: History shows that there are always people who turn to hate in the very moments that others find hope.

There are nearly 1,000 hate groups in America, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the distribution of white-supremacist propaganda is ever widening. We know little about how to combat hate effectively; the federal government has cut funding for programs to counter right-wing extremism and blocked the dissemination of data on the subject. Only last year did the Department of Homeland Security acknowledge that white supremacy is a national security threat.

White nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Credit…Edu Bayer for The New York Times

The gaps in knowledge mean that journalists and politicians often rely on flawed assumptions — for instance, that white nationalism is the sole province of angry men. Men are the far right’s most recognizable evangelists, and bombings, shootings and rallies are the most obvious manifestations of the movement’s strength. But there is other work keeping the flames of hate alive, and it is often done by women. Women like Corinna Olsen.

Ms. Olsen became an embalmer in her late 20s because, in a way, she had to. Divorced with two kids, she needed to make money. She had never finished college and did not have any demonstrable professional skills. But she had always been fascinated by rituals and what she calls “the misunderstood”— subjects that are taboo or macabre. Embalming fit the bill.

Ms. Olsen also had a personal connection to the profession because of her younger brother, Harley. He was fun, outgoing, well-liked — everything she was not. Ms. Olsen had always struggled to connect with other people and to be understood.

Corinna Olsen at 15 with her younger brother, Harley.

At 20, Harley drowned in a boating accident on Oregon’s Crescent Lake. Ms. Olsen was never able to look at his body. It took the authorities more than a year to recover it, and then he was cremated. As an embalmer, Ms. Olsen decided to specialize in difficult cases — gunshot victims, bodies charred in fires, corpses with battered and broken faces — to give families one last chance to see, maybe even to recognize, their loved ones.

Harley also inadvertently introduced Ms. Olsen to white nationalism. On what would have been his 27th birthday, in 2008, she found herself wanting to know more about her brother and the things that had mattered to him. He had been an anarchist who listened to punk music, wore black combat boots and hung out with skinheads in studded leather jackets. So Ms. Olsen went online and typed in, “What are skinheads?”

She told me that she had no idea at the time that some skinheads were neo-Nazis. That’s hard to believe, but similar explanations came up often in our conversations about her time in the hate movement. When she said that she hadn’t known any better, I didn’t get the impression that she hoped I would feel sorry for her. (I didn’t.) Rather, she seemed to be saying that she knew she’d been an idiot. She should have known better and could have, if she’d cared to think more critically.

Ms. Olsen had never thought too hard about being white. Like many white Americans, she never had to. She grew up in a largely white school district in Eugene, Ore., and she did not interact meaningfully with people of other races until her late 20s, when she moved to Portland for her embalming career. She had paid such little mind to race as a concept that there was a flatness to her understanding of it, a one-dimensionality susceptible to simplified reasoning.

When her search for information about skinheads led straight to Stormfront, the racist bowels of the internet, Ms. Olsen wasn’t fazed. Some Stormfront users said vile and violent things, but others talked about white pride and heritage.

The Stormfront website is a beacon for the white nationalist movement.Credit…Ryan Stone for The New York Times

And that didn’t seem bad to her. Black people could celebrate their roots, Hispanic people, too. It stood to reason, Ms. Olsen thought, that white people should be able to do the same. Stormfront users presented this as if it were a mathematical proof, not a notion freighted with a racist, violent history.

Ms. Olsen wrote a post introducing herself and asking, “Is there something wrong with being a white supremacist? I don’t outwardly profess hatred for other races; I have to work with them and also serve clients of other races in my industry, and I am very good at what I do. I don’t advocate violence toward other races.” She continued, “What is wrong with seeing our race as superior to that of the blacks? Don’t we all?”

The responses were plentiful and affirming. “There is nothing wrong with having a personal opinion,” one read. A commenter with the handle Thoughtful Patriot wrote, “Let’s face reality: People self-segregate by race.” Race, the person added, “is an intrinsic part of who we are.”

To Ms. Olsen, these people seemed smart. Just as important, she told me, “they seemed immensely interested in me and my life, and they wanted to be my friend.” To someone who “grew up without friends, that was very appealing. It made me feel like I must be doing something right.”

She wasn’t always sure that she believed what she said when she echoed her new friends’ views, but what mattered was that they wanted to keep talking to her; all she had to do was log in and start typing. If playing a part graduated to instinct, maybe they would like her even more.

The most basic definition of hate is personal animus, but there is a more useful, and frightening, description: Hate is a social bond — a shared currency — and it abhors a vacuum.

Kathleen Blee, a sociologist and expert in “racist activism,” writes that “social camaraderie, a desire for simple answers to complex political problems, or even the opportunity to take action against formidable social forces can coexist with, even substitute for, hatred as the reason for participation in organized racist activities.”

So can a need for validation, visibility and purpose. For someone like Ms. Olsen, hate becomes a cure for loneliness.

People who are drawn to the hate movement have an acute desire to make sense of their place in the world. There’s a gap between who they are and who they think they should be, what they have and what they want. They want to seize or regain what they believe is a rightful status. They want empowerment, with minimal effort. Hate promises them that.

The movement’s appeal goes something like this: America is a white country, built by white people, that is under attack from the enemies of the white race. The time is now or never to forestall racial annihilation. Anyone can do that by embracing white pride, standing up for the well-being of white people and securing America’s future by having white children. Whoever joins the movement will be part of something greater than themselves, a “righteous” cause.

“Who doesn’t want to lead people to victory?” Ms. Olsen asked me.

Hate always exists, but it surges during periods of social upheaval, offering racist explanations for seismic change.

The Ku Klux Klan formed after the Civil War and reached its zenith in the 1920s, in an expanding, diversifying country. “Its allures were manifold,” the historian Linda Gordon writes of the Klan. “They included the rewards of being an insider, of belonging to a community, of expressing and acting on resentments, of participating in drama, of feeling religiously and morally righteous, of turning a profit.”

Since 1865, the Ku Klux Klan has provided a vehicle for hatred in America.Credit…Corbis, via Getty Images
Supporters of the National Socialist Movement at swastika burning at an undisclosed location in Georgia in 2018.Credit…Go Nakamura/Reuters

White Citizens’ Councils and other organs of resistance emerged in reaction to the civil rights movement. Hate fed on opposition to second- and third-wave feminism, the expansion of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and shifting racial demographics.

Then came the election of President Barack Obama. “Right-wing extremists are harnessing this historical election as a recruitment tool,” a Homeland Security report noted in 2009. The first year of Mr. Obama’s presidency, Stormfront registered nearly 100,000 new users.

Ms. Olsen was part of this wave, which also found fuel in the xenophobia of the post-Sept. 11 era and public disgust with the financial crisis. Her involvement accelerated quickly. Some of her online friends asked to meet in real life, and by 2009, she was the head of Portland’s chapter of the National Socialist Movement. She read “Mein Kampf,” donned a uniform with Nazi insignia for meetings, and placed recruitment fliers with phrases like “Jewish people are ruining America” on windshields in parking lots.

In November 2009, she traveled with fellow neo-Nazis to Phoenix to attend a rally demanding a halt to the immigration of anyone who was not white. Participants also wanted to expel nonwhite people already in America. The rally’s theme was “America First,” a slogan once used by isolationist politicians and the Klan that, several years later, Mr. Trump would invoke in his campaign for the White House.

White supremacists at a rally near the State Capitol in Phoenix in 2009.Credit…Nick Oza

Ms. Olsen’s embalming career faltered and she all but lost contact with her children as she went deeper into the movement. In 2010, she left Portland for Montana, where she moved in with a white nationalist named April Gaede, best known as the stage mom of Prussian Blue, blond twin girls who made national headlines for playing racist music. The duo’s name was a reference to the color of the residue left — or not left, according to Holocaust deniers — by Zyklon B in Nazi gas chambers.

After a few months, Ms. Olsen had a falling out with Ms. Gaede and relocated to Seattle, where she started working for the Northwest Front, a group that promoted the establishment of a white homeland in the Pacific Northwest. She soon gained notoriety as the co-host of Radio Free Northwest, a weekly broadcast, under the name “Axis Sally.” It was a reference to Mildred Gillars, an American woman living in Germany who was handpicked by Joseph Goebbels to spread propaganda on Nazi radio to Allied troops in Europe. Gillars was later convicted of treason.

Being Axis Sally gave Gillars, a struggling actress, a platform, popularity and power. It did the same for Ms. Olsen. She became briefly famous enough for a Gawker profile in 2010: “The internet is full of strange people,” it read. Ms. Olsen “may be the strangest.”

Many people rationalize their racism — or even refuse to call it that — by insisting that it isn’t as bad as someone else’s. They could spit on immigrants instead of complaining in private about foreigners stealing American jobs. They could put Jewish people in camps instead of muttering about how they have too much power.

Bigotry has many branches, some bigger and stronger than others, but they all derive from the same trunk. No wonder, then, that when “somebody said he didn’t like Black people, or he told a racist joke, or he said illegal immigration is wrong,” Ms. Olsen recalled, she assumed he might be interested in becoming a neo-Nazi, too.

There were, however, lines Ms. Olsen said she wouldn’t cross. In 2011, she decided she was done with white nationalism. That January, the police in Spokane disarmed a pipe bomb left on a bench along the route of a parade for Martin Luther King’s Birthday. The bomb contained 128 fishing weights coated with rat poison, which impedes blood clotting, and human feces, which teem with infection-causing bacteria. The engineer was Kevin Harpham, an Army veteran and neo-Nazi who frequented the same kinds of online forums Ms. Olsen did.

A rally in Spokane, Wash., in 2011, before a march to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A bomb that Kevin Harpham planted along the route was found before it exploded.Credit…J. Bart Rayniak/The Spokesman-Review, via Associated Press

Mr. Harpham would plead guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and to a hate crime. He said in court that he had intended for the bomb to be a protest against multiculturalism. It was also a gesture to fellow white nationalists. When people plant bombs, burn crosses, or run their cars into crowds of peaceful protesters, they are reinforcing their place in a community by inflicting terror.

In her telling, Ms. Olsen decided to leave the hate movement because she realized that she could not tolerate violence. That may have been part of it, but when I spoke to her, it was clear that she also exited because the movement stopped giving her the meaning and camaraderie she wanted.

She had clashed with people like Ms. Gaede and felt judged for her personal choices, namely her decision not to have more children. She wanted to restart her embalming career, and she had discovered that she had a knack for bodybuilding, winning amateur competitions and finding community at the gym.

People don’t leave the hate movement because a veil lifts and they are suddenly able to see hate for what it is. The truth is more disappointing. They leave because it makes sense for them, because the value hate once gave them has diminished or evaporated. Ms. Olsen seemed to know this, writing once on a blog, “The reality is, people rarely change their personality or ideals during adulthood, and if they do, it needs to be something they do on their own, for themselves.”

When the F.B.I. offered to pay her to inform on the Northwest Front, Ms. Olsen agreed. She worked as an informant for a few months, then cut ties with hate for good in late 2012. Shortly after, in an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, she said, “I realized much too late that this entire movement is a huge waste of life.”

Just as Ms. Olsen was leaving the hate movement, it found a new source of energy. The resulting wave would wash over America, helping usher in the Trump presidency, the terrible events in Charlottesville, Va., and, in 2018, the highest number of killings attributed to right-wing extremists since the year of the Oklahoma City bombing.

But first, it inspired Dylann Roof to commit mass murder. In the manifesto he wrote before killing nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., Mr. Roof described the shooting of Trayvon Martin as the event that “truly awakened” his racism.

“I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was,” Mr. Roof wrote in 2015. “How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case,” he asked, “while hundreds of these Black-on-white murders got ignored?”

Dylann Roof, the gunman in the Charleston, S.C. church shootings, said he was “awakened” by the Trayvon Martin case.Credit…Chuck Burton/Associated Press
George Zimmerman, who was found not guilty of murder in the killing of Mr. Martin.Credit…Pool photo by Gary W. Green

The shooting death of an unarmed Black teenager and the authorities’ initial decision not to arrest the gunman, George Zimmerman, spurred protests. President Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Mr. Zimmerman was ultimately charged with second-degree murder and acquitted in 2013. Three activists on Twitter created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. A movement was born. Backlash followed in the form of the #WhiteLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter campaigns, and in unfounded accusations that Black Lives Matter was a radical, violent organization.

Some prominent white supremacists now point to the birth of Black Lives Matter as a pivotal moment in their radicalization. Lana Lokteff, a white nationalist who runs the popular alt-news platform Red Ice with her husband, told me that period was when she realized “the truth” was “pointing toward there being an attack on white people.” Ms. Lokteff produces videos with titles like “Why They Want to Replace White People” and peddles false narratives about Black-on-white crime.

This rhetoric is not confined to the internet’s most shadowy corners. In late June, as protests against police brutality and systemic racism entered their fourth week, President Trump retweeted videos that seemed to show Black men attacking white people. Sounding eerily like Ms. Lokteff, Mr. Roof and other extremists, he demanded public outrage. Soon after, when New York City announced a plan to paint “Black Lives Matter” in yellow letters on Fifth Avenue, where Trump Tower sits, the president called it “a symbol of hate.”

President Trump called the Black Lives Matter lettering in front of Trump Tower “a symbol of hate.”  The mural was later vandalized with red paint.Credit…Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

All this suggests that the uprisings in the name of Black liberation are cause for optimism, but also for vigilance.

Digital networks — and the White House — shovel disinformation into people’s brains every minute of every day. Conspiracy theories run rampant. A pandemic is reshaping the social landscape, isolating people from one another and entrenching the worst unemployment crisis in nearly a century. The presidential election looms.

Perhaps more people than ever will emerge from 2020 on the side of justice. Still, there are those who will turn to hate, finding it — perversely — to be a kind of balm.

Research shows that a shared sense of racial identity is hardening among white Americans. The political scientist Ashley Jardina has found that some 20 percent of white Americans, roughly 40 million people, now have “strong levels of group consciousness,” meaning they “feel a sense of discontent over the status of their group.” Having group consciousness does not automatically translate into prejudice, but the hate movement is poised to exploit white people’s grievances and fears.

What can we do to stop it? There aren’t easy answers. Tech companies should identify and ban hate speech, but this process inevitably becomes a game of Whac-a-Mole. Similarly, bringing the law to bear on hate speech and crimes is necessary but remedial; levying penalties for individual acts of wrongdoing won’t vaccinate America against far-right extremism.

I will confess to being a pessimist by nature, and while reporting on the hate movement, I found it difficult not to feel despondent. Magnifying my gloom were encounters with white liberals who made statements that I recognized as precisely the kind of bait white nationalists use to make their case to the mainstream.

Standing in a breakfast buffet line, a middle-aged writer told me that I needed to be very careful with the book I was writing lest it hurt women (white ones, presumably). Of course, she said, what white-nationalist women support is wrong, but everyone is complicit in something, right? Lowering her voice, she added that America never would have had slavery if Africans hadn’t sold their own people to European traders. In a tweet on July 4, Ms. Lokteff expressed the same idea more or less verbatim.

The least Americans can ask of one another is to have frank conversations about whiteness, no matter how uncomfortable. People concerned about the tide of hate can also work to empower minority populations, tackle inequality, foster dialogue about prejudice and root discriminatory ideas out of American life. They can vote bigots out of office. They can support the work of groups like Life After Hate, which helps people leave far-right groups.

Protesters against hate marching across the Brooklyn Bridge in January.Credit…Yana Paskova for The New York Times

First, though, combating hate requires understanding it. Not what it seems to be, but what it actually is. That includes who embraces it, and why.

So much of history is made up of small moves. Hope, too, dwells in increments. There is hope if white Americans can confront the true face of hate and their own complicity in bigotry. There is hope if we can see white nationalism as a crisis of individual and collective responsibility.

Ms. Olsen knows how hate works, because it worked on her. These days, she likes sticking it to the racists she once considered friends. She has bragged on Twitter about ordering a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to wear to the gym so that she could “offend multiple people.”

She had also ordered a Nike hijab. Once a seeker, always one: In 2018, Ms. Olsen decided to become a Muslim.

Ms. Olsen in June.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

She liked how the religion gave structure to her days. She liked that Islam was a topic she could learn about from books. Keeping her body covered meant that it was hers and no one else’s. “It is freeing, actually, to feel like I’m taking something away from men,” she told me. At her mosque, the other worshipers didn’t want anything from her; they just seemed glad she was there, practicing Islam alongside them.

When she was done transporting bodies for the day, we visited the mosque. “Sister Corinna!” I heard several Black and brown women crow happily when they saw her. She had friends here who cared about her. Sometimes she led exercise classes in the mosque’s gym, cuing women through rounds of lunges and push-ups.

Once in a class, a call to prayer emanated from a loudspeaker. The women rushed to the middle of the gym’s floor. They left their shoes in a pile and stood in a line. One used her cellphone to find the direction of Mecca. “A little to the left!” she instructed her classmates, and the group edged that way.

The prayer began. Silent, the women stood hip to hip — all except Ms. Olsen. She was at one end of the line, where she had left a gap between her body and the rest of the group. The woman closest to her glanced over. She was tall and willowy, an immigrant from Niger. She extended a hand, sending a ripple through her abaya. She grasped Ms. Olsen’s arm and tugged her close.

Seyward Darby is the editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine and the author of the forthcoming “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism,” from which this essay is adapted.

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