The Black White Supremacist

New York Times Magazine/May 25, 2003
By Paul Tough

Leo Felton walked out of prison on Jan. 28, 2001, looking like a man ready to take his place in American society. He had spent 11 years in the custody of the state, but now, at 30, he had served his time and seemed ready to settle down. He moved into the apartment that his wife, Lisa, had found for them in Ipswich, an old-fashioned New England town north of Boston. He got a decent job doing construction. It was a cold winter, but Lisa and Leo took walks in the woods together and rode their bicycles all over town.

Felton managed to stay free for only three months. He is back in prison now, beginning a 21-year sentence for crimes he committed after his release. The prosecutor in the case said in court that Felton was a racial terrorist, that he had been ''plotting to use violent terrorist actions, like blowing up the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in the hope and belief that such actions would spark and ignite a racial war, a racial holy war, that would bring about this new, all-white nation.'' In a letter that Felton wrote to the judge, after he was found guilty, he confirmed that his ultimate goal was to establish ''a politically and territorially autonomous White nation somewhere in North America.'' He wrote that given the way things had looked to him at the time he got out of prison, he wasn't able to see any path that seemed like ''an honorable alternative to armed revolt.''

I recently went to visit Felton in prison in Massachusetts (the only time we met face to face over the course of several months of conversation by phone), and we talked for half an hour through an inch-thick slice of Plexiglas, each of us with a phone held up to an ear. Felton is a lean, tall, imposing man with tattoos up and down each arm and the word ''skinhead'' inked into his shaved scalp in inch-high Gothic letters. His gaze was intent, and his vivid, expressive face shifted rapidly from humor to anger and back again; his voice was loud and deep, and his speech carried within it all the contradictions of the jailhouse autodidact. He swore frequently, turning venomous when talking about the ''maggots'' guarding the maximum-security wing of the prison where he was being held. But when our conversation shifted to politics or books or an article he had enjoyed in the latest New Yorker, his vocabulary blossomed with words like ''aegis'' and ''Weltanschauung'' and references to Dostoevsky.

If you know Leo Felton's story, it is difficult, when you first meet him, to concentrate on anything other than his appearance. It's not just the tattoos. He has spent many years devoted to the idea of racial separation, to the belief that Americans should be divided by the color of their skin. But his own appearance is hard to define. His skin is olive-colored. His features are angular. It's not hard to believe what he wrote in a letter to a racist friend just before he got out of prison, that he is '' 1/4 English and 3/4 Italian.''

But, in fact, he is the product of a short-lived and idealistic late-60's marriage between a white former nun named Corinne Vincelette and a black architect named Calvin Felton. That is Leo Felton's biological reality, despite his elaborate attempt, over the last decade, to rebel against it. It is a reality that he blames for many of the wrong turns that his life has taken, a reality that he successfully shielded from his brothers in the movement for years, a reality that only now, back in prison, is he trying to understand in a new way.

Leo Felton's parents didn't stay married long. They divorced when he was 2 years old, and Leo, born in 1970, was the only child they had together. His father had previously been married to a black woman, so Leo had five black half-brothers and two black half-sisters. After his parents' divorce, Leo's mother became a lesbian. Leo and his mother moved in with her girlfriend, a feminist author, and her children, thus creating perhaps the only family in the comfortable, mostly white suburb of Gaithersburg, Md., that had two white mothers, two white daughters and a biracial son.

Corinne Vincelette had grown up in a strict Catholic household. She became a nun at the age of 19, in 1950, and spent 17 years as a sister -- and then in the space of just a couple of years she left the convent, left the church, married, had a son and came out as a lesbian. According to Felton, she ''just wasn't equipped to handle things'' back then, but to his mother, it was a thrilling time. She was excited about her new life, about all of the boundaries she and Leo were crossing together, and she wanted him to be excited too.

According to a psychologist's report prepared before his sentencing, Felton now sees himself as his mother's ''social experiment,'' a physical manifestation of ''her liberal, socially progressive views about race in society.'' If that's true, it was, for Felton at least, an experiment that failed. Felton says that his family stuck out in the neighborhood, and he was constantly getting into fights with kids who teased him about his mother's girlfriend or his absent black father.

One afternoon when Felton was 10, he was fooling around in his driveway, and he got into an argument with a white boy named John, who lived down the block, and Cory, a black friend John had brought home from school.

It started out as an ordinary quarrel, the kind that Felton got into every day. Someone would say something about his mother or father, and Leo would tell him to shut up. Maybe it would end with a couple of punches being thrown. But this fight was different: Cory called Leo a ''half breed,'' and Leo flew into a rage. He took off after Cory with a buck knife that he grabbed from his tackle box and chased him all over the neighborhood, screaming at the top of his lungs that he was going to kill him.

His mother was horrified -- chasing black kids around with a knife wasn't part of the experiment -- and quickly reached the conclusion that her son was mentally ill. Leo's mother had him committed, at the age of 10, to the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.

The story of Felton's institutionalization, as described in the court psychologist's report, is a disturbing one. He spent most of the next four years in various hospitals and residential homes. According to Leo, after a few months, each institution tried to discharge him, but each time his mother was able to convince the people in charge that Leo needed to stay, sometimes over the objections of his father. When state school administrators concluded that Felton did not need further residential treatment, his mother hired an attorney, sued and got the decision reversed.

Though Felton and his father say he did not have any serious psychological problems before he went into these institutions, by the time he came out, at the age of 14, he was angry, confused and antisocial. He felt ''marginalized,'' he says, and he sought out others who felt the same way. They weren't hard to find. He fell into the local punk movement known as D.C. Hardcore and lived for the next few years as a punk-rock high-school dropout, his life oriented not around school but around concerts, his only friends those who felt similarly shut out.

He was arrested in 1989 for beating up a New York City taxi driver in a road-rage incident that spiraled out of control. He was convicted of assault and sentenced to three years in state prison, a term that was eventually extended after Felton stabbed two inmates. He went to prison a troubled and occasionally violent teenager. He came out a radical white separatist, ready for war.

When Felton tells stories about his childhood now, he alternates between two versions. In one, he says that he always felt marginalized by the fact of his racial mixture, divided between two identities and at home in neither. He spent his youth looking for a ''flock'' to belong to, he says, and was never able to find it.

But in Felton's second version of his childhood, he did have a home, and it was in whiteness. ''My whole world prior to prison was white,'' he told me in another conversation. ''My experience was nothing mixed or black or multicultural. Ever.''

In this version, young Leo wasn't marginalized at all. He was a happy white teenager in a John Hughes movie. ''I had my Camaro,'' he said, ''and hot-looking girlfriends, and we lived in this upper-middle-class suburb with a manicured lawn. People treated each other decently.'' This version of his past was an idealized one, Felton once admitted, but he explained that he couldn't help it: when he was in prison, he said, ''the idea of white culture became symbolic to me. I mythologized it.''

Felton's transformation -- what he called ''the circuitous route I took to becoming 'white,' in quotation marks'' -- started, he said, as soon as he arrived in prison. He spent the first two years of his sentence in New York City, first in the Brooklyn Correctional Facility and then on Riker's Island. What he encountered there was a prison culture that was violent and frightening and racially segregated. Whites were in the minority and felt threatened. ''This was not a game,'' he said. ''Guys were dying. It was a very serious situation. There was definitely a siege mentality among whites.''

Felton began to extrapolate from the black prisoners around him to black culture at large. What he was seeing on Riker's Island, he decided, was the true face of black America, and he concluded that it was nothing like his own face. He stopped telling people about his black father, and he found that his fellow inmates just assumed he was white. He belonged, he decided, on the white side of the prison's color divide. ''The only people that I had anything in common with all happened to be white,'' he said. ''We were surrounded on all sides by an antagonistic alien presence. We stuck together.''

Looking back on the teasing he'd received as a child, he found himself taking the side of his tormentors. ''I began to see the marginalization that I had experienced as a kid as a natural thing,'' he said. ''All forms of life on this planet have an inborn affinity to things that are similar and an aversion to those that are dissimilar.'' He stopped blaming the racists who had antagonized him in his youth. Instead, he blamed his parents, not for being neglectful or cruel but for transgressing against the laws of nature.

It was easy for Felton to convince himself that his evolving racist beliefs were innate and instinctive, even fundamentally human. But that didn't satisfy him. Despite the fact that he never graduated from high school, Felton is in many ways an intellectual, and he wanted to be able to intellectualize his own racial anxiety, to find a coherent philosophy that could let him understand his own place in the divided racial world that he saw around him. He is a man who likes arguments and diatribes and doesn't like being wrong, and he wanted to be able to build an airtight case, with citations and footnotes, for his racist beliefs.

Felton began reading pamphlets and magazines distributed by contemporary American fascist groups, and he read the writings of Adolf Hitler and various Nazi ideologues. But he couldn't escape one crucial fact in those racist doctrines: race, for them, was a biological fact. Felton, to those writers, and to most of the racists with whom he had begun to correspond and associate, was indisputably black (whatever his appearance) and thus part of an inferior race, someone to be shunned. It was a situation that seemed to Felton not so much ontologically wrong as simply unfair. ''I had an investment in these ideas that most people in the movement didn't have,'' he said, ''despite their blond hair and blue eyes.''

Then in 1995 he discovered a book that offered him a way out: ''Imperium,'' a strange work of philosophy and occult religion written just after World War II by an American fascist named Francis Parker Yockey. ''The main thing to understand in Yockey's idea of race,'' Felton explained to me in a letter, ''is that he considered it to have its center of gravity in the spirit rather than in biology. He considered the National Socialist'' -- or Nazi -- ''concept of race to be a product of 19th-century materialism.'' The quote from ''Imperium'' that Felton was most eager to draw to my attention was this one: ''Race is, in the first instance, what a man feels.''

According to ''Imperium,'' the world was on the cusp of the ''greatest of all battles in 5,000 years of history.'' The ''historical Mission'' at hand was ''the saving of the Western Civilization from decadence within and from the barbarian without.'' And who would take part in this crusade? Not just biologically white men, Yockey wrote, but ''any man who shares the feeling of this Mission, and any group which shares it, regardless of the derivation of the man or group.''

For Felton, in his prison cell, this idea changed everything. Race was a choice; it was what a man feels, and Felton knew he felt white. By defending white culture, he would literally become white -- as pure as anyone else who shared the same beliefs.

It was a solution, but not a completely satisfactory one. Very few in the movement, Felton knew, had ever read Yockey, and most of them weren't likely to adopt Yockey's spiritual definition of race even if they did make it through his dense prose. This meant that Felton was going to have to keep lying. As he recalled in one letter, ''The pervasive racial materialism in the Movement would require me to give only half of the truth to my comrades as to my own racial biology, but I felt that in the wider sweep of things this would not matter.''

It wouldn't matter, he thought, because of his intense level of commitment to the cause. ''My intention was something that nine-tenths of my comrades in the movement ran their mouths about all day long for years on end yet simply lacked the courage to do,'' he explained to me. ''Under such circumstances I saw nothing immoral in my withholding of part of my genealogy from them.''

Felton's deception worked. Not only was he accepted as white; other white prisoners also began to turn to him for racial instruction. He was transferred to Attica, in upstate New York, where in the late 90's there was already a well-organized racist faction. There were 60 or 70 white prisoners in C Block, where Felton was held. Of those, 20 were allowed to come to the two tables in the mess hall that Felton and others had reserved for the ''politicized.'' Felton lent books to prospective racists who wanted a grounding in history, and he took part in informal debates in the yard or at dinner. He drew an elaborate comic book, one that he hoped would find an audience well beyond the walls of his prison, about a violent series of racist attacks by a lone-wolf terrorist bent on overthrowing the United States government. It was a critical time for Felton. He felt as though he was part of a group at last, not marginal at all but right in the middle of something important.

He was transferred from one prison to another during the last few years of his incarceration and made connections with racists and neo-Nazis in each one. When he was moved to Northern State Prison, outside of Newark, in 2000, he assumed an official leadership position for the first time and created an intricate system of racist education and indoctrination for a selected group of white prisoners.

''It became codified,'' he recalled. ''We had mandatory workouts, mandatory book reports. I had a whole curriculum developed. I kind of took pride in it. It was a really good thing.'' He discovered that the New Jersey prison system had a program in place that allowed prisoners to borrow books from public libraries anywhere in the state. He made a list of the books he thought his charges needed to read and tracked them all down. ''We'd all go down to the library and fill out these slips for interlibrary loan,'' he said. ''When the book arrived, we'd throw one of the guys in the copy room at the library a pack of cigarettes to make copies for us.'' Felton's reading list was demanding: Yockey, Friedrich Nietzsche, the early-20th-century German philosopher Oswald Spengler. Felton's group, usually about a dozen men, would meet once a week in the yard to discuss the assigned reading.

Felton had not only found a flock to belong to; he had also become a shepherd. And what's more, the flock he had joined was one defined by the very idea of belonging, ordered around the concepts of brotherhood, history and ''Folk.'' ''It's a different kind of belonging,'' Felton said. ''It's like shooting half a gram of pure belonging into the biggest vein in your arm.''

The case that the government mounted against Leo Felton in his trial portrayed him as never wavering, during his three months on the outside, from a path toward a major terrorist act. But Felton described those months as continually conflicted. He was always pulled in two directions, he said, torn between his political goals and his comfortable life with his wife, Lisa.

Soon after his release in January 2001, Felton set up a small-scale desktop counterfeiting operation in his home, making 20's and 50's on his computer, using a scanner and a color printer. He would walk around the North End of Boston, using the counterfeit bills to buy gum or a sandwich at each little corner store, trading bad money for good. Felton said he was amazed to find out how easy it was to conceal himself in the civilian world. He would walk down the street in work boots and Dickies jeans, his swastika tattoos hidden under long sleeves, his shaved head covered with a baseball cap, and nobody knew that he was on a mission.

Counterfeiting wasn't Felton's only crime. In February, he was visited by another recently released racist prisoner, a New Jersey man named Thomas Struss. Together they robbed a bank in downtown Boston, getting away with $1,100.

Felton's wife was becoming more critical of his way of life, and their situation was made more tenuous by the fact that Felton had been corresponding, for his last few months in prison and after his release, with a 21-year-old woman named Erica Chase, a tattooed racist then living in Michigan City, Ind.

When Felton was in prison, his communications with Chase focused on racial politics and a series of chores that Felton needed Chase's help with -- mostly moving books and papers for his reading assignments, from one prisoner to another, through the mail. As his relationship with Lisa disintegrated, though, Felton's conversations with Chase became more romantic. In early April, she bought a gun from her boss at the car dealership where she worked and drove from Indiana to Boston to meet Felton.

Chase moved into an apartment that Felton had rented for them both in the North End. According to the testimony of Chase's friend [Ms. M.], a racist taking classes at Harvard, Felton seemed jumpy and paranoid during this period. When she visited them at their apartment, she noticed that he had smashed in the door-buzzer system, apparently because he believed that people on the street could use it to listen in on his conversations.

On April 16, Felton bought a 50-pound bag of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and took it to the apartment in the North End. According to the prosecutor, Felton and Chase were at that point actively engaged in plans to build a bomb.

Whatever plan they had fell apart, however, on April 19, when Chase tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a Dunkin' Donuts in East Boston. The clerk refused to take it and showed it to a police officer who happened to be waiting in line for a doughnut. Chase and Felton were both arrested, and their revolution was suddenly over.

For Felton, though, the real struggle was just beginning. In June 2001, as the prosecutors prepared their case against him, the media broke the news that Felton had one black parent and one white one. It was a delicious story for the Boston papers -- the biracial race terrorist -- but Felton's racial unmasking was his worst nightmare come true. The week the story broke, he tried to commit suicide by slicing his own jugular vein.

''It was like having the rug yanked out from under me,'' he said. ''You have to understand, my level of investment in the cause -- it was existential for me. My existence was bound to this ideal. It was what I understood to be the purpose of my life. The fact of my fractured lineage was something that I thought was a burden I could bear within myself. As long as it was something I kept to myself, it wasn't a problem.''

In his recent book ''Interracial Intimacies,'' Randall Kennedy explores the tangled history of racial passing in America. Passing ''has always constituted something of a challenge to racist regimes,'' Kennedy writes. Black people who could appear to be white were seen by segregationists ''as an insidious danger that threatened to infect fatally the American body politic: the passers might, it was feared, 'contaminate' white bloodlines by marrying unsuspecting Caucasians.''

Those fears led to an exacting legal attempt in the 20th century to define precisely where white ends and black begins. As Kennedy traces in his book, ''until 1910 Virginia law classified as white anyone who was no more than one-quarter black; after 1910 the allowable fraction was reduced to one-sixteenth.'' Finally in 1924 the State Legislature decreed that ''the term 'white person' shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.'' This was one of the infamous ''one drop'' laws that contended that whiteness could be defined, and defended, absolutely.

In reality, of course, race in America has been anything but clear-cut. Leo Felton was part of a long tradition of men and women who have chosen to move themselves across racial lines, whether out of self-improvement, self-denial, self-deception or simple confusion. The questions of identity he has wrestled with are fundamental to the history, literature and politics of race in the United States.

Two ideas chased each other around and around in Felton's head his entire adult life. One was that race is an absolute biological fact. It is natural and genetic and entirely human, he says he believed, for whites to stay with whites and blacks to stay with blacks. The second, opposing, idea was that race is an imaginary social construct. ''I don't for one moment feel like I did anything wrong by choosing not to define myself according to the way other people wanted to define me,'' he said to me once. ''Those definitions are not things in themselves. They're not a priori true. They're legal fictions.''

It is something of a paradox that the most coherent intellectual support for Felton's decision to pass as white comes not from fascists like Yockey but from liberal African-American intellectuals like Kennedy, who concludes his chapter on passing by arguing that ''a well-ordered multiracial society ought to allow its members free entry into and exit from racial categories, even if the choices they make clash with traditional understandings of who is 'black' and who is 'white,' and even if, despite making such choices in good faith, individuals mislead observers who rely on conventional racial signaling.''

Felton's subterranean journey into whiteness came during a historical moment in which many Americans, particularly those of his generation, were redefining their races in a very different way from the way Felton did: identifying themselves, in growing numbers, as multiracial. Multiracial activism flourished during the 90's, with marches in Washington, magazines dedicated to interracial couples and a successful lobbying effort to include more complicated definitions of race on the 2000 Census form. (Seven million Americans ultimately chose to identify themselves by more than one race in that census.) Felton is in many ways a historical hiccup, a throwback to a bygone racial trope: the ''tragic mulatto'' of books like Mark Twain's ''Pudd'nhead Wilson'' and William Faulkner's ''Light in August.'' Like so many terrorists, he was a man at war not just with the government but with history itself.

After he recovered from his suicide attempt, Felton found himself unmoored, and to some extent, he still is. When he talks about the racist ideas he embraced a decade ago, his speech is still rapid-fire and confident, even bombastic, full of quotations from Nietzsche and the well-honed syllogisms he practiced in the prison yard. But when he tries to explain what he believes today, he becomes awkward and halting. There are lots of pauses and stutters and conclusions like ''The situation really hasn't gelled yet'' or ''It's just a very weird time.''

Just as he did when he first arrived in prison, Felton is once more re-evaluating his past. ''It's not a thing where I'm a reformed racist,'' he said recently. ''This whole idea of falling down at the feet of the left and begging forgiveness, that's not going to happen. But it's funny how long ago it seems sometimes. It's almost hard to imagine the way that it felt back then.''

Now that Felton has had time to come to terms with his race being public, he is looking for a new flock. ''I need to connect with other Beige people,'' he wrote in a recent letter. ''I suspect in prison I will always live among Whites, but if there is at all some way for me to fix my center of gravity in something Beige, that's what I want.''

In one of our last conversations, Felton told me that he had recently spoken to a friend who had received a letter from Erica Chase. Chase and Felton hadn't been in touch directly for more than a year. In the letter, which Felton's friend read to him over the phone, Chase, who is serving a five-year sentence, explained that she had abandoned the racist cause. The reason, the letter said, was that learning Felton's true racial identity had caused her to rethink everything. ''She was in love with me, and I'm not just white,'' Felton said, his voice bearing a trace of male pride mixed with a lingering unease over interracial love, even his own. ''It was something that undermined her concept of race.''

It is exactly the fear that white supremacists in the early 20th century had about racial passing -- that black men passing as white would seduce white women and convert them to a new and more liberal understanding of race. The greatest twist of Leo Felton's career as a revolutionary is that after years of effort to win white America over from multiculturalism to racism, the one person he managed to convert was Erica Chase, a racist he has turned into a multiculturalist. Felton's message was that racial divisions were sacrosanct and undeniable; his life has showed that, in reality, those lines are hard to find and easy to cross.

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