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The ugly fruit of racist roots

A Hundred Little Hitlers The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America Elinor Langer Metropolitan Books: 386 pp., $26 * Gods of the Blood The Pagan Revival and White Separatism Mattias Gardell Duke University Press: 440 pp., $23.95 paper

February 15, 2004|Daniel Levitas | Daniel Levitas is the author of "The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right."

On Nov. 13, 1988, three white youths brutally murdered a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant named Mulugeta Seraw on a dark street in Portland, Ore. Seraw was returning home from a party with two companions, who also were beaten by his assailants. The attackers were affiliated with a local skinhead group, East Side White Pride. Kyle Brewster, 19, a heavily tattooed former high school homecoming king, pummeled Seraw while one or more skinhead girls screamed "Kill him, kill him!" from the sidelines. Kenneth Mieske, 23, the burly lead singer of a death-metal rock band, blindsided Seraw with a baseball bat. Steve Strasser, 20, drove his steel-toed boots into Seraw's crumpled body as he tried to crawl away. Mieske then delivered the fatal blow, pulverizing Seraw's skull, leaving him prostrate in a pool of blood and vomit.

Community leaders rallied swiftly to denounce racism, condemn the crime and mourn the death of the intelligent, good-natured Seraw. One thousand miles to the south, from his home in Fallbrook, Calif., Tom Metz ger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance, heard the news and rejoiced. "Sounds like the skinheads did a civic duty," he announced over his telephone hotline. Seraw's assailants had less to chortle about. Fingered by their fellow skinheads who gave ample -- albeit conflicting -- statements to the police, they were arrested, pleaded guilty without a trial and received stiff minimum sentences ranging from nine to 30 years. Two years after the murder, Metzger, his son John and two of the Portland skinheads were ordered to pay Seraw's estate $12.5 million in damages following a civil suit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Ala., and the Anti-Defamation League on behalf of Seraw's young son.

In "A Hundred Little Hitlers," author Elinor Langer tries to build a case that Seraw's death was neither intentional nor racially motivated but rather a violent confrontation in which both sides participated. Her version of events differs from that of the police, the media and the victims, but in the end, it is her interpretation of the evidence that most weakens her argument.

Langer draws revealing portraits of the skinheads and their girlfriends, as well as Seraw, although she treats his two Ethiopian companions as nearly anonymous black victims without lives and personalities. In her reconstruction, the skinheads came upon Seraw and his friends parked in a car with its headlights off, blocking the street, and were initially unaware they were black. Soon, however, the skinheads were shouting racial epithets that prompted angry rejoinders from Seraw's friends. As the cars passed each other, the Ethiopians made crude gestures and a skinhead waved a gun. Both cars stopped, and their occupants piled out. Langer says the fight that ensued was "like every other street brawl going on across America at that hour." But it wasn't, not even for an instant. From the moment the skinheads noted the skin color and accents of their victims and shouted "Go back to your own country," racial animus drove events.

Langer terms it a "confrontation" and a "brutal collision of white and black," words implying equal responsibility and an equal measure of force on both sides. This reinforces the mistaken message of her central grievance: that Seraw's death was wrongly "understood as a lynching from the start." She contends the assault's characterization by prosecutors and the press as "unprovoked" was tantamount to a miscarriage of justice.

Even relying on her rendering of the facts, Seraw's murder actually had more in common with America's sordid history of vindictive racial violence than not. Whatever angry words the Ethiopians may have shouted, Seraw's death was less the result of a "street confrontation," as Langer asserts, than a purposeful assault on a black man whose friends refused to submit to racist taunts and white authority.

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