“Our family is color-blind!” you say.
“Our son would never . . . ,” you say.
That’s what a lot of parents said before their kids got sucked into dark, online worlds filled with people who seemed to understand them, who validated their fears and understood their insecurities.
When her son wore a Nazi iron cross to school and counselors called her about it, one Virginia mother explained away his fashion choice and their worry that he was flirting with extremism.
“That’s just ridiculous,” the mother recalled saying in an interview with my Post colleague Justin Jouvenal. “He’s just obsessed with reading about history.”
Nope. It was far more than that.
Later she found out that her son had a vibrant neo-Nazi life on Twitter, complete with shout-outs to Hitler and loyalty to the Atomwaffen Division, a paramilitary neo-Nazi group whose members have been linked to a handful of killings and who considered Charles Manson a hero. But she didn’t make that discovery until he shot himself in the head after allegedly killing his girlfriend’s parents, Scott Fricker and Buckley Kuhn-Fricker, in 2017.
He is awaiting trial in the killings, and we’re not identifying him or his mom because he’s charged as a juvenile. But the message is clear. His mom said he was a withdrawn boy who struggled with finding his place in the cruel world of teen social politics. And it was the wrong place.
But you’d never let it go that far, you say? That mom was just clueless?
She certainly had blinders on. But your kid doesn’t have to be goose-stepping around and scratching swastikas into his face to be part of this nation’s surge of hatred. Look at all the instances of swastikas showing up in communities that consider themselves tolerant and progressive.
Yes, kids do learn racist behavior at home. But remember: The portal to the whole world is in your home, too, in your pocket and purse. It doesn’t have to be coming from parents.
Two years ago this week, Charlottesville was flooded with ordinary-looking guys carrying torches and chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” Scores of them went back to their lives, their hate stoked online.
The Internet is the racists’ new hood and cloak.
A year ago, a diverse, vibrant neighborhood in Washington watched officers arrest a longtime resident, a young man who grew up among the Jewish and black neighbors he was allegedly plotting to kill. Police say Jeffrey Clark, a D.C. kid who went to a good school, is a Nazi next door.
And just a few days ago, we heard about the arrest of Justin Olsen, 18, who fronted as a baby-faced teen about to take an ROTC scholarship at the University of Texas but was known to federal agents online as a vocal “ArmyOfChrist” agitator who had 10,000 rounds of ammo and a vault of assault weapons in his Ohio home.
Remember, for every one of the guys who contributed to the United States’ record year of racial and anti-Semitic terrorism in 2018 — 50 dead by extremists, one of the highest totals since the 1970s — there were scores of supporters cheering him on online.
All the guys with screen names posting and liking and egging on the ones who go on to kill have a part in pulling the trigger.
So how do you stop it? How do you monitor your son’s every online move when he has shadow apps and privacy functions and swap screens to hide his online activity and you’re still struggling to conquer the “Do Not Disturb” function and font size on your iPhone?
Joanna Schroeder, a writer and mom of teens, posted a smart Twitter thread that went viral this week explaining how she traced white extremist recruitment of boys by understanding her kids’ social media.
She saw the irreverent and offensive memes that other boys see, like and repost. She saw the attacks that follow when they’re called out for them. And she saw the white power bros who then surround and support the clueless kid who thought he was being funny and didn’t have the time, instruction or introspection to understand how offensive that really was.
“These are often boys from progressive or moderate families — but their online behavior & viewing habits are often ignored,” she wrote. “Here’s an early red flag: if your kid says ‘triggered’ as a joke referring to people being sensitive, he’s already being exposed & on his way. Intervene!”
It’s a simple and easy cycle to see. And a tough one to break.
Schroeder had some great ideas about introducing your children to irreverent comics who will fuel a kid’s need for rebellion without stoking the fires of hate.
The Anti-Defamation League has a guide for talking to kids about propaganda and recruitment, how to understand why those new online friends are being so nice. “They come to feel that they are a part of a community with these extremist friends online and to feel like these new online friends are real friends,” it says.
But you don’t have to hack their computers and go undercover to see what they are doing. The main thing we need to do is keep tough conversations going.
I don’t mean the easy-peasy-breezy white liberal conversations that wash away race and reality. Telling kids not to see color and treat everyone equally. That’s cowardly and not enough.
Equally dangerous is shaming kids for asking questions that may seem offensive but are really a cry for help with understanding and navigating this complex world.
White men are becoming some of America’s greatest threats. And it’s time for us to take responsibility for that and to change it.
We’ll be in a lot of trouble if we don’t.
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