Rebranding Hate in the Age of Obama
Here’s a cheerful little bedtime story, about the increasingly successful efforts of neo-Nazis and far right racist organizations to conceal their true purposes and re-enter the mainstream by exploiting populist anger: Rebranding Hate in the Age of Obama.
It’s not about hate, it’s about love. Love of white people. That’s the message in songs, speeches and casual conversation during a weekend retreat in Zinc, Ark., sponsored by the Christian Revival Center and the Knights Party, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. There’s no overt threat of violence here. No cross burnings (or “lightings,” as the KKK prefers to call them). The only fire at the grassy compound, located at the end of a long, rocky road circled by turkey vultures, is a bonfire for the Knights youth corps to roast their s’mores. The kids draw pictures of white-hooded Klanspeople and sing songs about the oppressed Aryan race; rousing sermons are read from Bibles decorated with Confederate flags. Aryan souvenirs are for sale, including baseball caps proclaiming IT’S LOVE, NOT HATE and advertising THE ORIGINAL BOYZ IN THE HOOD.
This would all be funny (Jon Stewart, where are you?) if it weren’t so disturbing. “Do you know why people are so afraid of us?” asks Thomas Robb, the soft-spoken national director—don’t call him grand wizard!—of the Knights. “Because we’re so normal.” In his speeches, Robb is more likely to make a joke about his short stature than he is about minorities. His Web site includes careful statements about nonviolence, green energy and women’s rights. But among his ideological kin, Robb equates minorities to fleas and favors a program for “voluntary resettlement” to home countries. Illegal immigrants, as well as blacks serving time in prison, should be deported, he says. “Why is it that when a black man wants to preserve his culture and heritage it’s a good thing, and when a white person wants the same thing, we’re called haters?” he says.
Some of the roughly 50 attendees at the Arkansas lovefest wear Knights uniforms with Confederate flags and, along with their children, raise their arms “Heil, Hitler”–style to shouts of “white power!” Robb sometimes dons his white robe and hood and doesn’t see why that carries any baggage: “Why do judges wear robes? It’s tradition.” The Klan’s past is misunderstood, he insists—no history of brutal lynchings, torture and intimidation; it’s gotten a bad name from, for example, federal provocateurs who instigated violence. While Robb questions the authority of other Klan groups, he happily notes that “a rising tide lifts all ships.”
It’s hard to conduct accurate surveys of racists, who tend to exaggerate their strength and importance. But it’s fair to say that in the Age of Obama, there’s growing concern. This spring, the Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual “Year in Hate” report, which outlines that in 2008 the number of hate groups rose to 926, up 4 percent from 2007, and 54 percent since 2000. (The SPLC doesn’t measure the number of members in the groups.) An April Homeland Security intelligence report states that “the economic downturn and the election of the first African-American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment.” Home foreclosures, unemployment and an inability to obtain credit “could create a fertile recruiting environment,” the briefing adds, and extremist groups are aiming to “broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda.” The haters are doing their best, in other words, to move out from the fringe and toward the mainstream—and they’re boasting some success.
Indoctrination often starts on the Internet. Some crazies posting on MySpace, for instance, have called for armed revolution; at least one has referred to Barack Obama as “a dead man.” But many leaders of white-supremacist groups and Web forums are toning down their rhetoric. The aim is to attract the kind of person Robb describes as “the guy down the road who until now had his plasma TV and car in the garage, but just lost his job and won’t find a new one because some illegal already has it.”
Don Black, a 56-year-old former KKK grand wizard, says he no longer has any formal affiliation with the Klan because “it just got so demonized and attracted the wrong people; it just got to be impossible.” But that doesn’t mean he’s given up the struggle. As the founder of stormfront.org, he has the white-supremacist world at his fingertips, all from the comfort of his West Palm Beach, Fla., home. Last spring Black made it a policy for the site to “have no swastikas and Third Reich symbols to turn off first-time visitors.”
A former associate of Don Black sent me a death threat last year, and tried to find out where I live so he could post my address at his hate site, so this article has a special resonance for me.