Science on Tap features Pete Simi on white supremacy

Pete Simi, white supremacy
Professor Pete Simi in conversation with Jason Keller, interim dean of Schmid, at lecture series. Photo by Kali Hoffman, photo editor

Beer, science lectures and the 2004 hip-hop classic “Yeah!” by Usher may not have much in common; but on Sept. 9, the drinks, academia and throwback hits came together and created the atmosphere for Science on Tap, a casual lecture series created and supported by the Schmid College of Science and Technology.

The series, in its fifth season, hosted its fall 2019 inaugural event at Chapman Crafted Beer and featured a conversation Pete Simi, a professor in the sociology department and research expert on white supremacy.

Moderated by interim dean of Schmid, Jason Keller, the event saw about 90 attendees, some of which being faculty members of the Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The Science on Tap series hosts a broad spectrum of scientific conversation and aims to be an approachable environment to talk about science,” Keller told The Panther. “(Simi’s) research is very timely.”

The event was designed in two parts, the first of which being an introduction to Simi and a moderated conversation between him and Keller. Keller asked Simi questions about his earlier research days at the University of Nebraska, his thoughts on Orange County as a historic area for white supremacy groups and his current research with former white supremacy members.

“In my mind, (white supremacy) is the only form of terrorism in our country’s history that has been state-sanctioned,” Simi said, his first point to kick-off the conversation. “It is such an entrenched form of extremism in our country’s history.”

Simi stressed to the crowd that there is no one set of circumstances that attracts people to white supremacy groups, but rather is the result of a combination of push and pull factors, such as environmental adversity and the attraction of belonging and purpose.

“Not everyone stays. People come and go and there is a high turnover rate that is potentially due the violence levels or burnout. Internal dynamics can also lead to dissatisfaction,” Simi said. “Members don’t leave because of a moral reckoning, that’s not typically how it happens. Moral re-consideration does happen, but more often later.”

Simi spoke to the research he is planning to advance at Chapman and the use of scientific methodology, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG), to “help gain a better idea internally what is happening” to members of white supremacy groups.

“We think that their involvement in this extreme environment may have had an impact on a neurophysiological level,” Simi said. “We think it’s especially interesting to try to capture that with different kinds of methodological techniques.”

Simi’s initial research enabled him to team up with neuropsychologists at University of Nebraska and study the potential permanent brain alterations that exposure to an “extreme environment” like a white supremacy group could bring. Simi used terms associated with physical addictions to describe changes such exposure can bring.

The event’s second part consistent of a Q&A session, where guests were given the chance to write their questions for Simi on index cards. Those whose questions were chosen were rewarded with a “free drink” ticket.

Simi took the Q&A to expand on historic white supremacy ties to Orange County and spoke to the changing demographics of the area. He explained that although the number of minority groups in this area are growing and more people are now registered as Democrats than Republicans, this in part could spark “insurgency and higher mobilization.”

Simi also spoke to “the verbiage from the White House like ‘infestations,’” and the larger political climate that people – specifically young people – can be influenced by.

“It must be really confusing to be 15 right now,” Simi said, who brought up examples of white supremacy ideology in high school settings, like the video footage of students performing the Nazi salute at Pacifica High School and the swastika party cup incident involving students from Newport Harbor High School. Both incidents occurred within the last year.

“There are some people involved that you would never know,” Simi said. The crowd let out sighs and whispers to their neighbors. “They try to infiltrate the system.”

After the conversation left some feeling on edge, Keller closed the event with a point of relief. “Can you please end on a positive note?” he asked Simi as the crowd laughed and applauded in agreement.

“Leaving happens frequently,” Simi said to a reassured crowd. “There is a potential for change and some former members redeem themselves.”

The next Science On Tap event will take place at Chapman Craft Brewery Oct. 14 and will feature a discussion on tropical ecology.