Atlanta – In rural Georgia, a group of high-schoolers gets a visit from the Secret Service after posting “inappropriate” comments about President-elect Barack Obama on the Web. In Raleigh, N.C., four college students admit to spraying race-tinged graffiti in a pedestrian tunnel after the election. On Nov. 6, a cross burns on the lawn of a biracial couple in Apolacon Township, Pa.
The election of America’s first black president has triggered more than 200 hate-related incidents, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center – a record in modern presidential elections. Moreover, the white nationalist movement, bemoaning an election that confirmed voters’ comfort with a multiracial demography, expects Mr. Obama’s election to be a potent recruiting tool – one that watchdog groups warn could give new impetus to a mostly defanged fringe element.
Most election-related threats have so far been little more than juvenile pranks. But the political marginalization of certain Southern whites, economic distress in rural areas, and a White House occupant who symbolizes a multiethnic United States could combine to produce a backlash against what some have heralded as the dawn of a postracial America. In some parts of the South, there’s even talk of secession.
“Most of this movement is not violent, but there is a substantive underbelly that is violent and does try to make a bridge to people who feel disenfranchised,” says Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “The question is: Will this swirl become a tornado or just an ill wind? We’re not there yet, but there’s dust on the horizon, a swirling of wind, and the atmospherics are getting put together for [conflict].”
Though postelection racist incidents haven’t posed any real danger to society or the president-elect, law enforcement is taking note.
“We’re trying to be out there at the cutting edge of this and trying to stay ahead of groups that are emerging,” says Special Agent Darrin Blackford, a spokesman for the Secret Service, which guards the US president.
“Anytime you start seeing [extremist propaganda] floating around, you have to be concerned,” adds Lt. Gary Thornberry of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, a member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. “As far as it being an alarmist situation, I don’t see that yet. From a law enforcement point of view, you have to be careful, because it’s not illegal to have an ideology.”
After sparking conflict and showdowns in the 1990s – think Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing – white supremacist and nationalist groups began this century largely splintered and powerless. Though high immigration levels helped boost the number of hate groups from 602 in 2000 to 888 in 2007, key leaders of such groups had died, been imprisoned, or were otherwise marginalized.
But postelection, at least two white nationalist websites – Stormfront and the Council of Conservative Citizens – report their servers have crashed because of heavy traffic. The League of the South, a secessionist group, says Web hits jumped from 50,000 a month to 300,000 since Nov. 4, and its phones are ringing off the hook.
“The vitriol is flailing out shotgun-style,” says Mr. Levin. “They recognize Obama as a tipping point, the perfect storm in the narrative of the hate world – the apocalypse that they’ve been moaning about has come true.”
Supremacist propaganda is already on the upswing. In Oklahoma, fringe groups have distributed anti-Obama propaganda through newspapers and taped it to home mail boxes. Ugly incidents such as cross-burnings, assassination betting pools, and Obama effigies are also being reported from Maine to Alabama.
The Ku Klux Klan has been tied to recent news events, as well. Two Tennessee men implicated for plotting to kill 88 black men, including Obama, were tied to the KKK chapter whose leader was convicted in a civil trial in Brandenburg, Ky., last week, for inciting violence. The murder last week in Louisiana of a KKK initiate, allegedly killed after trying to back out of joining, came at the hands of a new group called Sons of Dixie, authorities say.
“We’re not looking at a race war or anything close to it, but … what we are seeing now is undeniably a fairly major backlash by some subset of the white population,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report in Montomgery, Ala. “Many whites feel that the country their forefathers built has been … stolen from them, so there’s in some places a real boiling rage, and that can only become worse as more people lose jobs.”
In an election in which barely 20 percent of native Southern whites in Deep South states voted for Obama, the newly apparent political clout of “outsiders” and people of color has been unnerving to some.
“In states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, there was extraordinary racial polarization in the vote,” says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “Black Americans really do believe that Obama is going to represent their interests and views in ways that they haven’t been before, and, in the Deep South, whites feel exactly the opposite.”
But for nonviolent secessionist groups like the League of the South, the hope is for a more vigorous debate about the direction of the US and the South’s role in it, says Michael Tuggle, a League blogger in North Carolina.
Mr. Tuggle says his group isn’t looking for an 1860-style secession but, rather, a model that Spain, for one, is moving toward, in which “there’s a great deal of autonomy for constituent regions” – a foil to what is seen as unchecked, dangerous federal power in Washington.
“To a lot of people, the idea of secession doesn’t seem so crazy anymore,” says Tuggle. “People are talking about how left out they feel, … and they feel that something strange and radical has taken over our country.”