Eugene S. Robinson is OZY’s Deputy Editor.
White supremacy is a funny thing.
Not ha-ha funny. Too many incidents in the past weeks, months and years demonstrate that, when properly motivated and mixed with the right kinds of circumstance — poverty, resentment and diminished life prospects — those who cotton to extremist beliefs are capable of doing great harm. But villains too easily understood make it harder to get our hands on fixing what’s clearly broken.
Funny then, that I found myself grasping for this understanding in 1973.
My father had just moved to a new neighborhood in Maryland when I came to visit. I was 11 years old, and David was the first kid that I met in the neighborhood: He glommed on to me and we became friends. One day at his house, everyone was freaked. Nervous. And tense. David whispered with his mother and they suggested that maybe it was time for me to head home for dinner.
“Well, my stepmom usually calls me when it’s ready,” I replied, not moving. I was largely a stranger to “hints.”
… a neighborhood that hated him, and whose hatred he returned.
Their panic increased, and as we played in his backyard, I watched David freeze and then look up at the sky. Or God. And on the balcony, above the yard where we played, I saw his father screaming. I couldn’t hear what he was screaming, but he was angry. Being a New York kid, I screamed back, “WHAT?!?!”
David nearly passed out, saying, as he sat down, defeated and broken by what I didn’t know, “You have to go now. Really.”
When I got home, my father asked if I’d had a good time, and I said that I had, and recounted the curious story.
“Hmm,” my father mused. “Maybe that was because David’s father is the head of the local KKK chapter.”
Even then, I knew very well what this meant. My father explained himself: “You two seemed to like each other, and the truth is: No one is born a racist. So maybe whatever happened to his father to make him that way won’t happen to the son to make him that way. Because of you.”
Before drawing me into their orbit, the rest of the kids in the neighborhood — the sons and daughters of engineers, politicians, symphony directors and baseball players for the Washington Senators — mocked me for not knowing who David’s father was and why they all avoided him. David and I didn’t stay friends — not because I wouldn’t play with him anymore, because I would have, but because he couldn’t deal with the die that had been cast in a neighborhood that hated him, and whose hatred he returned.
Jump forward a few years to 1981. I find myself stage side in San Francisco, at what was then called California Hall.
The occasion was a show with punk legends-in-the-making the Dead Kennedys, the Circle Jerks and Fear. Fear had, unsurprisingly, a semi-fearsome rep for expert playing, star power, and a complete willingness to be more than passive participants in the chaos that typically ensued 20 yards in front of the stage, in what was so piquantly called “the pit.”
It was a meeting of Northern and Southern California hardcore punk, and there was a promise of fireworks. Chains, studs and spikes were adjusted around waists and on jackets, and all the young dudes (it was almost always young dudes) were getting READY.
… and above the swastika, the word “WHITE,” and below it, “POWER.”
When Fear hit the stage and played the very first note, it was a catalyst for crazy. California Hall just … EXPLODED. The air was thick with fists and the flying feet of people hurling themselves off of PA stacks, and minute-by-minute friend-or-foe decisions made on the fly, resulting in either fights or convivial slaps on the back.
This is when I spotted him
Hidden behind a PA stack watching me, sharp eyed and feral, was a guy about six feet tall and vibing for all the world like a local version of Sid Vicious. As he stepped out from behind the stack, I could see his black t-shirt come into view, emblazoned with a white swastika and above the swastika the word ”WHITE” and below it “POWER.” Like a surfer leaping into the sea he flung himself over the heads of the crowd and swam straight toward me.
As I watched and waited for his arrival at the point that was me, I clenched my fists and spun, shifting my body so that the undulating crowd pushed me toward him. My belief was that avoiding trouble just delayed trouble, and so I staggered toward him as he swung over the heads of the crowd. As my right hand drew back into what was now a fist, he shot his arms under my arms, hugged me to his chest, TIGHT, and kissed me on the mouth.
I laughed. He laughed. And we both turned and launched ourselves back into the crowd.
This was how I met the man known as Bob Noxious, who, as his name suggested, was kind of a handful. Known for drugs, thievery and beatings, Noxious sang for a band called the Fuck-Ups, whose fans were notorious for similar acts of completely uncontrolled chaos. They weren’t so much gleefully politically incorrect as they were willfully politically retrograde, partially representing the forgotten offspring of California’s Oakie past.
Their rebellion was meta, but even the more politically astute members of this community of outcasts were held in contempt by the wider society. So they sallied forth, middle finger held high, the spear point of a movement that was quickly subsumed into the curiously ultra-nationalist skinhead movement. Which, when it first appeared on the scene, represented a welcome relief from the idea that punk rock kids were easy targets for anyone with a gripe against difference and a willingness to express it with a baseball bat.
And even after my friend Scott Vollmer was stabbed to death by a skinhead for defending a black guy getting rousted for “race-mixing,” and after Bash Boy Terry Sargeant got his throat cut because people were sick of skins running the Haight, and the skinheads started to flee to Idaho and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest — even after all this, these exceedingly strange friendships never really explained themselves to me. Even as they started to proliferate.The community got heavy and much more heavily bifurcated. Yet all of the hard cases, the super-racist skinheads, were always, to a man, nice to me. Maybe it was because I had known some of them since they were teenagers. Others I had caught getting Nazi tattoos from my Latino roommate in our heavily black neighborhood as they sported T-shirts with Klan logos on them while sitting at my kitchen table. They weren’t blind to the irony of it all. But soon it dawned on many of us that, like the Hells Angels a generation earlier, these skinheads were actually not joking around. They were organized, and once they ran out of outsiders to fight, they turned their attentions toward the scene from whence they came.
Their whole ideology seemed to conceal lurking concerns about powerlessness, and was really a vehicle for getting a grip on their true love: worshipping at the cult of strength that underlies each and every far-right movement. These people all knew I was black, and even if I was what they would never call me to my face, “a mud person,” I also embodied the virtues and values they held dear: silent stoicism, a belief in the transformative powers of violence and the means to manifest it via my lifelong dedication to weightlifting and martial arts.
Where we differed was the presence of my middle-class “hopes” versus the absence of their belief in class possibilities.
Flashing forward to 2014: Bob Noxious is now dead, laid low by hepatitis. As for the other skinhead cats — some in and out of prison, some straight-worlding it as electricians, plumbers and cable TV installers, and many more struck dead by violence and disease — their stories are a forgotten part of our conversations about race in America.
Which is this: It’s inextricably connected to class. And poor lower classes — be they black, white or other — are forgotten much faster than their cousins who are disappearing into the middle class. And the more they’re forgotten, the less likely it is they’ll be remembered for anything other than the acting out that hits the headlines.
But — this understanding and proximity is not sympathy.
You see, this stuff actually comes from some place, and some place familiar, and treating it sooner rather than later might be better for us all in the long run. And as my father suggested once upon a time: No one comes out of the chute a bad actor.
Why you should care
Because no one comes out of the chute a bad actor.