Illustrations by Daniel Zender
The partygoers with swastikas and Iron Cross tattoos began to arrive at the ranch-style home in Costa Mesa, California, one summer evening in 2000. Pete Simi looked around the crammed living room as it quickly filled with around 50 racists clapping and swaying to the guitar and drum music of a white-power band, Hate Train, which belted out lyrics about “Aryan pride.” The color of Simi’s skin allowed him to blend in. He’s a husky guy, with sand-colored hair, who can down beer after beer without losing his faculties, a practice that gives him cred with this crowd. He caught eyes with an intoxicated skinhead, who stared at him suspiciously and then said to a friend next to him: “That’s the guy who wants to study us.”
Simi had come not as a follower of the ideology but as a sociologist seeking to understand white-power groups. It was a distinction that his hosts did not intend to let him forget. Earlier that day, an Aryan Nations member told him a story about a reporter who was invited to a party with a white-supremacist group in Texas, and how the invite took a dark turn when members beat him bloody and left him in a ditch. Simi did not know if the story was true, but he took it as a warning.
On the ride to the party, a skinhead who served as Simi’s entrée to their world told him that the group never gave outsiders such intimate access. The skinhead had invited Simi into his home and introduced him to various white-power members. “We only wish you were one of us,” he said to Simi, then added: “Just keep in mind, if it turns out you’re a cop, I’ll personally hunt you down and slit your fucking throat, after I kill your family.”
* * *
Few researchers have dared to venture as deeply into white-power organizations as Simi, now a professor at Chapman University in Orange County. Simi has spent the last 20 years studying their motivations, lifestyles, psychology and behavior. He has embedded with hate groups, getting to know the secret worlds of the White Aryan Resistance, Nazi Lowriders and Public Enemy No. 1, and in recent years, newer, younger groups that use social media to recruit, such as R.A.M: The Rise Above Movement, which this year had four of its neo-Nazi members charged by the FBI in connection with violence at rallies, including in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Simi has grown accustomed to the threats on his life. They often follow the same theme: If he identifies members or reports something they don’t think is fair, he will be murdered. Simi is more sensitive, however, to the ways he’s had to compromise his own nonracist beliefs in pursuit of his research — what he’s had to do, see or say (or withhold from saying) to gain access.
Simi has sat in living rooms and watched hours of television with Aryans as they discussed race wars and taught their kids to point out “darkies,” “faggots” and “Jewbags.” He’s seen parents give their kids G.I. Joes that have been turned into “G.I. Nazis,” with swastika armbands and SS insignia on the dolls’ foreheads. He’s gone on car rides filled with racist rants against minority drivers. Through it all, Simi has had to remind himself that he is not there to sway or disrupt, but rather to observe and study. “I felt like the only way I would be able to develop relationships with folks, and have them allow me to be around them, was that I had to laugh at the jokes,” Simi says. “I had to nod in approval.”
Many people have asked Simi over the years: Why does he put his safety — and psyche — at risk? Before Charlottesville, and before white-power groups began becoming more visible, throwing their support behind President Trump, Simi says many academics and members of the public wrote off or simply ignored research on such groups, because they considered them “fringe.” He was made to feel like his work “was a pointless, futile effort. Because in academia, people don’t often study it. They’re studying Islamic terrorism, right? So [they thought I was] just off in la-la land — like why are you doing this?”
That has changed. Today, Simi fields dozens of calls, messages and emails weekly from journalists, researchers, students and members of the public inquiring about his work. Since 2014, the number of active hate groups in the United States has jumped 20 percent, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. After events like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the public has increasingly recognized the need to understand what drives people to join — and leave — these groups.
Simi, 46, is a chummy-looking professor who prefers button-downs and khakis, the kind of compassionate, low-key researcher who students and strangers feel comfortable confiding in. The methods of collecting information that he employs often draw on techniques from immersion journalism — and are accompanied by similar ethical quandaries: Like how do you walk the line of being too friendly, when you are not really a friend at all? Or how do you encourage people to speak candidly, even when you vehemently disagree with their views?
* * *
Simi grew up in a suburb of Sacramento, on a street that he says included African-American, Asian and Hispanic families. His mom was a feminist and anti-racist. She would watch PBS documentaries about the Ku Klux Klan with him so that he could understand racism. His father, who suffered from heart disease, died when Simi was 9.
The neighborhood kids played football, baseball and basketball together. Simi began to look up to an older boy, Ken, who was African-American. One day, Ken did not show up for a game. The white boys in the neighborhood started making comments about Ken and his brother behind his back. “Spear chucker, jungle bunny, jigaboo, that kind of stuff,” Simi recalls. “I just remember being really shocked. Like in my mind, he was my role model.”
At 10, Simi started keeping notebooks documenting racist behavior whenever he encountered it. He was a child engaging in his own form of ethnographic fieldwork. It started as a collection of moments of “everyday racism,” he says.
His family moved to Portland, Oregon, around the time that Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant, was beaten to death by three local skinheads. “It made a huge impression on me,” Simi remembers. “I wanted to understand this world of extraordinary racism.” By college, he knew he wanted to study extremists up close. While doing his master’s thesis at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he found an Aryan Nations organization, which was listed in the phone book as the Church of Jesus Christ–Christian. “When you called the church, you were really calling Aryan Nations.” Simi explained that he was a student who wanted to do research.
“Well,” the woman who answered asked him, “are you white?”
Simi told her yes.
“You’re more than welcome to come up anytime you want.”
Simi knows that his whiteness has provided him a passport into worlds prohibited to most outsiders. He does not lie about who he is, or why he is there. But he has found himself in distressing situations, like tagging along with a huge gang of tattooed, leather-clad skinheads and people in Aryan Nations uniforms, as they stopped off at a brick-oven pizza parlor. Everyone in the restaurant stared at the group. Simi was not dressed like them, but it didn’t matter. He realized in that moment, “Oh God, people think I’m a neo-Nazi. What have I got myself into?”
* * *
On a recent afternoon, Simi showed up to the Fullerton Public Library in Orange County to meet a man who recently left a white supremacist gang. The library was full of people, with no quiet place to talk. The man suggested that they meet inside a nearby garage where he’d been crashing since getting released from prison. Simi knew that the man had killed someone and had pistol-whipped people on the street. He asked himself how safe it was to follow him into this garage.
Simi went along for the interview anyway, quickly realizing that the crash pad was also a drug-dealing hotspot and warehouse for stolen property. He learned about the man’s ongoing heroin addiction, his horrific childhood traumas, including witnessing the rape of his mother by his stepfather. As a sundry of rough-looking roommates strolled in and out, Simi asked the man why he had left the white-power group and whether he still believed in its hateful rhetoric. For example, “What would you do if your 22-year-old daughter were dating a black guy?” Without hesitation, the man answered, “I would disown her. And if she had a baby with him, I’d have to disown the kid too.”
Simi is practiced in his response to comments like this: Nonchalance. Indifference. It can be, he says, exhausting, “constantly having to put on a poker face.”
Simi tried to connect the man with a drug treatment program, but he would not go because he was afraid he would lose contact with his girlfriend and kids while admitted.
Simi has interviewed more than 100 “formers,” individuals who have left hate groups. He has found that people usually leave white-supremacist groups for self-serving reasons (divorce, legal problems, rifts in the family, abuse), not because they have had a sudden change of heart. But “regardless of what gets them away from the group — [they] can’t change as a person until they get away from the group,” Simi says. “As long as they’re connected to the group, there’s not much hope.”
Simi’s work combines sociological, anthropological, scientific and journalistic techniques, reminiscent of the tradition of immersive nonfiction writers who have put themselves in jeopardy to gather information, such as Nelly Bly (a pioneering undercover journalist who in 1887 had herself committed to an asylum to write about the treatment of the mentally ill), Ted Conover (who went undercover for a year as a prison guard in New York) and Suki Kim (a journalist who went undercover in 2011 as a missionary and teacher in North Korea).
In Conover’s guidebook for those who want to do such work, Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, he speaks directly to the ethical dilemma of acting like “someone else” to establish rapport. “Getting what you need,” Conover writes, “may simply depend on your capacity for forbearance, and toleration. In other words, how well can you put up with being around those not quite like you or your friends? How much ‘otherness’ can you stand?”
In many situations, Simi has tried to be a fly on the wall — unobtrusive, easy to ignore or forget. “Silence,” Conover writes, “is sometimes okay. Where it gets tricky is over time, in the long term: you can’t just keep listening without responding … if the person asks your opinion, you may need to tell him. Hedge if necessary, but don’t pretend to agree.”
Simi agrees with this approach. He is driven to understand white supremacists in order to prevent hate — not to nod in agreement. Yet at times he has used deception to gain access. In the footnotes to his book American Swastika, Simi admits: “I snickered at racist jokes that I found appalling or nodded vociferously in agreement when Aryans talked to me about white racial genocide.” Group members frequently tried to recruit him, and it angered some of them when he refused. To ease their aggravation, particularly in situations where Simi felt in danger, he would reply: “We’ll see,” implying that maybe one day they would be successful in persuading him. These are the moments that have caused him anguish and guilt over the years.
They’re also the moments that have led him to deeper understanding. Once, after spending a long day with a white supremacist, Simi was again asked to join. This time, Simi says, “I felt oddly flattered, kind of like when you gain acceptance by a group of peers you seek approval from.” Simi could see how “someone who didn’t fully embrace their beliefs could still fall in with them.” He could feel how the power of wanting acceptance was so compelling.
He has also developed empathy for former or current group members, connecting with his research subjects through basic human universalities like grappling with family or parenting issues, abuse or a need to belong. Such humanistic approaches can also be tricky. Last year, The New York Times was criticized for “normalizing” white supremacists in an article that profiled Tony Hovater, a white nationalist and fascist. The writer bookended the piece with details about Hovater and his wife’s wedding registry at Target (“On their list was a muffin pan, a four-drawer dresser and a pineapple slicer”) and a scene of Hovater cooking pasta with his cats. Many readers questioned the purpose and tone of the article, arguing that it gave a microphone to a white-power movement that wants the public to believe that they are normal, everyday people.
These kinds of true stories, and this kind of research, Simi knows, is complicated, unsettling and sometimes messy. Once, Simi got to know a woman he calls Bonnie, who left a white-power group due to a group feud. It was around that time that her daughter was shot (by a family member, but the incident was not directly related to the hate group). Bonnie told Simi how two black doctors helped save her daughter’s life. From then on, Bonnie and her husband tried to retrain their minds, free themselves of racist views. They lived among black and Latino families in Southern California, enrolled in a community college, and tried to respect their new neighbors. One day, Bonnie went to a local drive-thru at a Jack in the Box restaurant, and when she came out she realized the clerk had gotten her order wrong. When she went inside to request the tacos she ordered, the clerk refused.
“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,” Bonnie told Simi. Bonnie explained how she grew more enraged. “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 usually do that shit anymore but I was so angry … all I saw was red, and I saw her and I wanted to fucking beat the piss out of her.”
After that eruption, Bonnie collapsed in her car outside of the restaurant, crying, asking herself why she did that. Why had she reverted to a state of hate that she had been trying to push away? It was clear to Simi that she felt shame about how she had reacted. Simi believes that for many, being part of white-power groups becomes like an addiction. Those who try to quit hating usually will relapse, because racism burrows deep into the psyche, and merely leaving the group cannot expunge it. Simi calls this “the hangover effect.” He has tried to get mental health services for some white supremacists who are on the fence about leaving, or have already left, their hate groups. But few counselors will agree to take them on. Their response, Simi says, is: “We’re not qualified.” But he knows there is also a deeper reluctance, as one counseling director told him: “She was like, ‘I just don’t think any of my therapists are going to want one of these people in their office, you know?’”
Simi shares his insights and research findings with groups like Life After Hate, which is working to pull white supremacists out of the movement and help those who have left recover. Many individuals need a multipronged therapeutic approach involving cognitive behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis, Simi says, because for some the brainwashing began when they were kids, and many came from abusive or neglectful homes.
Simi once spent time at the home of a Southern California couple who were raising their son to become a neo-Nazi. On the boy’s fifth birthday, the parents gave him a cake decorated with swastikas. Simi did not observe physical abuse, but he was present during instances of corporal punishment and verbal exchanges that made him “very uncomfortable.” Some would argue that the white-power brainwashing constituted a kind of abuse on its own. Simi did not report the conditions to authorities, though he says if he had witnessed physical abuse he would have been required to report it to child protective services and his university’s institutional review board.
This reporting process is reminiscent of a 1997 Los Angeles Times series on childhood hunger, in which reporter Sonia Nazario described vivid, intimate scenes of hungry children in Los Angeles, and photographer Clarence Williams snapped a photo of a man brushing a little girl’s teeth with the toothbrush of the child’s HIV-positive mother, but they did not step in to ease the children’s hunger or alert child services. The intention of the Times’ research was to instead alert the public to the horrendous conditions. The series ultimately had institutional and social ramifications, and the children were taken into protective custody by social services after it ran.
Simi believes that there is value in researching white supremacy at its deepest levels without intervening, especially with the resurgence of hate groups and hate crimes in recent years. “A growing segment of the white population, at this point and time in history, seems to be embracing a politics of resentment, of anger and frustration,” he says. “It’s an evolving problem, and as we now confront the role of social media, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.”
Over the course of his research, Simi established a close rapport with the California boy’s neo-Nazi father, whom he calls Seth. Once, Seth invited him to a white-power music festival in Georgia, where Simi watched from the sidelines as festivalgoers in Klan robes and hoods burned a cross, holding each other’s shoulders and singing together in front of the fire. A young skinhead with their group asked Simi: “So you’re a researcher? So what do you think about us racists? I mean, do you think we’re all crazy or what?”
Simi knew it was a simple question that could have led to him getting beaten and thrown into a ditch. But Seth interrupted before Simi could reply: “Hell, he’s more racist than I am. He knows we’re right.”
In that quick save, Seth had shifted attention away from Simi and signaled to the group to back off. He was protecting him, and Simi was grateful. “Yet I was also worried,” Simi would later explain. “I knew that Seth wanted me to be racist. He wanted all white people to be racist. I wondered whether I had accidentally crossed a line somewhere.”
* * *
In 2000, Simi also got to know Seth’s roommate in California, a man named Wade Page. “It was often just the two of us, as Seth would typically be working on the weekends during the day,” Simi explains. “That left Page and I to hang out together watching TV around the house, grabbing lunch, going to bars and shooting pool.”
During one interview, Page explained to Simi how he was indoctrinated into the white-power movement during his time in the Army. “We spoke at length about his views, his ideas,” Simi says. “We attended music shows together, house parties.” In one photo, which Simi snapped himself, Page is standing to the side of a mosh pit with a beer in his hand. Simi remembers that he and Page shared a late-night Denny’s breakfast after that concert. In all of Simi’s time with Page, he never worried about him having tendencies toward violence, as he did with other members he had met.
Twelve years later, Simi tuned into the news and saw a familiar face on the screen. It was Page. He had murdered six people in a mass shooting in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, injuring four more before shooting himself in the head. Simi asked if he could have done more to prevent the killings. “In a culture of violence and hate, determining which person is going to be the one that ultimately [commits an act of terror or crime],” Simi says, “is very difficult.”
After the shooting, Simi was interviewed by the media about Page. Some people accused Simi of not wanting to prevent the attacks, “so that I could capitalize on the violence,” he remembers. “Now, that was hard and certainly bothered me a lot but again the comments came from a place of misunderstanding and were quite irrational.”
Ethnography “is about documenting behavior in an accurate manner that helps improve our collective understanding of something that may seem ‘strange’ or ‘unfamiliar’ or something seemingly mundane or so familiar that we lose sight of its underlying social significance,” Simi says. When it comes to documenting hate, “the question is how to make change and I think this is where research can be extremely powerful — it sheds light on what is driving a problem like this and it allows us to test ideas about potential solutions.”
This year, Simi has closely followed the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, a gay, Jewish University of Pennsylvania sophomore who was stabbed to death while home for winter break in Orange County, not far from where Simi lives and works. Bernstein’s former high school classmate, Samuel Woodward, who trained with and joined an armed white-power terrorist group, Atomwaffen Division, was charged with the murder.
In October 2018, Simi watched in horror as news unfolded of a gunman who opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding six more. The shooter, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, had frequently made anti-Semitic threats online.
It is exhausting, Simi says, to think about the work still left to do: “I do feel like I could use a break from thinking about this problem. Of course, the victims of this violence don’t have that luxury.”
Erika Hayasaki is a professor in the Literary Journalism Program at UC Irvine. She is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life.