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Book Review

The subtle forces behind a racist killing

Published September 22, 2003

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

By Elinor Langer

Metropolitan Books, $26, 416 pages


In the early hours of Nov. 13, 1988, a band of skinheads in Portland, Ore., topped off a long night of cruising by picking a street fight with three black Ethiopians. Fueled by booze and the buzz of their angry, racist philosophy, a skin and local punk rocker known in the music scene as "Ken Death" grabbed a baseball bat and pummeled one of the Ethiopians, 28-year-old Mulugeta Seraw. Within hours, Seraw died.

The brutal killing galvanized Portland, which until then had barely noticed the skinhead subculture in its midst. "Ken Death" and two other young toughs plea-bargained their way to prison, clearing the way for a civil trial based on the killers' alleged ties to a racist group in California.

Contending that racist rhetoric incited the skinheads to violence, Morris Dees and his Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center filed a civil suit against Tom Metzger, founder of White Aryan Resistance. Because one of Metzger's minions had gone to Portland shortly before Seraw was killed, Dees argued, Metzger had been an agent of the crime and should be held liable.

Two years after Seraw's death, a Portland jury agreed. With a $12.5-million judgment as his trophy, Dees declared victory against white supremacists nationwide.

It's a tidy story. Except that Elinor Langer, a Portland writer who covered the case for the Nation, doesn't buy it. Her version, thoughtful and well told, is the basis for 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.

To Langer, Metzger is a fanatic. Yet she thinks that more subtle, subterranean forces account for Seraw's terrible death. She says the celebrated lawsuit has hardly achieved its stated goal of derailing the white supremacist movement, which by her count has grown from 10,000 to 20,000 active members in 1990 to perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 now.

Knowing that publicity - including the terrible moment when a white supremacist called Oprah Winfrey a monkey on her television show - has helped the cause more than hurt, Langer is conscientious enough to consider her role in spreading the word. Throughout, Langer admirably identifies her point of view and its limitations. In particular, she admits her wariness of Dees. The author, a classic Jewish liberal aligned with civil rights causes, sees Dees as an ambitious, unorthodox crusader, and it does not sit well with her that the Seraw judgment yielded a relative pittance for the victim's son while reaping millions, in court-ordered payments and as a fundraising tool, for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A Hundred Little Hitlers pursues many strands of the story without losing hold of any of them, and the writing is as solid as the thinking. "In the East, the smell of fall is the smell of leaf smoke. In Portland it is the smell of leaf rot," she begins, setting the scene and giving insightful closeups of all the relevant characters. She segues to a modern history of the movement, including groups such as the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations, then circles back to the trial and her home turf.

Langer's central concern about the Metzger trial is whether justice was served. There's legal justice, and then there's the historical kind, she writes: "For lawyers, a fact is what can be gotten into the record, ideally without objection, and its relation to events in the actual world is neither here nor there."

Aiding and abetting the Kabukilike rituals of the court, she contends, was the city's eagerness to condemn an outsider for Seraw's death. Looking back to the '70s, she notes that a poorly executed plan to integrate Portland's public schools helped alienate white kids (one of the convicted skinheads was homecoming king at his high school). At the least, a long tradition of letting racial issues fester allowed the skinhead subculture to go unnoticed for too long (and was also the reason Portland's police chief was forced last month to announce his resignation, effective Oct. 17.

Dees not only had that eagerness in his favor but also a pliable key witness, Metzger's former lieutenant. Metzger, who is not a lawyer, probably cinched his defeat when he decided to represent himself.

In the process, Langer says, the true origins of Nazism in Portland's skinhead movement were conspicuously concealed. A Hundred Little Hitlers is an attempt to correct the record. The case, Langer concludes, was one of "historical emptiness."

- Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and critic whose Internet column, Book Babes, can be found at

[Last modified September 19, 2003, 13:05:10]

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