By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama's historic victory in the Democratic primaries, celebrated in America and across much of the world as a symbol of racial progress and cultural unity, has also sparked an increase in racist and white supremacist activity, mainly on the Internet, according to leaders of hate groups and the organizations that track them.
Neo-Nazi, skinhead and segregationist groups have reported gains in numbers of visitors to their Web sites and in membership since the senator from Illinois secured the Democratic nomination June 3. His success has aroused a community of racists, experts said, concerned by the possibility of the country's first black president.
"I haven't seen this much anger in a long, long time," said Billy Roper, a 36-year-old who runs a group called White Revolution in Russellville, Ark. "Nothing has awakened normally complacent white Americans more than the prospect of America having an overtly nonwhite president."
Such groups have historically inflated their influence for self-promotion and as an intimidation technique, and they refused to provide exact membership numbers or open their meetings to a reporter. Leaders acknowledged that their numbers remain very small -- "the flat-globe society still has more people than us," Roper said. But experts said their claims reveal more than hyperbole this time.
"The truth is, we're finding an explosion in these kinds of hateful sentiments on the Net, and it's a growing problem," said Deborah Lauter, civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors hate group activity. "There are probably thousands of Web sites that do this now. I couldn't even tell you how many are out there because it's growing so fast."
Neo-Nazi and white power groups acknowledge that they have little ability to derail Obama's candidacy, so instead some have decided to take advantage of its potential. White-power leaders who once feared Obama's campaign have come to regard it as a recruiting tool. The groups now portray his candidacy as a vehicle to disenfranchise whites and polarize America.
Obama has worked hard to minimize the issue of race in his presidential campaign. When asked about divisiveness and hate, he talks instead about ways in which unity between blacks and whites has inspired him. He chose to "reject and denounce" an endorsement from Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan. Obama quit his church after his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., spoke of racism and oppression in the "United States of white America."
Earlier this month, Obama's campaign launched a Web site to defuse the false rumors that hate-mongers spread on the Internet. The site lists a series of untruths about Obama -- that he is Muslim; that his books contain racist passages; that his wife, Michelle, used the word "whitey" -- and discredits them.
"The Obama campaign isn't going to let dishonest smears spread across the Internet unanswered," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. "We have to be proactive and fight back."
But on a Web site run out of a house in West Palm Beach, Fla., the other side is also fighting.
Don Black spends 16 hours each day on his laptop computer reading hundreds of derogatory Obama comments posted on Stormfront.org, a Web site with the motto "white pride world wide." Black, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, launched the site in 1995 to create a central meeting place for the white power movement. In the wake of Obama's securing enough delegates for the nomination, Stormfront, he says, has begun to fulfill his vision.
A site that drew a few thousand visitors per day in 2002 has expanded into Black's full-time job, attracting more than 40,000 unique users each day who can post on 54 different message boards, he said. Black has enlisted 40 moderators and his 19-year-old son to help run Stormfront.
Posters on Stormfront complain that Obama represents the end of "white rule" and the beginning of "multiculturalism." They fear that he will promote affirmative action, support illegal immigration and help render whites, who make up two-thirds of the U.S. population, "the new minority."
"I get nonstop e-mails and private message from new people who are mad as hell about the possibility of Obama being elected," said Black, a white power activist since the 1970s. "White people, for a long time, have thought of our government as being for us, and Obama is the best possible evidence that we've lost that. This is scaring a lot of people who maybe never considered themselves racists, and it's bringing them over to our side."
Almost all white power leaders said they are benefiting from the rise in recruits. David Duke, a former Louisiana state representative and a longtime advocate of racial segregation, said hits to his Web site have doubled and that more organizations now request him as a guest speaker. Dan Hill, who runs an extremist group in northern Michigan, says his cohorts are more willing to "take serious action" and plan rallies to protest politicians and immigration. Roper says White Revolution receives about 10 new applicants each week, more than double the norm.
The past few months reflect a recent trend of hate group growth, watch organizations said. Fueled primarily by anti-immigration sentiment, white supremacy groups have increased by nearly half since 2000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups. The KKK has diversified regionally and now has about 150 chapters spread through 34 states.
"Our side does better when the public is being pressured, when gas prices are high, when housing is bad, when a black man might be president," said Ron Doggett, who runs a white power group called EURO in Richmond. "People start looking for solutions and changes, and we offer radical changes to what's going on."
The new interest has led to a debate among white supremacists about how to harness it. So far, groups have executed a few small efforts to disrupt Obama's campaign. A bar in Georgia sells T-shirts depicting Obama's campaign slogan under the image of a monkey. A New York group distributed bumper stickers that read: "Wake up white people." Hill, who trains in militia and survival techniques with his group in northern Michigan, drove to an Obama rally and tried to "fire people up, maybe get a riot started or something."
The groups also despise Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for his moderate views on immigration and his willingness to stick with the Iraq war. Better for Obama to win, leaders said, because his presidency could fuel a recruitment drive big enough to launch events that the white power movement has spent decades anticipating.
"One person put it this way: Obama for president paves the way for David Duke as president," said Duke, who ran for president in 1988, received less than 1 percent of the vote and has since spent much of his time in Europe. "This is finally going to make whites begin to realize it's a necessity to stick up for their own heritage, and that's going to make them turn to people like me. We're the next logical step."
There is also another possibility, of course, one that makes white power leaders despise Obama even more.
"What you try not to think about is that maybe if Obama wins, it will create a very demoralizing effect," Doggett said. "Maybe people see him in office, and it's like: 'That's it. It's just too late. Look at what's happened now. We've endured all these defeats, and we've still got a multicultural society.' And then there's just no future for our viewpoint."