Skinheads on TV

Harlan is not the charming, genteel Mayberry you'd expect from a small town in Kentucky with a population around 2,000. At least not in Justified, the new FX series starring Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, a maverick U.S. marshal dispatched to Harlan after he gets trigger-happy on a suspect in a Miami restaurant. Raylan's boss thinks sending him back to his quaint small town will be the ultimate punishment. As it turns out, Raylan's childhood friend Boyd (Walton Goggins) now leads a white-supremacist group so brazenly violent, they fire rocket launchers at black churches and rob banks in broad daylight. Maybe it's just my naiveté, but having lived in cities large and small, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon, I can't recall ever having seen a skinhead wash his car, or eat an ice-cream cone, or even glower from a dusky corner.

It turns out that Harlan's little local white-supremacy group is part of a real and growing problem. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, membership in white-extremist groups is ticking upward, as downtrodden, angry Caucasians seek an outlet for their anxieties about a black president, illegal immigration, and a leaky economy. Still, the supremacy surge seems to be much more acute in Hollywood than anywhere else in the country. The second season of Sons of Anarchycentered on a turf war in the town of Charming, Calif., between a white-separatist group called the League of American Nationalists and a motorcycle gang who are plenty unsavory, but at least they're not bigots. Your friendly neighborhood serial killer Dexter has dispatched his own supremacist, and all three iterations of the Law & Orderfranchise have featured stories in which murders lead to an underground white-power cell. Even a recent episode of the sci-fi puzzler Fringefeatured a Nazi villain who tries to poison folks at a meeting of the World Tolerance Initiative. In this tenuous moment, when we talk about post-racial America as though saying it can make it so, there's no more frightening a bogeyman than the occupational racist.

The reason the card-carrying white supremacist lingers in the public imagination is not just because he's scary, but because he fortifies our self-regard in an area where we all occasionally need some convincing. As the puppet of Avenue Qsang on Broadway, "everyone's a little bit racist." On some level we all recognize this, and to acknowledge—or even inflate—white supremacists is to assuage our guilt with the knowledge that there are people out there far more prejudiced than most of us could ever be. For writers, these characters have even more appeal. Their beliefs are so stigmatized, there's no need to bog down the story with motives and expository monologues. As Henry Rollins said of his skinhead Anarchy character, "I'm [playing] a white supremacist—I have no redeeming qualities whatsoever besides that I like my kids." Apparently there's some redeeming quality, or bald white actors wouldn't be getting so much work.