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From Swaddling to Swastikas: A Life-course Investigation of White Supremacist Extremism

NCJ Number
Date Published
237 pages

After noting a research gap in the study of the long-term development of extremist behavior, the current study relied on life-history interviews with 91 former white supremacists residing in North America, focusing on the developmental conditions associated with the onset of extremist views and behavior.


The interviews focused on individual experiences, particularly how childhood risk factors (e.g., abuse and mental illness) and racist family socialization strategies contributed to emotional and cognitive susceptibilities toward extremist recruitment. Results indicate that early childhood trauma could be structured around two overlapping dimensions that include childhood maltreatment and family adversity. For these participants, the mood swings, inconsistencies, and unpredictable behavior by caregivers cultivated a high level of emotional distress during their formative years of development. Across the sample, participants were exposed to racist family socialization practices that aligned them, at least partially with far-right extremists; however, only a small portion of the sample were raised with immediate relatives who were involved in a white supremacist organization. Still, discourse and behavior had racial meaning by drawing on a sense of shared belonging within their racial/ethnic subgroups. These and other reported findings indicate how extremists have been influenced by a variety of internal and external factors that increase their attraction to a political ideology and extremist movement as part of a cascading process that seeks resolution through displays of individual and group power and ascendancy. 7 tables, 3 figures, appended study instruments, and an extensive references list


Date Published: January 1, 2019