Criminology Alt-Right Gangs and White Power Youth Groups
Matthew Valasik, Shannon E. Reid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0243


Gang scholars for the last three decades have explicitly excluded youths who are active, overtly or implicitly, in white supremacy groups (e.g., neo-Nazis; racist skinheads; white separatists, nationalists, and identitists; the alternative right [referred to as “alt-right”]) from conventional street gang studies. More recently, gang scholars, however, have suggested that street gangs and white supremacy groups are more analogous to each other than originally thought. Inconsistently designating these white power groups and making ad hoc decisions to include or exclude them from a gang study has impaired researchers, law enforcement, and policymakers and left them not only ill-equipped for understanding the risk factors impacting white supremacists but also disadvantaged for determining which intervention strategy is best to employ. As of 2017, a new wave of culture wars and identity politics has taken hold in the United States and throughout Europe with a growing concern by scholars and policymakers with the radicalization of individuals into these violent groups. The rise of the “alt-right” (a term coined in 2008 by white supremacist Richard Spencer) came about when young, white identitists, a group of leaderless, loosely organized, tech-savvy millennials, began to use facetious Internet jargon to recast and mainstream their white supremacist beliefs. A more inclusive characterization acknowledging that a substantial amount of similarity exists between white power groups and street gangs is synthesized in the term “alt-right gangs.” Adapting the Eurogang definition, one of most widely adopted and utilized gang definitions, an alt-right gang is defined as a durable, public-oriented group (both digitally and physically) whose adoption of signs and symbols of white power movement and involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity. This definition incorporates the description by political scientists of the alt-right as being a loosely structured, youth-oriented, right-wing political movement focused on white identity and nationalism with its core remaining a racist movement. Incorporating such a diverse set of literature into a singular definition provides a broad description that can be applied in a practical way. In the end, the risk factors driving marginalized youths, perceived or actual, to join a street gang or an alt-right gang are analogous. Just like any street gang, the alt-right is not a universal monolith, but rather is composed of various factions that regularly feud and have conflicts. Removing such restrictive categorizations allows for a broader understanding of youths involved in these racist groups and can provide scholars and policymakers with prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies that are not pigeonholed to only a subsample of alt-right gang members. This article addresses a collection of key characteristics that highlight the origins and subculture of white power youth groups to highlight the substantial overlap between conventional street gangs and alt-right gangs and exposes how well-situated gang scholars are to examine these white supremacist groups.

Definitional Dilemma

Historically, a disconnect exists in the definitional inclusion of alt-right gangs within street gang scholarship, as seen in Curry, et al. 2014; Hamm 1993; and Klein 1995. Papachristos 2005 maintains that no universally agreed-upon definition for a gang exists; the same has been true for alt-right youth groups. For instance, Hamm 1993, Miller-Idriss 2018, Reid and Valasik 2020, and Simi and Futrell 2015 highlight the subcultural literature’s description of basic ideological beliefs, a distinct clothing style, the influence of hate-based music, and the use of particular symbols and signs (e.g., swastikas, SS lightning bolts, and 88, the white supremacist numerical code for “Heil Hitler”) as central identifiers of these groups. However, Miller-Idriss 2018 and Simi and Futrell 2015 warn that the visible use of such blatant symbols and signs have waned over the years as members have begun to mainstream their appearance with conventional society. Hamm 1993 and Pyrooz, et al. 2018 remain concerned about the potential that the ideological beliefs and racist political identity of these groups could facilitate an evolution of these groups into political terrorists aimed at government overthrow. Reid and Valasik 2018, Reid and Valasik 2020, and Simi and Futrell 2015 provide a generalized description of alt-right gangs as a subculture that formed loosely organized groups and synthesized the ideals and symbols of neo-Nazis, meeting regularly in “free spaces” where members could reify cultural norms and group solidarity and explicitly express themselves. As Pyrooz, et al. 2018 indicates, such a definition of alt-right gangs would clearly fit with the Eurogang definition of a street gang as “any durable, street oriented youth group whose involvement in illegal activities is part of their group identity” (Reid and Valasik 2020, p. 6). Valasik and Reid 2019 finds that youth associated with alt-right gangs in fact look qualitatively and quantitatively similar to conventional street gangs. Klein 1996 reversed the author’s earlier exclusion of white power youth groups from street gang studies and now includes them as a “specialty” type of street gang. However, Curry, et al. 2014 and Hamm 1993 ignore this perspective shift of inclusion and attests to alt-right gangs being diametrically different from convention street gangs. Densley 2013 points out that street gangs are much more amorphous and dynamic than those traditionally discussed in the gang literature. Reid and Valasik 2020 and Simi and Futrell 2015 warn that such ad hoc decisions to include or exclude Alt-Right gangs from conventional street gang studies impairs scholars’ ability to understand better the dynamics of these deviant groups. In the end, Papachristos 2005 attests that gangs, alt-right or conventional street, define themselves through their actions, not by a label given to them by academics, policymakers, the media, or criminal justice actors.

  • Curry, G. David, Scott H. Decker, and David C. Pyrooz. 2014. Confronting gangs: Crime and community. 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book provides a readable overview of street gang research, gang policy, and gang responses. White supremacy groups explicitly are excluded from the authors’ definition of a street gang.

  • Densley, James A. 2013. How gangs work: An ethnography of youth violence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137271518

    Densley utilizes extensive interviews with gang members in the United Kingdom to provide a vivid account of gang life. Places particular attention on gang organization, recruitment, evolution of gang structures, the use of violence, the role of technology, and the gang members’ relationship to the drug trade. Emphasizes the notion that gangs are dynamic and exist on a spectrum that allows them to change over time.

  • Hamm, Mark S. 1993. American skinheads: The criminology and control of hate crime. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    The first criminological examination of skinheads and hate-crime violence. First, Hamm traces the origins of skinhead subculture and its emergence in the United States. Second, the author discusses sociological perspectives on terrorist youth subcultures that were used to interpret the findings from the thirty-six skinheads interviewed. The definition used clearly excludes skinheads from the gang literature. Concludes with a discussion on steps to prevent future skinhead attacks.

  • Klein, Malcolm W. 1995. The American street gang. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    In this fundamental book on street gangs, Klein argues that gangs are not some monolithic entity. The author makes an argument for categorizing and classification of street gangs as a technique to find similarities and differences between groups. White supremacy groups clearly are excluded from the definition of street gang used. Klein argues that law enforcement and policymakers have only exasperated the situation through the sole reliance of suppressive tactics.

  • Klein, Malcolm W. 1996. Gangs in the United States and Europe. European Journal of Criminal Policy and Research 4.2: 63–80.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02731602

    Klein examines troublesome youth groups throughout a handful of European countries. The author used a structural typology to categorize observed groups into a particular type: traditional, neo-traditional, compressed, collective, or specialty. This is the first acknowledgment by a foundational gang scholar that white supremacy youth groups should be considered a specialty group in the gang literature.

  • Miller-Idriss, Cynthia. 2018. The extreme gone mainstream: Commercialization and far right youth culture in Germany. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvc777md

    This unique book examines the mainstreaming and commercialization of far-right youth culture in Germany. The focus is on the consumption, imagery, and meaning of clothing produced by commercial brands. The central argument contends that commercialized extremist products provide an avenue for youth achieve belonging and solidarity within a group of like-minded individuals. These far-right commercialized products also mainstream nationalistic and racist and ideologies resulting in a medium that can contribute to the radicalization of youth.

  • Papachristos, Andrew V. 2005. Interpreting inkblots: Deciphering and doing something about modern street gangs. Criminology & Public Policy 4.3: 643–652.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2005.00301.x

    This is a concise discourse on the difficulties for gang scholars, policymakers, and criminal justice actors to agree on a universal definition for street gangs. Papachristos suggests that street gangs exist because members belonging to the group, as well as individuals external to the group, believe, feel, socialize, and act as though a gang is a distinct social entity, regardless of the label placed on them by academics or law enforcement.

  • Pyrooz, David C., Gary LaFree, Scott H. Decker, and Patrick A. James. 2018. Cut from the same cloth? A comparative study of domestic extremists and gang members in the United States. Justice Quarterly 35.1: 1–32.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2017.1311357

    This article empirically examines the similarities and differences between violent extremist groups and street gangs. It is one of the only studies by leading gang scholars to categorize white supremacy youth groups as a street gang instead as a violent extremist group. Findings indicate that extremists with gang ties more closely resemble extremists without gang ties than they do conventional gang members.

  • Reid, Shannon E., and Matthew Valasik. 2018. Ctrl+ALT-RIGHT: Reinterpreting our knowledge of white supremacy groups through the lens of street gangs. Journal of Youth Studies 21.10: 1305–1325.

    DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2018.1467003

    This article lays the groundwork to begin challenging current understanding that both racist skinheads and their troublesome youth groups are something distinct from street gangs. Reid and Valasik orient the limited research on racist skinhead gangs within key street gang domains. The article draws attention to the disconnects in the criminological literature that have influenced how researchers approach the study of racist skinhead youth. The study’s conclusions support the purposeful inclusion of racist skinhead youth in future street gang research.

  • Reid, Shannon E., and Matthew Valasik. 2020. Alt-right gangs: A hazy shade of white. Oakland: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv153k67v

    Reid and Valasik provide a discussion of youth-oriented groups within the white power movement. It is the first text to explicitly focus on how white power youth groups fit into the field of gang research. Redi and Valasik provide a contemporary synthesis across a variety of academic literatures, cataloguing the myths and realities around alt-right gangs and their members; illustrate how they use music, social media, space, and violence; and document the risk factors for joining an alt-right gang as well as the mechanisms for leaving.

  • Simi, Pete, and Robert Futrell. 2015. American swastika: Inside the White Power movement’s hidden spaces of hate. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Simi and Futrell provide a detailed description of the characteristics and myths of white supremacy youth groups. This is one of the foundational texts that considers white supremacy youth groups as analogous to conventional street gangs. This book is fundamental to the understanding of alt-right gang ideology, and the way in which such beliefs are exhibited on the street. A cross-comparison between members of the larger white power movement (i.e., mainstream members, hardcore members, and private Aryan community residents) is used to highlight the differences and complexities of white supremacy ideological beliefs.

  • Valasik, Matthew, and Shannon E. Reid. 2019. The Schrödinger’s Cat of gang groups: Can street gangs inform our comprehension of skinheads and alt-right groups? Deviant Behavior 40.10: 1245–1259.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639625.2018.1479916

    This article employs qualitative and quantitative data collected from youth incarcerated within California’s Division of Juvenile Justice to analyze the differences and similarities between a range of individual-level risk factors and group-level descriptors to better understand the overlap between members of racist skinhead/alt-right groups and street gangs. Findings indicate that these two groups are closely aligned across a variety of domains.

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