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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Confronting the New Faces of Hate: Hate Crimes in America 2009. LCCR Education Fund.

The State of Hate: White Supremacist Groups Growing

The number of hate groups operating in the United States continued to rise in 2008 and has grown by 54 percent since 2000 — an increase fueled last year by immigration fears, a failing economy, and the successful campaign of Barack Obama, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC identified 926 hate groups active in 2008, up more than four percent from the 888 groups in 2007 and far above the 602 groups documented in 2000.15

"Barack Obama's election has inflamed racist extremists who see it as another sign that their country is under siege by nonwhites," said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, a SPLC quarterly investigative journal that monitors the radical right. "The idea of a black man in the White House, combined with the deepening economic crisis and continuing high levels of Latino immigration, has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit."16

The DHS assessment on right-wing extremism, which was provided to federal, state, and local law enforcement, warned that right-wing extremists "may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment."

In the days prior to the presidential election, Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tennessee and Paul Schlesselman, 18, of West Helena, Arkansas were arrested by federal agents for allegedly plotting to assassinate Obama followed by a plan to engage in a multi-state "killing spree." The men met through the Internet and planned to shoot 88 African Americans and behead another 14. Targets included a predominantly African-American school. At the end of the alleged spree, the men intended to try to kill Obama. "88," an important number in skinhead numerology, means "Heil Hitler" — as "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet. "14" likely refers to the "14 Words," a white supremacist slogan that originated with the late David Lane. Lane died last year in prison while serving a sentence for his role in an assassination plot carried out by The Order, a white supremacist terrorist group that was destroyed in 1984. One of the suspects, Cowart, is a known member of a new skinhead hate group, the Supreme White Alliance (SWA), formed at the beginning of 2008, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. He attended a birthday party for Adolf Hitler held last April by the group. SWA is headed by Steven Edwards, son of Ron Edwards, who leads the Imperial Klans of America.17

After Obama's election victory in November, white supremacist online activity spiked, with people posting hundreds of messages to online forums. White supremacist groups and individuals claimed that the Obama presidency, the immigration issue, and tough economic times would serve as powerful catalysts for recruiting more people to the white supremacist movement. Jeff Schoep, head of the National Socialist Movement, the largest Neo-Nazi group in America, said interest in the NSM "has really spiked up," but would not reveal by how much.18 Don Black, a 55 year-old former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, claimed more than 2,000 people joined his website on the day after Obama's election, up from 80 on an ordinary day. Started in 1995, Black's website is one of the oldest and largest hate group sites, now claiming 110,000 members. As David Duke, a former Klan leader who was once a member of the Louisiana legislature, has said, Obama is a "visual aid" that galvanizes the white supremacist movement.19

According to Schoep, extremists are also exploiting the economic crisis, spreading propaganda that blames minorities and immigrants for the subprime mortgage meltdown. "Historically, when times get tough in our nation, that's how movements like ours gain a foothold," he said. "When the economy suffers, people are looking for answers. … We are the answer for white people."20 Membership in the National Socialist Movement has grown by 40 percent in recent months, according to Schoep, the "most dramatic growth" since the mid-1990s, mostly because of the nation's dire economic circumstances. "You have an American work force facing massive unemployment. And you have presidents and politicians flinging open the borders telling them to take the few jobs left while our men are in soup kitchens."21

In Pennsylvania, where the Hispanic population has increased 41 percent from 2000 through 2007, "Keystone United," a hate group that recently changed its name from "Keystone State Skinheads," has used the immigration issue to recruit new members. "A lot of these small working-class towns are being invaded by different types of people," said Douglas Myers, one of Keystone United's founders. USA Today described Keystone United as a group that "speaks out for the rights of whites being pushed aside by newcomers." The group plans family-friendly outings, meets in public libraries, and avoids the violence traditionally associated with skinheads. "It's not the footage from the ‘80s with people burning crosses. It's a very healthy environment," said Myers.22

Ann Van Dyke of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission said of Keystone United: "It appears they are tapping into and fanning the flames of mainstream America's fear of immigrants. They are increasingly using the language of Main Street, things like, ‘We want safe communities to raise our children.'"23

"Many white supremacist groups are going more mainstream," said Jack Levin, a Northeastern University criminologist who studies hate crime. "They are eliminating the sheets and armbands. … The groups realize if they want to be attractive to middle-class types, they need to look middle-class." Levin estimated fewer than 50,000 people are members of white supremacist groups, but he says their influence is growing with a more sophisticated approach.24

DHS assesses that since the 2008 election, right-wing extremists "have capitalized on related racial and political prejudices in expanded propaganda campaigns, thereby reaching out to a wider audience of potential sympathizers."

Next Section: The State of Hate: Exploiting the Internet to Promote Hatred


15. David Holthouse, Southern Poverty Law Center, "The Year in Hate," Intelligence Report, Spring 2009.

16. "Hate Group Numbers Up By 54% Since 2000," Southern Poverty Law Center, February 26, 2009.

17. Heidi Beirich, Hatewatch Blog, Southern Poverty Law Center, "Skinheads Arrested in Plot to Kill Obama," October 27, 2008.

18. Marisol Bello, "White Supremacists Target Middle America," USA Today, October 21, 2008.

19. Stephanie Chen, "Growing Hate Groups Blame Obama, Economy," CNN.com, February 26, 2009.

20. Bello, "White Supremacists Target Middle America."

21. Chen, "Growing Hate Groups Blame Obama, Economy."

22. Bello, "White Supremacists Target Middle America."

23. Id.

24. Id.

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