because we are so powerfully rooted to the notion of individuality, in some ways race affronts that. But the real affront is the whole notion of individuality. Individuality, as we think of it, is actually extremely problematic.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, see — yeah, and you make this really fascinating point that — you say that there are two parents to the way we are now; the way we grapple with race, among other things. And one is slavery. Get that. And the other is the Enlightenment and that, in fact, it’s from the Enlightenment that we inherited this idea that the conscious mind could know everything; that we could be reasonable.
MR. POWELL: That’s the American exceptionalism. So the United States became extremely, extremely attached to the notion of individuality and independence. Now think about the groups who were not independent. They were the Africans. They were the Indians. They were women. They were anyone who was not a white male. So the notion, the Enlightenment project, which had this hubris that we could control everything, including the world, when we can’t even really control ourselves.
MS. TIPPETT: And yet, this condition of each of us in isolation, which you associate with whiteness, which is this culture of domination, is not sustainable, and it’s not desirable.
.. MS. TIPPETT: And we’re running into the limits of our ability to convince ourselves that it is desirable.
MR. POWELL: No, there are so many expressions that help us see it. And sometimes people talk about “We need to do things to connect.” And on one hand, that’s right, but on the other hand, it understates what it is. We are connected. What we need to do is become aware of it, to live it, to express it.
So think about segregation. Segregation is a formal way of saying, “How do I deny my connection with you?” in the physical space. Think about the notion of whiteness. So whiteness in the United States, as it came, as it took form, believed that one drop of “black blood” — whatever that is — would destroy “whiteness.” Turns out, whatever that means, most white Americans actually do have black blood. The reason that most African Americans look like me or like Gary is because white blood and black blood’s been mixing up for a long time. And so I think that as we deny the other, we deny ourselves, because there is no other. We are connected.
.. that that movement was as much for the sake of his soul as it was for the sake of people of color.
And it’s worth saying that. To me, that’s one way of talking about your point that we have to talk about whiteness.
.. I was teaching a class at the University of Minnesota, and I was talking about the taking of Native American land. And most of my students were white students, and one student objected; it’s like, “This is a such-and-such class. Why are we studying the history of Native Americans?” And I said, “We’re not. We’re studying the history of America. So, when we talk about the appropriation of Native American land, or when we talk about slavery, we’re not talking about the history of black people, we’re talking about the history of this country.”
.. I don’t care if you came here last week or ten days ago, you can’t understand this country without understanding the institution of slavery. It was pivotal.
.. MR. POWELL: The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. I just gave a lecture on health, and if you’re isolated, the negative health condition is worse than smoking, obesity, high blood pressure — just being isolated.
.. How do we make it infectious; how do we — people are longing for this. People are looking for community. Right now, though, we don’t have confidence in love. You mentioned love earlier. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy. And so, if we’re engaged in the world, we believe it’s much better to organize around anger and hate.
And yet, we see two of the most powerful expressions — certainly Gandhi, certainly the Rev. Dr. King
.. And there was a period of time when I was feeling really overwhelmed with a lot of this stuff. And I was talking to my dad, and I said, “Dad, this is just too much. I can’t do it all. I’m trying to do all of this stuff by myself.” And he looked at me; he said, “Well, john, you know you’re not alone.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean, Dad?” He said, “Well, you got God with you.” And I realized, although I don’t organize around God in the way that he does, my mistake was, I thought I had to do it; that “I” was defining it, instead of “we.” So…
MS. TIPPETT: …you were in that white mode.
MR. POWELL: Exactly, exactly.
So I think we should both get out of that white mode and do it together. [laughs]
.. today, the majority of whites today say they’d prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood and send their kids to integrated schools. What they mean by that is a different question, but also the world and demographics of the country are changing. And to live in a white enclave is not to live in the world. And I think it has” — I think you were — this is an interview — “it has a certain deadness to it. It has a certain spiritual corruption to it.”
And you said, “I think most people, white, black, Latino, and otherwise, would like to see something different. We just don’t know how to do it. And we’ve been so entrenched in the way things are. It’s hard to imagine the world being different.” You speak for me, you speak for so many people. This is what we’re up against. I feel like this is what we have to attack first — this inability to see differently.
You told one story about Oak Park, near Chicago. It was just really helpful to me. You said, when we tell stories about, “You integrate neighborhoods, and housing values go down,” and the way we always tell the story is, “Blacks moved in, African-American — people of color moved in.” And the way we could tell the story is, “Whites moved out.” But you talked about how — just this very practical measure that was taken so that the housing values didn’t change. Would you just tell that story? I feel like these little stories are really crucial, as well.
MR. POWELL: And there are really a lot of them. They’re little, and they’re big. So Oak Park is in Chicago. Chicago’s one of the most segregated areas in the country. Cook County has the largest black population of any county in the United States, and a lot of studying of segregation takes place in Chicago. So here you have Oak Park, this precious little community. And there were liberal whites there. And blacks started moving in. And they were saying, “Look, we actually don’t mind blacks moving in, but we’re concerned that we’re going to lose the value of our home. That’s the only wealth we have. And if we don’t sell now, we’re going to lose.”
And it basically said: If that’s the real concern — not that blacks are moving in, that you’re going to lose the value of your home — what if we were to ensure that you would not lose the value of your home? We’ll literally create an insurance policy that we will compensate you if the value of your home goes down.
And they put that in place.
.. Think about Katrina. So these examples are all around us, and yet, we don’t tell stories about them. Katrina — the face of Katrina, when you remember it, it was blacks stuck on roofs as the water was rising. What’s not told is that Americans, all Americans, gave to those people. It was the largest civilian giving of one population to another in the history of the United States. So here you had white Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, trying to reach out to what they saw as black Americans. They were actually saying — they were claiming: We have a shared humanity. And they actually did a poll asking people if they were willing to raise taxes to rebuild: 70 percent of Americans said, “Yes, we would tax ourselves to help those people.” The pundits and the politicians ignored it, and so that story simply didn’t get told.
.. I put something I call “targeted universalism,” and where we want to get to is not simply what whites have. We actually need to state what is our goal. And then our way of getting there will vary, based on how we’re situated. And different groups are situated differently. So if we just say, “Let’s have our proportionate share of what whites have,” that’s an improvement over where we are now, but it’s not far enough.
we’re talking about what I call a “circle of human concern” — a circle of concern for all life, human life and, I would say, non-human life as well. And in that effort, it’s important to make sure that people of color are really valued and situated and have resources and political and other power that other groups have. But it’s also important to actually continue to be in relationship to whites. I think, ultimately, a healthy world really requires not just a restructuring of what people of color have, but a restructuring of white identity.
.. in the 1960s, Bundy wrote about the “negro problem” at the Ford Foundation, but today, I would write about the white problem. We really need to come to terms with the white problem — not in a negative way, not in terms of white guilt, not in terms of beating up on whites, but really trying to help whites, because we are deeply related, give birth to a different identity.
.. one of the best school systems in the United States was the Wake County school system. That’s the Research Triangle, which has more Ph.D.’s than any other area of the country. It was actually quite interesting, because they took it to the voters, and they said, “Do you want to have this school system which is educationally and economically integrated?” And the voters said, “No.” So then they took it to the politicians, and they said, “This makes sense, which — the voters said no, but would you vote for it as a politician?” And the politicians said, “No.” And then the business community said, “Unless you do something about the school system in Wake County, we’re leaving.” It was actually the business community that pushed it through.
.. “So Dad, why do you think” — because he’s very Christian, I said, “What do you think God is keeping you here for?” And he said, “I guess my last lesson to teach the kids is, how to care for me.” So instead of seeing it as a burden, because he needs care, it’s like, “That’s my last gift to you, is to teach you how to care.” And it really is wonderful.
I went to Stanford. I was one of the co-founders of the Black Student Union at Stanford. And we had a meeting, and in that meeting, we decided that there were definitely some good white people, but not that many.
And it took a lot of energy to find them. The transaction cost of finding good white people was way too high. So we decided, “OK, let’s just stop trying to find these — let’s not relate to white people.” Actually, I didn’t support that position, but that’s where the group went. And I left the meeting. It was about noon, and I was walking across Stanford. And I don’t know if you’ve actually been to Stanford, but the center part of Stanford is very busy, especially at noon, and there’s always people teeming about. And I’m walking back across campus in this area, and there’s nobody there. It’s empty. And all the time I was at Stanford, I’ve never seen that part of the campus like that. And then, there’s this one woman walking toward me.
Again, the physical space where students hang out is actually quite small, so you see students all the time. I’d never seen this woman before, and I never saw her again. And as she’s walking toward me, I notice she’s blind. And she has a cane. And she walks into a maze of bicycles. And I said, “Oh, that’s too bad.” And as she turns, knocks down bicycles, she starts panicking. And I’m thinking, “That’s really sad, but we just made this agreement. It’s not my problem.” I keep walking. She turns again, and she knocks down more bicycles. And finally, I can’t walk past her. And I go over, and I take her out of the maze of bicycles, and then she goes on her way. And I go back to the meeting, and I say, “I can’t do it. I can’t adhere to that agreement.”
And to me, that was one of the defining moments. And I sort of — I’m not a theist, but I wonder, how did the universe send that woman to me, that she helped me to engage and claim my humanity, that took me on a different path? And I think being human is about being in the right kind of relationships. I think being human is a process. It’s not something that we just are born with. We actually learn to celebrate our connection, learn to celebrate our love. And the thing about it — if you suffer, it does not imply love. But if you love, it does imply suffering.
So part of the thing that I think what being human means — to love and to suffer; to suffer with, though, compassion, not to suffer against. So, to have a space big enough to suffer with, and if we can hold that space big enough, we also will have joy and fun, even as we suffer. And suffering will no longer divide us. And to me, that’s sort of the human journey.
Conservatives said we agree with the general effort but think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Individual freedom is an artifact of that order.
.. “The question of which comes first, liberty or order, was to divide liberals from conservatives for the next 200 years.”
.. The practical upshot is that conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.
.. Over the centuries conservatives have resisted anything that threatened this sacred space. First it was the abstract ideology of the French Revolution, the idea that society could be reorganized from the top down. Then it was industrialization. Conservatives like John Ruskin and later T. S. Eliot arose to preserve culture from the soulless pragmatism of the machine age.
.. Then it was the state. In their different ways, communists, fascists, social democrats and liberals tried to use the state to perform many functions previously done by the family, local civic organizations and the other players in the sacred space.
.. They both fizzled because over the last 30 years the parties of the right drifted from conservatism. The Republican Party became the party of market fundamentalism.
Market fundamentalism is an inhumane philosophy that makes economic growth society’s prime value and leaves people atomized and unattached. Republican voters eventually rejected market fundamentalism and went for the tribalism of Donald Trump because at least he gave them a sense of social belonging. At least he understood that there’s a social order under threat.
The problem is he doesn’t base his belonging on the bonds of affection conservatives hold dear. He doesn’t respect and obey those institutions, traditions and values that form morally decent individuals.
.. His tribalism is the evil twin of community. It is based on hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy-mongering and distrust. It creates belonging, but on vicious grounds.
.. In 2018, the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualism that leads to vicious tribalism.
.. At his essence Trump is an assault on the sacred order that conservatives hold dear — the habits and institutions that cultivate sympathy, honesty, faithfulness and friendship.
.. You can’t do that rethinking if you are imprisoned in a partisan mind-set or if you dismiss half of Americans because they are on the “other team.”
you write that people don’t get into these kinds of groups or other kinds of terrorist groups so much because of ideology, but out of a personal need for community, identity, some kind of fulfillment. You didn’t come from a broken or abusive home. Where do you think your need came from?
PICCIOLINI: I felt abandoned by my parents, not understanding at that age that my parents as immigrants had to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day to survive in a foreign country. And as a young person, I just wondered what I had done to push them away and why they weren’t there. And I went in search of a new family. But you’re right. I don’t believe that ideology nor dogma are what drive people to extremism. I believe it’s a broken search for three very fundamental human needs of identity, community and purpose.
.. It was really the driving beats and the edginess of – and the angst that I was able to release through the music that was very appealing to me. I had already been a part of the punk rock subculture so I was already searching for something to express my anger. And when I heard Skrewdriver, when I heard this music that was coming over from England at the time, it allowed me to be angry because the lyrics gave me license to do that. And I very effectively then used lyrics myself when I started one of America’s first white-power bands to both recruit young people, encourage them into acts of violence and speak to the vulnerabilities and the grievances that they were feeling so that I could draw them in with promises of paradise even through my lyrics.
DAVIES: But when you were getting into this and you were hearing that Jews and blacks and Mexicans were the enemy, I mean, to what extent did that square with any of your own experience or opinions?
PICCIOLINI: Well, it didn’t start that way. It started out with Clark and several of the older skinheads in this group appealing to my sense of pride of being European, of being Italian. And then it would move on to instilling fear that I would lose that pride and that somebody would take that away from me if I wasn’t careful. And then it went on to name specific groups through conspiracy theories that were bent on taking that pride or that privilege away from me. So it was the fear rhetoric.
.. But I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did up to now, up to what we’re seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology.
.. There were disparate groups all around the country popping up after it started in Chicago, and the goal was to try and unify everybody. But that was the first time that I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before, as if I was a part of something greater than myself. Even at 14 years old when I was desperately searching for that purpose, this seemed to fill it. And I certainly bought in.
DAVIES: And at this point, you had shaved your head and started wearing boots and took on the skinhead look?
PICCIOLINI: I did. And I noticed a change in my environment very quickly. The bullies who had marginalized me prior now would cross the street when they saw me coming because they feared me, and then I would begin to recruit them. And I noticed a very stark change in how people treated me, and I mistook that as respect when in reality it was fear and really not wanting to be involved with what I was involved in.
.. DAVIES: You know, the music has a lot of energy and a lot of anger to it. I mean, I – you know, it’s – how much of a connection is there that – between this kind of – the emotion of that kind of music and the violence of the movement, do you think?
PICCIOLINI: I think it’s very connected. At least, it was during the ’80s and ’90s. Music was the vehicle for propaganda. It was the incitement to encourage people to commit acts of violence, and it was a social movement. People would come in for the very few concerts that were held every year from all over the country or all over the world. And it was a way to gather. And still today, I believe that music is a very powerful tool that the movement uses to inspire vulnerable young people into a very hateful social movement.
.. You went to Germany and toured there with the band with some groups there. And there’s a point where you give a really evocative description of the skinhead rally where you say, it begins with speeches, and there’s lots and lots of beer-drinking throughout and then, you know, frenzied, you know, music and then eventually, sooner or later, fights break out among different groups who are in attendance or because someone was jealous over a romantic approach to somebody’s girlfriend. It doesn’t exactly sound like people were trying to put together a strategy for change, right? Either winning elections, or armed revolt or much of anything other than coming together and having these moments with each other which often ended in violence.
.. PICCIOLINI: Well, I don’t think that that’s correct. I do think that there were a lot of concerted strategies in the ’80s and ’90s that we’re seeing take hold today. We recognized in the mid ’80s that our edginess, our look, even our language was turning away the average American white racist, people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office.
And here we are 30 years later and we’re using terms like white nationalist and alt-right, terms that they came up with, by the way, that they sat around and said, how can we identify ourselves to make us seem less hateful? Back in my day when I was involved, we used terms like white separatists or white pride. But it certainly was neither one of those. It was white supremacy and – as is white nationalism or the alt-right today.
.. we ran businesses. We ran record labels. We ran record stores. We ran magazines that were glossy. We made videos before the Internet. I mean, it was for all intent and purpose a global movement that was highly organized but lacked a, you know, a very charismatic central figure.
.. Well, aside from just the indiscriminate violence that, you know, the acts that we committed on almost a daily basis against anybody – it didn’t really matter, there really wasn’t a reason – there were also times where we were involved in, you know, in planning armored car robberies, where we talked about that. There was a point in 1991 where I was approached by somebody representing Muammar Gaddafi, from Libya, who wanted to bring me to Tripoli to meet with him and accept some money to fund a revolution against the Jews in the United States.
And that’s something that’s always scared me because that set a precedent that I think that we will see more of in the future where we start to see some of these Islamist terror groups start to partner with these far-right groups.
And while that may sound crazy because they hate each other, unfortunately, their enemy, their number-one enemy is what they would consider the Jew. So I think it’s only a matter of time before we start to see these organizations begin to work with each other and start to spread their terror more globally.