February 18, 2019

The Pathology of Prejudice

“Driving around the part of Fresno, California, where Shannon Brown spent much of her life feels a bit like entering an alternate, more insular version of America, something out of an earlier time. We passed a white woman holding a baby in a driveway. An older white man worked in his yard. A white woman walked a dog. There didn’t appear to be a single person of color in the area, I said. That’s because there are none, Brown replied.

Brown, 48, is white, with blond hair, pale blue eyes, and milky skin. She wore a checkered black-and-white dress, a silver cross dangling from her neck. Brown had nothing against diversity, she explained. She was just accustomed to living among people who look like her—it’s the way she was raised. When she was growing up, her family discouraged Brown from associating with those people. “They definitely did not like black people. We never had black people over,” Brown said. “My family wasn’t overtly racist,” she said, but they weren’t going to befriend nonwhite people or welcome them into their home. Her family members, like many residents of this part of Fresno, are “polite racists,” Brown said, the kind of people who smile to your face if you’re a minority and call you a racial slur behind your back.

White power organizations are not uncommon in California—the state actually has the most active hate groups in the nation, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center—but Brown’s family disapproved of their criminal behavior, if not their ideology. The racism that Brown grew up with was rooted in the belief, Brown said, that “We’re better than them.” They looked down on minorities but wouldn’t go so far as to use violence against them.

Still, for Brown, neo-Nazis were part of the social fabric of her California. They were her neighbors and acquaintances, people she would see from time to time, maybe even hang out with. One evening in 1996, when Brown was 26, she and a girlfriend from beauty school met up with a couple of guys they knew casually from around town. The four of them gathered at a local diner, and the men handed Brown and her friend blindfolds and invited them to get in their car. They were in the Ku Klux Klan, the men said, and they wanted to take Brown and her friend to a gathering at the secret “klavern,” a local KKK unit where the group held its meetings. This was new for Brown. “What’s a klavern?” she remembered asking. “We didn’t know what any of this stuff was.” But she liked hanging out with the guys, and she was intrigued, so she got in the car.”

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