Rebranding Hate in the Age of Obama

With an African-American president and the economy in bad shape, extremist groups are trying to enter the mainstream-and they're having some success.

Newsweek/May 4, 2009

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, 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."

Black had to upgrade his server after it crashed Nov. 5 along with another white-supremacist site, the Council of Conservative Citizens, according to the SPLC. "I knew we'd get a surge in interest [after the election], but I didn't expect so much; we couldn't handle it," says Black. In the 24 hours following Obama's victory, he says, 2,800 new users signed up. He claims 150,000 registered users and says he gets about 50,000 unique visits a day. (It's impossible to confirm the figures independently; the SPLC thinks the numbers are slightly higher, but civil-rights groups may also have an interest in exaggerating the phenomenon.) Stormfront has some 50 active forums, including venues for dating, financial advice, gardening and homemaking. Black has 65 volunteer moderators and three administrators.

One moderator, who goes by the alias Truck Roy, is a clean-cut 32-year-old who wouldn't give his real name for fear of losing his job. During the Knights weekend in Arkansas, Roy, a guest speaker, advised white recruiters to "keep it subtle. Don't hit 'em with anything too hard right off the bat or you will shock them. Find a chink in their armor and make friends. If you are too radical, they won't listen."

The Nationalist Coalition, a small outfit based in St. Petersburg, Fla., claims it has seen a jump in new members in just the past few months. In March, the Arizona chapter held a family "spaghetti night" meet and greet. Members also blanketed a Phoenix suburb with fliers depicting a white toddler and the word MISSING-an attempt to show that the future of the white race is in trouble. One of its national chiefs, Todd Weingart, says the group does not condone violence and is composed of doctors and lawyers as well as blue-collar workers. "If it was only immigration or the economy or a nonwhite running the country, there wouldn't be this interest. We know that," he says. "It's the combination that is getting people to stand up and get interested." Winston Smith, a host of the white-supremacist radio show "The Political Cesspool" in Millington, Tenn., says, "The emphasis is different now. We don't talk as much about what blacks have done to us; we're more focused on ourselves and our own culture."

At least one group has become more fashion-conscious. The National Socialist Movement-a descendent of the American Nazi Party-tweaked its uniform last year, switching from Nazi brown shirts to a more Italian Fascist look. "The uniforms we wore before were even more out there, more extreme," says "commander" Jeff Schoep, who, like the Knights' Robb, hails from Detroit. "Last April we adopted the black [uniforms]; it's part of our modernization project. We don't want to look like throwbacks to 1935. But we are not trying to trick people; there are enough white groups now trying to soft-pedal people into joining."

At one recent meeting in Springfield, Mo., a dozen NSM members wore black from chin to steel-toed boot. Some sported swastikas and tattoos and wore bomber jackets with cloth patches: NO HABLA ESPAÑOL, A--HOLE and a Jewish star being dumped in the trash. Their local leader, Cynthia Keene, has a half-shaved head and multiple piercings. She started the meeting with a 14-word pledge to secure the future of the white race. There was discussion of the "Holohoax" and the warrior nature of Aryans.

They know they're being monitored. It probably makes them feel important. Keene warns her followers, "We have to be careful what we do and say and stay out of their line of sight," referring to groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the SPLC. One recent recruit, 31-year-old Melissa Cipcic, says she's upset about Americans losing jobs to illegal immigrants. She used to think of white-power groups as scary, she says, "but no one here advocates violence. So much more can be done with conversation."

The ADL's Mark Pitcavage says it is very difficult to track hate-group numbers because the organizations often splinter. What he tries to track is anger levels, and those, he warns, are rising-despite any superficial sweet talk: "The white-supremacist movement has been at red-hot anger levels for a long time. When I get concerned is when they get to white hot, where you see large bomb plots or talk about race wars. Right now we're at very red hot, and are concerned we might reach white hot again." He points to the MySpace account of "88Charles88" as an example of what he's seeing (88 is code for "Heil, Hitler" in the white-power world). "Charles" attacks Obama and says, "Now it's time to fight." "There is a lot of anger out there," says Pitcavage, "and these groups are trying to stoke it, to get someone like 88Charles88 to take the next step. What we're seeing is not a softening, but a hardening of attitude."

Pitcavage says current rhetoric resembles that of the early '90s (including conspiracy theories about FEMA concentration camps and gun confiscations), just before the outbreak of the white-militia movements. While some leaders of extremist groups may use softer recruiting tactics, "their membership is not toning down at all," says Pitcavage. For every NSM member, there is a nonaffiliated skinhead posting entries to hate blogs. If Stormfront has tried to tone down, that has only inspired a competing site-Vanguard-to showcase violent alternatives.

Some civil-rights activists are more worried about the racists they can't see than the showboaters trying to draw attention to themselves. "We're not going back to the '50s," says Mark Potok of the SPLC. "The country has moved forward in remarkable ways. But with that breakthrough comes something of a backlash." It's the loners, he says, who are most worrisome: "The lone-wolf idea is much scarier than the big-plot idea. Big plots don't succeed because these guys cannot keep their mouths shut."

As local law enforcement tells it, Cynthia Lynch was an Internet loner who tried to become a white activist and failed. She was recruited online to travel from Oklahoma last November to join a reputed Klan group in Bogalusa, La. The group called itself the Sons of Dixie. But after meeting the members, the 43-year-old Lynch had second thoughts and tried to back out during an extended initiation ceremony. She was shot dead and buried in the backwoods of St. Tammany Parish.

The Sons of Dixie were rounded up after two of them asked a Circle K clerk how to remove blood stains from clothing, authorities said. Their alleged leader, Raymond (Chuck) Foster, had a history of Klan involvement and was in the SPLC database, but no one had previously heard of the Sons of Dixie. As it turned out, Foster, who has been indicted for second degree murder, lived just more than a mile away from Bogalusa's mayor, James McGehee. "I thought I knew everyone here, but I guess I didn't," says the mayor. "I think these were Klan wannabes."

The mayor and local law-enforcement officers have spent the past few months working with the FBI to rule out further Klan activities in the area and meeting with local black churches to discuss the problem. As a child, McGehee grew up hearing about the Klan and watching civil-rights marches, he recalls. "The Klan was obviously here then. But I hadn't really heard that word in 25 years," he says. Cynthia Lynch might also have thought the old racists had softened with time; on Foster's MySpace page, according to the SPLC, he listed Jesus Christ as his hero and said he'd like to meet "honest loyal people who are devoted to things and take them seriously." She might have thought the Sons of Dixie would provide something-a sense of community or pride -that her life was missing. She didn't learn otherwise until it was too late.

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