The leader of the modern-day version of the White Citizens Councils ropes Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott into speaking to his group's national convention, later meeting privately with Lott in the nation's capital.

Academic scientists gather to trade views with a man they regard as a courageous intellectual giant, a tenured professor who in his spare time writes a fawning introduction to the anti-Semitic tome of former Klansman David Duke.

Ethnic societies in Cleveland and elsewhere come together to dance in lederhosen and cozy up to leaders of the neo-Nazi National Alliance.

The bully-boy imperial wizard of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan unblushingly describes himself as a white man's Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights crusader ready to stand up for the rights of his oppressed people.

These are the legitimizers of hate.

In a year that saw hate groups soar past the 500 mark, the most dangerous sign was not the rising number of jackbooted sieg-heilers or hooded cross-burners. It was not even the highly publicized slayings of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, and Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo.

Instead, it was the increasing number of reminders that hate-based ideology is being repackaged as an intellectualized version of white self-affirmation that seeks mainstream respectability.

A 'Mainstream' Group Spews Hate
The most important example may have been that of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC). Formed in 1985, the CCC counts some 15,000 members in at least 22 states — including 34 state legislators in Mississippi, its most developed power base.

While claiming not to be racist, the CCC — the reincarnation of the segregationist White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and 1960s — spews white supremacist propaganda in its publications and Web site.

One writer bemoans "the slimy brown mass of glop" the United States population is becoming; another celebrates a book that describes whites as the "creators" of civilization and blacks as its "destroyers."

The remarkable thing about the CCC is not that it parrots the racist positions of its forebear, which was known as "the white-collar Klan." It is that in spite of those positions, it has enjoyed the flirtations of prominent politicians like Lott, U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice and a host of other leaders.

After revelations about the true nature of the CCC came out late last year — fueled by the release of an Intelligence Project special report that is republished in this issue — many of these politicians scampered for cover. Barr declared he held no truck with the "ridiculous views" of the CCC.

Lott claimed he had "no firsthand knowledge" of the group, despite a long history of association with it. The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which once allowed the CCC to co-host a meeting, said it had barred the CCC because its leaders "are racists." The heads of both the Democratic and Republican parties denounced the group, and one Congressman sponsored a resolution condemning it.

The 'Stealth' Campaign of the Racists
But the criticism was far from unanimous.

Fordice, for one, stood staunchly by his friends in CCC, which has helped elect people to many posts in Mississippi. In Birmingham, Ala., City Councilman and CCC member Don MacDermott said the group was not racist, but "a conservative organization that tries to defend the Constitution." Around the country, dozens of politicians with links to the group have kept their silence, waiting for the media storm to pass.

The CCC initially reveled in the attention it received, boasting of the press interviews that its chief executive officer, Gordon Baum, was giving. But as the attention continued, Baum seemed to grow angrier, portraying himself as a victim of the left.

It now seems likely that most politicians will steer clear of the CCC in the future, whether or not they privately agree with its message. But the threat that the CCC's thinly veiled racism represents remains a very real one.

As we approach the next century, many racist individuals and groups no longer wear their attitudes on their sleeves. But that does not make them any less noxious. In fact, the "stealth" campaign being carried out by today's organized white supremacists poses new dangers and new challenges.

That is why, with race relations at one of its lowest ebbs since the 1970s, Americans must pay closer attention than ever to the racist undertones of haters who seek the cover of mainstream legitimacy.