The Bald Truth: How Nazi Skinheads Co-Opted A Youth Subculture

on August 11 2012 1:04 PM

When photos began to surface of Wade Michael Page, the glassy-eyed gunman who police say killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last weekend, the ensuing news reports practically wrote themselves. The 40-year-old alleged killer had been involved with white-supremacist hate groups for at least a decade. His arms and torso were swaddled with tattoos, many displaying racist and neo-Nazi symbolism. He played bass in a white-power hardcore band called End Apathy. He was angry, frustrated, disillusioned. He was also a skinhead -- but that almost goes without saying.

Skinheads have long been associated with the kind of antisocial beliefs espoused by Page. When skinheads make the news, a hate crime is almost always involved, whether it's a 2008 plot to assassinate Barack Obama or the flying chair that broke Geraldo Rivera's nose 20 years earlier.

But the skinhead movement did not begin as a mouthpiece for xenophobic Aryan youths. Rather, it started as an offshoot of the working-class mod culture of 1960s Great Britain, combined with influences from Jamaican "rude boys." Both of those worlds helped cement skinhead musical preferences with an amalgam of genres that included rocksteady, ska, beat music, reggae and others. It was also around that time that many of the movement's signature characteristics -- close-cropped hair, straight-legged jeans, combat boots and suspenders -- began to surface.

Bolstered by the growing popularity of punk-rock music, skinhead culture spread quickly to other countries in the late 1970s. In the United States, the movement found fertile ground in emerging punk and hardcore scenes in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. American skinheads, like their European counterparts, espoused youthful aggression and hardened working-class sensibilities, topped off with good old-fashioned suburban disaffection. But even then, the culture was not bounded by feckless white-supremacist notions of racial purity. There were black, Asian and Hispanic skinheads in those early scenes as well -- young people, of all kinds and all colors, just looking for a place to fit in. 

"It started out as a very anti-racist movement," said Steven Blush, a longtime music journalist and author of the book "American Hardcore." "In the late '70s and early '80s, it was about being smarter than the pack, about not conforming to the people you hated in high school. The logical response for a kid who wants to rebel against feathered hair is to shave his head."

Blush, whose book was made into a documentary in 2006, was heavily involved in the hardcore scenes of Washington, D.C., and New York City. He said the ethos of those early movements did not reflect the blind anger and insular thinking of today's racist skinhead culture. There was angst and aggression, to be sure, but the speed and volume of the music that drove the scenes were tempered with the intellectual flourishes of its major players.

Blush cites such artists as Henry Rollins, of Black Flag, and Ian Mackaye, of Minor Threat, as part of a thinking-man's breed of hardcore performer. Like the hippies of the 1960s, these idealistic frontmen thought the world was best changed with ideas, not violence. True, their close-cropped hair and tattoos might evoke images of what we associate today with white-power skinheads, but their message was one that included an acceptance of diversity and differences.

But by the mid-1980s, Blush said, many of those cerebral hardcore bands -- the politically charged Dead Kennedys, for instance -- had broken up. At the same time, residual narrow-mindedness allowed racist attitudes to seep into the scene through white-power bands such as Screwdriver. "After a while, the thinkers dropped out," he said. "All you were left with were these alienated kids who didn't get the nuances of the original scene. They were drawn to uniformity -- wearing the same clothes, the same boots."

A Tale of Two Movements

The diverging attitudes that emerged from the American hardcore movement are prevalent in the splintered skinhead groups that still exist across the country. Of course, we've all seen portrayals of racist skinheads through media reports and movies such as "American History X." But other groups have since emerged that serve as a kind of skinhead antimatter. Groups like Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, or Sharp, seem almost oxymoronic in a culture known more for neo-Nazism. But the Anti-Defamation League, which has been monitoring hate crimes among skinhead groups since the 1970s, said it's important to understand that there are vastly different belief systems alive today within the broader ecosphere of skinhead culture.

"We're always very careful to differentiate between racist and nonracist skinheads," said Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the ADL's Center on Extremism. "There are similarities in hairstyles, clothing and styles of music, but it terms of ideology the two groups are completely different. In fact, non-racists skinheads often speak out very vocally against racism." 

Today, the Sharp skinhead movement includes loosely connected chapters all over the world, including groups in England, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands and even Thailand. There are also sub-sects in various regions throughout the United States. Few of these groups have websites, and most of the Facebook pages representing them are small, with fewer than 1,000 members. But those members are an impassioned bunch nonetheless. Scroll through any number of Sharp Facebook pages, and you'll find comments from young people who are downright bitter about the constant portrayal of skinheads as racists and Nazis.   

"The Skinhead movement got hijacked," said one commenter. "Look into the history."

"We are the real Skinheads," commented another. "The real people against racial and sexist [sic] predjudice, all others are nazi-scum or boneheads."

But some culture aficionados think Sharp and other anti-racist skinhead groups are fighting a losing battle. Perceptions are difficult to change, after all, and the American public is not likely to forget images of Wade Michael Page glowering in front of a swastika, spewing forth neo-Nazi rhetoric in his band. Then there is the overt anger present in Sharp's membership, the fire-with-fire credo that many see as dangerous. Indeed, much of the literature put forth by the Sharp movement ostensibly fights hate with more hate, calling on fellow Sharp skinheads to mobilize and fight their racist enemies. "It's a slippery slope," Blush said. "That whole violent, anti-racist do-gooder thing can really get out of control. Sharp, for all their good intensions, has never changed anything. In some ways, I think they're as bad as the racists."

Mayo, too, admitted that anti-racist groups like Sharp are not entirely harmless. "We do see instances of violence with non-racist skinheads," said Mayo. "We see that they flight and have clashes -- often with racist skinheads."

But Jim O'Brien, a former skinhead from central New Jersey, said violence and hooliganism are not a default feature of skinhead culture. A member of the scene in the 1980s, he remembers the violent confrontations and white-supremacist attitudes of many skinheads. But he and his friends, he said, avoided that. For him, being a skinhead was more about finding an identity that revolved around a shared love of music. He also appreciated the movement's working-class sensibilities. "We believed in hard work, and we looked out for each other," he said. "It was just about standing up for yourself."

O'Brien's wife is African-American. He said that when he first met her in the early 1990s, she was taken aback upon learning about his past as a skinhead. "There was that moment, you know, because of what she'd seen in the media," he recalled. "I had to tell her about where it all came from, how it started with Jamaican rude boys in England and all that. I always spoke out against racism, even before I was a skinhead. That's how I was brought up."

The number of people who currently belong to skinhead groups is not known. The ADL says hard statistics are difficult to come by, as many groups purposely operate under the radar. But despite pervasive images of young, angry men saluting at swastika flags, no one believes the country is on the verge of a skinhead takeover. According to the ADL, most skinhead groups in America today "remain loosely organized at best." And although Mayo said the league saw a surge in skinhead activity in the mid-2000s, she said membership has been relatively steady since.

And while skinhead music -- hardcore, death metal or whatever the genre du jour might be -- is sometimes portrayed as a recruitment tool by which white supremacists recruit unsuspecting young men into their ranks, Mayo said that is not necessarily the case. "Recruitment for these groups is passive," she said. "Young people who are drawn to these movements already tend have this kind of ideology."

Blush disagrees. He said hate groups use music to present an image of strength and unity that can seem appealing to disillusioned young people who are looking for a sense of belonging. However, he doesn't blame the music itself. Music is a tool, he said, and like any tool, it's all in how you use it. "Let's be honest," he added. "Racist groups don't attract the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree in the first place. This guy in Wisconsin didn't even know the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim. On the other side of the world, people kill each other over those differences."

To be certain, Wade Michael Page would have been considered an extremist in any group. However, in a culture known for extremes, it's worth pointing out that his beliefs did not reflect those of every person with a shaved head. But if you're still unsure of how to tell a racist skinhead from a non-racist one, Mayo has a few tips. "One way to tell is by looking at the tattoos," she said. "Racist skinheads will often have tattoos that indicate their ideology, such as the swastika or any number of Nazi symbols they've adopted."

In other words, this is a group that literally wears its beliefs on its sleeve. Can identifying the bad guys really be that difficult?