While racist groups have proliferated in the US for some time, the arrival of Donald Trump has emboldened them, writes Bette Browne
THE days of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan hiding behind white sheets while they terrified or killed African-Americans are receding into the past, but a new type of racism is emerging in America that prefers Brooks Brothers suits and promotes its agenda with the click of a mouse.
The number of racist-driven groups has risen over the past number of years to almost 900 and experts contend some of these groups are being emboldened by the incendiary rhetoric of this year’s presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump.
Prominent among the groups is the so-called alt-right, a white supremactist movement, led by 38-year-old Richard Spencer, who came up with the term in 2008 and uses the internet to promote the creation of a white ethno-state that would banish minorities.
While Trump dismisses any suggestion his election is emboldening the alt-right — “I don’t want to energise the group. I’m not looking to energise them, and I disavow the group” — the group itself makes no secret of its admiration for the president-elect.
“I do think we have a psychic connection, or you can say a deeper connection, with Donald Trump in a way that we simply do not have with most Republicans,” said Spencer, whose followers sent shockwaves through the US capital at their conference last month when a number of them gave the Nazi salute while hailing Trump’s victory.
“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail our victory!” Spencer told them from the podium, eliciting the Nazi salutes from many of his 200 followers present. Spencer later called the display a show of “exuberance”.
In another incident, on December 6, hundreds of people shouting “No love for Nazis” protested against another speech by Spencer at the University of Texas A&M.
The university did not invite him and said his views were “in direct conflict with our core values”. He was invited by a former student who rented space on campus.
While some expressed shock at these incidents others were not that surprised. They pointed out that similar neo-Nazi groups have existed for a number of years and the only difference now is that they are emerging into the mainstream, apparently buoyed not just by Trump’s victory but by the fact that his scapegoating of immigrants and other minorities during his campaign became part of a winning election formula.
On August 22, a month after Trump won the Republican nomination, an Associated Press study examined the social media feeds of more than 50 current and former campaign employees.
“Most come across as dedicated, enthusiastic partisans,” it concluded, “but at least seven expressed views that were overtly racially charged, supportive of violent actions or broadly hostile to Muslims.”
Critics also cite the fact that Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, former chief of Breitbart News, encouraged the incendiary rhetoric, and they view him as a vehicle for bringing the extreme views of the far right into the White House.
Bannon himself has described Breitbart News as “the platform for the alt-right”, but rejects the charge that he or the website embrace racism or anti-Semitism.
Trump, too, rejects the notion: “If I thought he was a racist or alt-right or any of the things, the terms we could use, I wouldn’t even think about hiring him.”
But it’s not so much a question of whether Trump or Bannon are themselves racist, which is most unlikely.
What concerns people fighting racism in America is the fact that both men exploited the justifiable fears and concerns of an angry electorate, hungry for jobs and better wages, by using racially charged language from the first day of Trump’s campaign on June 16, 2015.
The climate was already volatile. The FBI reported an increase of nearly 67% last year in hate crimes against Muslim Americans and an increase of 6% against all groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been monitoring hate groups for over 40 years, received more than 900 reports of harassment and physical attacks in the days immediately after the November 8 election. The group said it had also received 27 complaints of episodes targeting supporters of Trump.
Given the size of the US population of 319m, the proportion of such incidents is relatively small but is nevertheless causing fears it could grow.
Trump was asked in an interview after his election about reports that some of his supporters had harassed or attacked minorities after his victory.
“I am so saddened to hear that,” he told CBS.
“And I say, ‘Stop it.’ If it helps, I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: ‘Stop it.’”
In response to the incidents, the financier George Soros, a Democratic party donor, said he will commit $10m from his personal foundation to combat a rise in hate crimes, which he linked to the “incendiary rhetoric” of Trump’s campaign that he charged had “awakened dark forces”.
Since the election, hate crimes are becoming evident even in New York, arguably the country’s most diverse city. Police commissioner James O’Neill said on November 20 that hate crimes have spiked by 31%, jumping from 250 incidents at the same point last year to 328 now. Most have targeted Muslim and Jewish communities.
O’Neill emphasised he had no evidence linking the increase to politicians’ divisive statements, but alluded to the fact that that they may be related.
“I have no scientific evidence as to why, but if you’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on in the country over the last year or so, that the rhetoric has increased, I think that might have something to do with it,” he said.
The city’s Daily News pulled no punches, blaming supporters of the alt-right movement. “The alt-right movement is simply the KKK without the hoods. They are skinheads with suits and ties. They simply chose a new name, but are fuelled by the same hate and same philosophy as previous white supremacist and Neo-Nazi movements.”
As they have emerged from the shadows, proponents of white supremacy in America have certainly become more subtle, more sophisticated, well educated and well heeled. They don’t burn crosses anymore. Instead, they sit at their computers, clicking social media platforms like Twitter to promote their message and attract supporters.
George Hawley, a University of Alabama professor who has studied them, says typical followers are white millennial men, either in college or with a college degree, who are secular, perhaps atheist, and are “not interested in the conservative movement at all”.
Spencer himself was born into a wealthy family in Dallas, Texas. He dresses in three-piece Brooks Brothers suits, gold-coin cuff links, likes $5,000 Swiss watches, and has degrees from the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago.
Twitter zoned in on Spencer’s activities last month. It announced new steps to take on hate and bigotry online, banning several accounts, including that of Spencer, his think tank, the National Policy Institute, and his online magazine, Radix Journal.
But the alt-right is by no means the only neo-Nazi group that works the internet. Long before Twitter and Facebook were heard of, a former Alabama KKK leader Don Black saw the potential of the internet.
In 1995 he started a website that ultimately grew into the largest white supremacist web forum, with close to 300,000 registered users around the world. One of the most infamous members of his Stormfront site was Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 69 people in shooting rampage in Norway five years ago.
Black himself told his radio audience earlier this year: “Trump represents a movement, he represents an insurgency that will benefit our people.” There are now 892 active hate groups operating in America, up from 784 in 2014, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In its 2015 annual report, published this year, it said of the 892 groups, a total of 190 were KKK groups, 94 were neo-Nazi groups, 85 were white nationalist groups, 95 were racist skinhead groups, 180 were black separatist groups, and 184 were classified as “general hate groups”.
Indeed, as recently as last Saturday, Ku Klux Klan supporters drove through the North Carolina town of Roxboro in a 30-strong convoy of cars in what they called a celebration of Trump’s presidency.
Men and women shouted “White power!” and “Hail victory!” from the vehicles flying KKK and Confederate flags as they drove through the town in the middle of the afternoon.
George Washington University’s Programme on Extremism provides analysis on issues related to violent and non-violent extremism in the United States. JM Berger, a Fellow at GWU and a researcher and analyst, focusing on extremist propaganda and the use of social media, found that major American white nationalist movements on Twitter added about 22,000 followers since 2012, an increase of about 600%.
“The increase was driven in part by organised social media activism, organic growth in the adoption of social media by people interested in white nationalism, and, to some extent, the rise of organised trolling communities seeking to flood social media platforms with negative content, regardless of participants’ actual beliefs,” Berger said in a study. “The most popular theme among white nationalists on Twitter was the concept of white genocide, the notion that the white race is directly endangered by the increasing diversity of society.”
He concluded: “Followers of white nationalists on Twitter were heavily invested in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. White nationalist users referenced Trump more than almost any other topic, and Trump-related hashtags outperformed every white nationalist hashtag except for #whitegenocide within the sets of users examined.”
At least 900 hate groups in the United States
Founder Don Black, former KKK leader.
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