Not all skinheads are the evil fascist Nazis you've seen on countless talk shows and the evening news. They're not all white. They don't even all have their heads shaved, although the majority do.
It's difficult to break skinheads down into different types. They can vary drastically from town to town, and even across a single town. But for simplicity's sake we're going to try to narrow them down to a few broad groups to attempt to illustrate some core skinhead beliefs. These categories are: SHARPs1, Traditional Skins, and White Power or Neo-Nazi skins. To explain how all of these came to be, let's start at the beginning.
In Britain in the late 1960s there existed a youth sub-culture known as Mods. A lot of the tough Mods began to cut their hair close to the scalp, both as a fashion statement and due to the fact that it kept their hair out of their faces and made it impossible to grab during a fight.
These kids were also a major part of football hooliganism, which is an unfortunate tradition that still exists in Britain today. Each week fans donned the colours of their team and rooted and cheered until their faces turned blue. They also consumed a tremendous amount of alcohol. The highlight of every match was the brawl. The fights often would pour out into the streets and would involve chains, boots, fists, and anything else they could get their hands on. To relax, these same thugs would dress in the best threads that their blue-collar pay cheques could get them, and go and dance, party, and drink all night with the relatively large Jamaican immigrant population and the music they brought with them - ska.
So, at the beginning, skinheads were not racist.
As the sixties turned into the 1970s, the fashions of the culture changed.
It was no longer important to many of the skins to dress to the hilt. They began to wear things that they would normally wear to work or at home: white T-shirts, jeans, boots and braces (suspenders). Around the same time the National Front (NF), Britain's National Socialist Party, began to infiltrate the skinhead movement from the outside by recruiting the skins from within and having their other foot soldiers dress in the skinhead style. In this way they were able to capitalise on the reputation of the skinheads, mostly in terms of fighting and intimidation. That's when the first major split within the community occurred. The NF skins made plenty of noise; in fact they got most of the media attention. This attracted other racists and white power types that rushed to join the bandwagon.
The skinheads who retained their working class roots with an emphasis on friendship, family, unity, respect, balls and beer became known as traditional skins.
Music has always been important to skinheads, and when punk rock came about in the late seventies, they had found a second type of music that they could relate to, that they could call their own (the first being ska, or rocksteady). It was music made by kids from the neighbourhood, and it was easy to identify with.
These changes in music led to even more diversification among the skinhead ranks. Every band seemed to have their own political agenda. Those with political leanings to the right were associated with the racists and fascists, whereas those to the left were generally more concerned with working-class labour type politics. Those that had no political agenda tended to shun both sides.
In the early 1980s, skinheads of all types began to appear throughout the rest of Europe and the United States. Around this same time, many leftist skins began to organise in an effort to throw out the boneheads2.
In 1986, a New York skinhead named Marcus, formed SHARP, which quickly spread throughout the rest of North America and Europe. The AFSA 3 was formed specifically to expel boneheads from the scene. In Toronto, a group of anti-fascist skins formed by a man named David Cheater consists almost completely of Jews.
In Des Moines, Iowa, USA, there is a ska band called Skullcaps who have a strong theme of anti-racism and a few skinhead members along with an Asian singer.
By and large, skinheads are no different than any other social group - some of them are jerks, and some are really nice guys and gals.