In the past few weeks you’ve heard a lot of reports about hate crimes, white supremacy and the ‘alt-right.’ What does it all mean? And, importantly, do hate groups exist here, in St. Louis, and how are they active?
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we got into the subject with Washington University sociology professor David Cunningham, who researches hate groups and their impact on elections. Cunningham is the author of “Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has recorded 22 active hate groups in Missouri. There are 10 groups in the St. Louis area (between Missouri and Illinois), ranging from the Council of Conservative Citizens (which started in St. Louis) to the New Black Panther Party. There are also two KKK outfits, both about two hours away from the region in Missouri and Illinois.
Cunningham defined “hate group” as: “An organization or collection of people that target others based on perceived membership in a class of people. Typically, it is targeting people based on identity — racial, religious or sexual. The key is that it is not targeting particular individuals, but it targets them based on membership in a larger group.”
Missouri has a range of hate groups, varying from the white supremacist organizations to neo-nazi groups. There are also groups that are specifically anti-Muslim, black separatist and ‘Christian identity’ groups, which are anti-Semitic.
White supremacy is a racist ideology that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds and therefore they should rule over non-white people.
Neo-nazism is an ideology that seeks to revive elements of Nazi doctrine, including racism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalism, among other elements.
The Southern Poverty Law Center also includes the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam in their categorization of hate groups as “black separatist” because they typically oppose integration or intermarriage.
“SPLC considers [the black separatist] category in that their central criterion is that they are groups that may target others based on a particular classification or identity,” Cunningham said. “Groups that are seen as separatist or racist can go either way. They understand black separatist inclination is rooted in a long history of white racism and can be a reaction to that, but the effects can go both ways so we need to be attentive to groups across the spectrum.”
Cunningham defines the “Alt-Right” or “Alternative Right” differently from a hate group calling it: “A loose collection of ideas, really, that has certain outlets on the internet, which is focused on white nationalism. A group that espouses the idea that traditional America is under siege by multicultural forces and political correctness is a culprit.”
How much influence do these groups have today?
In the 15 days following the November presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 867 acts of violence or terror or intimidation perpetrated by hate groups or people acting in the organizations’ name.
“That’s a huge uptick in the terms of activity we’re seeing,” Cunning ham said.
But does that mean hate groups’ membership is growing in power?
“Although this has been an interesting year to think about these hate groups, none of these groups are what we would think of as mass membership organizations,” Cunningham said. “When we think about strength, we’re really thinking largely about consistency and their ability to create an infrastructure for people to do things in their names.”
During the Civil Rights movement, for example, the KKK would have been considered a mass membership organization, at least in the South.
Today, many hate groups that were at their peak during the Civil Rights era, have melded and combined membership as numbers dwindled. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, such groups were very territorial and it would be unlikely to see a white supremacist organization meshing with that of a neo-Nazi organization. That’s more common in recent years.
“Particular organizations don’t have power, but their ideology has tentacles that reach many larger circles,” Cunningham said.
Many have also adapted to be less focused on violent physical intimidation, instead focusing on grabbing political or messaging power.
A good example of this is the Council of Conservative Citizens, a nationwide hate group that is headquartered in St. Louis. The group grew out of White Citizens Councils, which were active in the deep south during the Civil Rights movement.
“They operated like the KKK but in a way that tended to bring in community leaders,” Cunningham said. “No espousing violence but using economic intimidation and public relations around segregation and white supremacy.”
Cunningham said that there has been a significant increase in both the number of organizations that are active and also the size of memberships in some of the hate groups since the 2008 election, when the nation’s first black president was elected.
“The current election, even though it has been more charged, has been less of a ‘get organized’ moment and more of a ‘get publicized’ moment,” said Cunningham. “These are groups drawing on the infrastructure that grew over the last 8 years and have used that as a way to come more into the open. The kinds of events we see associated, and when I say events I mean everything from marches to acts of terror, that has certainly grown over the past few months.”
Moving forward, looking back
Cunningham, whose research is predominantly on Civil Rights-era hate groups, said that hate group activity has wide-ranging effects: from direct victimization to broader social problems in communities.
“Prior hate group activity, back to the 1960s, if you look at communities where the KKK was active 50 years ago continue to exhibit higher rates of violent crime and harsher politics,” Cunningham said. “These things have an impact today.”
Cunningham said that if policy begins to follow rhetoric set forward by the Trump administration, then this is a dangerous time. The best tool he’s seen in his research for combating the influence of hate groups has been counter-mobilization and partnerships between community groups and the activist community.
“Communities in the past that allowed hate groups to exist in their midst unchallenged have not only led to further acts of terror and intimidation perpetrated by those groups but also have suffered as communities,” Cunningham said. “What you see over time is that it delegitimizes authority oftentimes, it breaks down social fabric and it destabilizes a community’s ability to act together and have any solidarity in terms of moving forward. Counter-mobilization is a way to take a strong stand about what is valued and tolerated in a community.”
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