March 27, 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the world’s largest and most (topically) diverse white supremacist website, stormfront.org. Founded by former Klansman and neo-Nazi, Don Black, the forum is the single largest clearinghouse for white supremacist thought boasting over 250,000 registered users. Black has achieved what no other white supremacist leader has ever been able to – bringing together various factions of the movement in one space – through two key strategies: creating a forum where various factions can communicate and actively encouraging presentation of the movement in the best possible light.
At its conception, Stormfront represented a unique development in the white supremacist movement. By the mid-1990s, the movement in the United States had become extremely factionalized with numerous small organizations led by individuals of varying charisma all hoping to be the next Adolf Hitler, or at least George Lincoln Rockwell. Stormfront represented a rupture from that pattern. As an open forum, all factions of the movement were welcome to contribute under the banner “White Pride World Wide.” While Black served as founder, webmaster, and central moderator, he held no formal leadership position for the movement. This is in keeping with the increasing strategy of “leaderless resistance” where high profile individuals serve as intellectual inspiration rather than central coordinators. Stormfront is the epitome of this model. With dozens of forums and thousands of discussion threads, the site has no central leadership or even ideological orientation beyond “white nationalism.” On Stormfront’s forums, hardcore Nazi authoritarians debate countercultural National Anarchists while Christian Identity Klansmen look on and move to a discussion more suited to their interests. Rather than encouraging factionalization, Stormfront serves a space to bring together the factions for debate, discussion, and development.
Which brings us to Black’s second key strategy, what sociologists refer to as stigma management (see Berbrier 1998a; 1998b; 1999; Simi and Futrell 2009). Stormfront presents racism in the best possible way. From its inception, the site has been strictly moderated to avoid the presentation of white supremacy as crude and ignorant. Racial slurs and violent language are considered violations of forum guidelines and users are encouraged to “keep discussion civil and productive.” This is not to say that forum posts don’t contain any such language – after all, with thousands of active discussion threads even the most vigilant moderator is bound to miss a violation of guidelines here and there – but overall forum posts contradict the public image of the ignorant, violent racist. This allows Stormfront to serve as a space where movement members learn “framing strategies” (Benford and Snow 2000) where individuals learn to present their ideals in a manner that is acceptable for use outside of the movement. The term white nationalist used by Don Black and other moderators is an example of such a strategy. Employed instead of white supremacist, white nationalist is designed to point to movement members as asserting ethnic rights similar to any other racial minority group (Berbrier 1998b). Virulent racism is transformed into “love/defense of one’s race.” By providing a space where white supremacists can nurture ideas and construct discourse in a non-sectarian forum, Stormfront has drawn a wide variety of participants.
So, here we are, 20 years later. Stormfront is standing strong with little chance that it will leave the scene any time soon. The decentralized structure of the internet and American free speech laws and traditions ensure that. But, it doesn’t mean that nothing can be done. Stormfront provides an ironic resource for anti-racists. As the major clearinghouse for white supremacists, it is also the space to advertise their events. Activists can monitor discussion threads to find opportunities to oppose the movement in public. Thought leaders in the movement are also easily identifiable through their activity on Stormfront, and anti-racist activists have seized upon this to publicly shame such people and increase the cost of movement participation. Just because Stormfront has the right to exist, doesn’t mean it has to exist; and activists can work to try to stop it from marking its next anniversary.
Benford, R.D., & Snow, D.A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and asssessment. Annual Review of Sociology 26: 611-39.
Berbrier, M. (1998a). ‘Half the battle’: Cultural resonance, framing process, and ethnic affectations in contemporary white separatist rhetoric. Social Problems 45(4): 431-47.
Berbrier, M. (1998b). White supremacists and the (pan-)ethnic imperative: On ‘European Americans’ and ‘White Student Unions.’ Sociological Inquiry 68(4): 498-516.
Berbrier, M. (1999). Impression management for the thinking racist: A case study of intellectualization as stigma transformation in contemporary white supremacist discourse. Sociological Quarterly 40: 411- 433.
Simi, P., & Futrell, R. (2009). Negotiating white power activist stigma. Social Problems 56: 89–110.
Sociology, Criminology & Anthropology Department
University of Wisconsin – Whitewater