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Charlotte Talks: 'Unite The Right' Rally In Charlottesville Brought Hate Groups Out Of The Shadows

Flickr/Anthony Crider

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hate groups have come out of the shadows and experts believe news coverage of that emergence could inspire new members to join. But why? Some perspective on that.

The violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia shocked the nation earlier this month. The "Unite the Right" rally, the largest of its kind in decades, assembled "alt-right," white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups under a common banner.

These extremist groups have long existed on the fringes of society and in the dark corners of the internet, but the rally and news coverage made them much more visible - which was exactly their goal.

Groups like these are coming out of the shadows and in fact, the number of hate groups is on the rise in America. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks hate groups, there are 917 groups currently operating in the United States - 31 of them in North Carolina. And experts say coverage from Charlottesville could inspire more to join extremist groups.

Who are these groups, what do they believe, why would someone join a hate group, and why now? Mike Collins and guests discuss that from a variety of perspectives.

Hidden in the shadows

It wasn’t so much of a sudden emergence, we’ve been seeing steady growth in hate groups for years, most noticeably in the aftermath of President Obama’s election. There was something incredibly divisive about having our first African American President. Hate groups and anti-government extremist organizations literally rose through the roof. The Trump movement began with President Trump saying ‘Mexico was sending criminals and rapists,’ this movement was ready to hear that.    –Ryan Lenz
These folks are good at engaging in more hidden acts of resistance. They have small gatherings and come together with likeminded folks, that helps sustain their beliefs and sense of community.   –Dr. Peter Simi

I was not surprised by the events in Charlottesville or by the rise of hate groups. I grew up in Greensboro when the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis killed people. They get their sustenance from the swamps of white supremacy and the diluted touch of grievances that is shared by many white people. There’s always been the potential for an explosion.  – Dr. John Cox

Should we be concerned?

We should be concerned. What we see is a slow, but rapidly quickening acceptance of extremist ideologies into the mainstream of American politics. We’ve seen policies roll out of this administration that are fantasies and dreams of the white nationalist movement. That’s not by accident.  – Ryan Lenz
We should be concerned. There’s been a rise and increased visibility since last November. Or before then when the Trump campaign gave a lot of encouragement it emboldened racists and fascists. The election of Obama was also a turning point because it fed into grievances. There’s an imagined grievance among many white people.  – Dr. John Cox 

Influence of some of President Trump's comments 

If you listen to what white supremacists are saying about Trump, many are saying he’s an important first step. They’re not looking for everything to be aligned with what they want, they’re looking for leverage. They were waiting for an opening or moment. That moment of President Trump coming down the escalator seemed to fit the bill for them. Now we’re seeing a more public manifestation of these folks   – Dr. Peter Simi
People who voted for him had to overlook a lot of things. Racism comes in different shades. Not everyone who harbors racial grievances and anxieties wears a white hood.  – Dr. John Cox
One of the main reasons the Klan doesn’t hide their faces anymore is because they’re not ashamed. A notable moment that defined this shift was during the RNC Convention in Cleveland when Richard Spencer stood outside with a sign that said: Want to speak to a ‘Racists.’  – Ryan Lenz

Media plays a role

A lot of the language is so polarizing and talks about liberals as essentially a contaminating force. If you were to go on to a white supremacists web forum or site, you find strong similarities in language and the way alternate perspectives and certain groups are dehumanized.  – Dr. Peter Simi
In 2016, Donald Trump effectively delegitimized the news media. What we saw behind that was a constellation of very loud, antagonistic and often false reports from right wing media outlets. It led to lots of people believing things that aren’t true, ideas such as white genocide which is ever present on the radical white.  – Ryan Lenz

Fascism and the ‘alt-right’ 

"Alt-right" is in some ways an effort to rebrand elements of Neo-confederates, fascists or Nazis. Racial purity was at the center of it. Fascism picks up the characteristics of its national culture, so it was more anti-Semitic in some countries. Somethings we see elements of today, a cult of the leader and a false populism that we’re on your side. This was a key element to Nazi appeal.   – Dr. John Cox
Neo-Nazis is a type of white supremacists, but they put a strong emphasis on Nazi Germany. In the 70s many Klans became Nazified. This idea of racial purity is central.   –Dr. Peter Simi
Under the banner of "alt-right," they were able to bring in a whole bunch of people who felt this was their political powers. They want a country that is homogenously white.  – Ryan Lenz 

The psychology of hate groups

Ironically enough they’re a diverse lot. We like to think in terms of a person who is poorly educated, lower socioeconomic status. In fact, what you’ll find is a broad cross section of folks who get involved. There’s a strong sense of persecution and victimization that goes along with the propaganda these groups distribute. The group themselves promote this idea that everything is upside down especially in the post WWII era. To the point that whites as a race are on the verge of extinction. There are some commonalities in terms of background issues of susceptibility. A high number report experiencing child abuse, physical or sexual abuse, unstable family backgrounds, substance abuse, and parental neglect. During adolescents further instabilities emerge in their own conduct. When they’re exposed to extremism, it’s a coping mechanism for this downward spiral they’re on.  – Dr. Peter Simi
The idea and historic concept of a hate group is changing because of communication tools. A person can be radicalized online by themselves without ever going to a meeting or paying dues. One of the most terrifying examples is Dylan Roof. He googled a phrase, and per his own writing he was never the same afterwards. The vast majority of hate groups exist in diversely populated coastal areas. The areas most populated by hate groups are the west coast and the south east.  – Ryan Lenz

Racism in policing

There are a million ways in which racism functions in this country. To people who don’t suffer from it functions in a less visible and more polite manner. This country was founded on ethnic cleansing, displacement and genocide of native peoples. A process that continued in violent forms throughout the 19th century and still exists today in different ways. Slavery and racism are the original sins and are still integral to society. There are all sorts of statistics that demonstrate this. A black person is 22 times more likely to be shot by the police.  – Dr. John Cox
If you trace the history of policing in the United States, one of the early points of origin is slave patrol. You can find police departments that were heavily overlapping with local Klan groups. Not just the south, even LAPD. Now just this week in Oklahoma, the newly appointed interim chief was discovered to be a white supremacist that helped run the group Blood and Honor.   –Dr. Peter Simi
There are groups like the oath keepers that actively work to recruit law enforcement, first responders and military personnel for the purposes of indoctrinating them with their ideology. We know that there are officers that have been radicalized and taken in by extremist ideology. We know for a fact that over 30,000 law enforcement, first responders and military personnel are a part of this organization.  – Ryan Lenz

On  "antifa"  

The Anti-Fascist movement sprung in Germany and it has swept the world. It has slowly emerged in America in response to hate groups and increased hate crime. It’s a loosely organized grass-roots effort to push back what they see as the rise of fascism in America. As the political culture in America has polarized, this group has chosen to become violent to shut down racist speech.  –Ryan Lenz
"Antifa" means a lot of different things. A lot of people identify as "antifa" because they’re anti-fascists, and protest against Nazis and fascists. You’ll see the role of "antifa" activists in Charlottesville protecting people from the coordinated violent attacks of racists and Nazis.  –Dr. John Cox
When we start talking about white supremacists, there’s a common response of: ‘Why aren’t you talking about anything but white supremacists.’ That really reflects how much denial there is.   –Dr. Peter Simi


Ryan Lenz - senior investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center

Dr. Peter Simi - Director of the Earl Babbie Research Center and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Chapman University in Orange, CA. Author of American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate

Dr. John Cox - Associate professor of Global Studies, Director of the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies at UNC Charlotte

Erin Keever is Senior Producer of WFAE's Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. She has been with the show since joining the station in 2006. She's a native Charlottean.