Want to know the recipe for cooking up larger and larger hate group memberships? Take the election of a liberal President, add a governor reneging on his “no new taxes” pledge, toss in the highest unemployment in 30 years and oh, yes, make sure that the new President is an African American.
Stir thoroughly with right-wing talk radio blather about things like “heads on a stick,” simmer with same-sex marriage, make sure the liberal African-American president talks up immigration reform, and you’ve got the perfect recipe.
Or the perfect storm, if hate speech, hate crimes, and white power rallies are not your personal preference.
In fact, the current surge in the number of hate groups and the parallel rise in their membership was completely predictable. As early as the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter became President, organizations that track hate mongers developed what amounted to a model for predicting rises and falls in hate-group membership.
The more conservative a President might be, the more anti-illegal immigrant sentiment is heard in Congress, the lower the number of hate groups and the smaller their membership rolls. When a liberal is elected, it’s just the reverse.
Reason: Conservative Presidents are perceived by many as more likely than liberals to cut welfare payments, crack down on crime, increase wiretapping, choke off illegal immigration and build up the military – all policies that hate group members tend to support. Never mind that liberal presidents sometimes do these things more effectively than conservatives, as with Bill Clinton’s welfare reductions of the mid-1990s.
But combining items like an African American President, high unemployment and more taxes is certain to arouse rage in many Americans.
New hate group numbers recorded by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center demonstrate this clearly. In a springtime report, the group detailed a surge in the number of hate groups to 926 nationwide, 83 in California. This was a 5 percent increase from just a year earlier, when unemployment had already begun to rise, but Barack Obama was still a U.S. senator.
The recent rise in the number of hate groups parallels an increase in hate crimes against Latinos, which the FBI reported up by 35 percent between 2003 and 2006, the last period for which it has complete figures. The FBI says these crimes are usually intended to target illegal immigrants, but often hit legal residents who are native-born U.S. citizens.
In California, hate groups listed by the poverty center include racist skinhead gangs operating in areas from San Diego to Fresno and the San Francisco Bay area. There are also white supremacist outfits including several units of the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement based in Glendale.
“Anti-immigrant rage, fueled in part by the shrinking job market, was the No. 1 factor driving the hate crime increase prior to this year,” said Mark Potok, director of the poverty center’s Intelligence Project.
But both that center and the Anti-Defamation League say an upsurge of anti-black hate followed immediately upon Obama’s election last fall. Some crimes, of course, cannot be directly attributed to hard feelings aroused by the election result; they might have happened anyway. That’s the case for last fall’s Riverside County murder of a white Marine sergeant and his African- American wife.
But there is little doubt hate group activity grew more open nationally as 2008 progressed and it became apparent Obama would win. There were denunciations of “President Obongo” at a hate rock concert in Missouri, racial slurs shouted at Latinos from the steps of a courthouse in Tulsa, Okla., and a plot to kill Obama broken up by police and FBI agents in North Carolina.
“Obama’s election has inflamed racist extremists who see it as another sign that their country is under siege by non-whites,” Potok observed. “The reality of a black man in the White House, combined with the economic crisis and Latino immigration has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit.”
Agreeing is former Klan leader David Duke, now a Louisiana politician. He calls Obama a “visual aid” for angry white Americans, adding that last year’s election was sure to produce “dramatic increases” in hate group membership.
The statistics bear that out, with the Secret Service reporting that Obama got more death threats more continually last fall than any previous president-elect.
Chances are there’s no clear remedy for all this. Government agencies and educators have never been able to stem either racist or anti-immigrant hate, in California or nationwide. There’s no reason to believe they’ll do better now. Which makes this a time when law enforcement at all levels needs extreme vigilance against the scourge of hate crimes.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net