Angela King, deputy director and co-founder of Life After Hate, recently sat down with The Story Exchange to talk about the rise of hate groups in the U.S. and how we can help turn the tide. Here’s an edited excerpt. To read the whole story, click here.
White supremacist hate groups are nothing new in America. They have been active and organized for over a century under the banner of the Ku Klux Klan, post-World War II neo-Nazism and racist skinheads who emerged in the 1960s.
But since 2015, hate groups targeting people of different races, religions, sexual orientations and more have been on the rise in the U.S. — a trend the Southern Poverty Law Center ties, in part, to the tenor of President Donald Trump’s campaign for office. And since he was elected in November 2016, white supremacists have been emboldened. Hundreds of incidents of hate-fueled violence have been reported since the election, and the number of active hate groups has jumped to 917 from 892 in 2016, according to the SPLC.
In this environment, the urgent questions have become: How does a free society stop such groups? And how do you lead people away from hate groups and help them start new lives?
Angela King, a former member of a violent hate group, is offering some answers. She is the co-founder and deputy director of Life After Hate, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that hosts multiple anti-hate initiatives with national reach, chief among them an exit program that helps people disengage from hate groups and find positive ways to contribute to society.
“The best thing we can do is keep educating people — keep these things in the spotlight,” King says. What’s needed is “compassion and kindness, but also dedication to making sure people’s human rights and civil rights are respected.”
It’s vital work, says Lecia Brooks, SPLC’s director of outreach. “Being part of a hate group is so far outside the mainstream,” she adds. “Life After Hate affords a second chance.”
Extremist groups, including white supremacists, often recruit and indoctrinate new members by offering them a sense of belonging that they have long lacked, yet crave, says Brooks of the SPLC.
“Young white men and women who have experienced disenfranchisement because of their economic conditions or chaotic family lives, who are not feeling ‘part of’ — for them, white supremacists become their family.”
This is particularly true for women, according to research by Kathleen M. Blee, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She told the SPLC in 2002 that “women become associated with these groups for reasons that are cultural and social — friends, music, clothing styles — rather than because a particular racial issue is troubling them.”
In 2011, King attended a summit in Dublin for former extremists — a profound experience, she says, because it introduced her to “people who were directly impacted by the type of violence I used to leverage against others.” There, she and a few other American former hate group members gathered together to talk about how to make a difference at home.
One of them ran a blog called Life After Hate, and suggested they adopt the name and create a nonprofit.
Life After Hate is a multi-pronged operation, but its main focus is the ExitUSA program. Inspired by similar campaigns in Sweden and Germany, it employs a mix of education, job training, community engagement and public awareness campaigns designed to facilitate the move away from life as a white supremacist.
Connecting people with the resources they need to disengage can be tough, the SPLC’s Brooks says. And so is controlling a narrative, she adds; while hate and extremism were widespread before the Trump administration took office, recent rhetoric from high-ranking officials “makes it harder for a group like Life After Hate or the SPLC to say, ‘They’re not right. They’re wrong. You need to get out.’”
The organization’s approach works, Brooks says. “I have known individuals who have been deeply involved in hate or extremist groups” who have “gone on to live different lives” thanks to exit programs that emphasize the “redemptive power of people to change,” she says. Groups like Life After Hate, and women like King, give her hope. “I think women are historically responsible for creating change — we’re always there.”
“We’re really working to not only help the individuals who have disengaged from groups, but for those who are willing to speak out publicly,” King says. “We are hoping to open up a platform for not just small team of us doing this, but for a large group … [that can] prevent young people from making the kinds of choices we made.”