September 20, 2005 -- The winds of Hurricane Katrina blew away the flimsy veil that long has shielded most Americans from the ugly reality of our nation's continuing problems with race, class and poverty. But the massive Gulf of Mexico storm even more decisively blasted away the claims of most on the racist right to be merely proud white people, hating no one and pursuing a peaceful struggle for dignity.
Across the radical right, the hurricane and its aftermath were used to depict blacks as savages, people who immediately turned to looting and worse the moment that the power of the state collapsed. Ignoring the fact that the violence came from a tiny minority of New Orleans residents, white supremacists and their fellow travelers reveled in the misery of black victims in ways that were sometimes astounding.
Jared Taylor, editor of American Renaissance magazine and a relatively cosmopolitan purveyor of race hate, described New Orleans as "Africa in our midst, that utterly alien Africa of roadside corpses, cruelty, and anarchy." Ultimately, Taylor concluded, "Blacks and whites are different. When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western Civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears."
From there, it went downhill. The comments oozing from the racist right gave one the unmistakable feeling of wading through sewage on flooded streets.
Blacks were described as "animalistic," "abominable savages," "Negro beasts" and worse. White supremacists posted hundreds of messages on the Internet expressing hopes that blacks in New Orleans would be wiped out, along with the "sodomites" who inhabit that "Southern Babylon." One suggested that "they pile up all the niggers and use them as human sand bags against the rising storm surge."
'Cartridges for Katrina'
Then there were the calls for fatal violence. An Arkansas-based neo-Nazi group called White Revolution boasted almost immediately of helping out by setting up a "whites-only" tent camp for refugees in Wiggins, Miss. (a claim that appears to be false). But the group, led by Billy Roper of Russellville, then went on to describe the second part of its so-called "White Kinsmen Rescue Project": "For those of you who stand your ground against the looters, White Revolution is offering our support through the Cartridges for Katrina program. For every black looter you shoot, and provide proof of a clean kill, White Revolution will provide reimbursement of all expended ammunition, at no cost. That's our guarantee, to you."
A similarly bloodthirsty rant came from Hal Turner, the rabidly racist shortwave host of "The Hal Turner Show." Turner, who has repeatedly advocated violence in recent months, claimed to have gone "down South," where he had "a killer of a time" and "personally scored 91, confirmed." "The first one was hard," Turner wrote, "wondering if I had done the right thing — even though he had the 'loot' — fearful about how I would explain what I had done to God."
Days later, Turner told his listeners that it was all a joke to confuse his enemies, that the "score" actually referred to a game. But for much of his audience, it was a joke only in that Turner didn't have the gumption to realize his own homicidal rhetoric.
Lying about racism
Some of the more eyebrow-raising comments came from groups that claim angrily not to be racist at all. The League of the South, a neo-Confederate group that says it wants to see blacks and whites "work for authentic harmony," started up a relief project for its own members without mentioning race. But right under the blurb on its Web site announcing the LS Katrina Relief Fund, the League carried ads from at least two members offering to share their homes — with whites only.
A particularly amazing statement came from Scott Morris, the Ohio leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Southern "heritage" group that claims not to be racist. In an e-mail that went to hundreds of SCV members, Morris said that black Katrina victims were "vile criminals" and "pestilent vermin," and warned that "these leeches will go on to pollute the communities [where] they're relocated."
Most Americans reacted with shock, horror and sympathy to the incredible devastation in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. But for the American radical right, it was just one more chance to unleash truly disgusting attacks on their fellow citizens. If nothing else, perhaps the winds of Katrina have served to remind the rest of us just how violently racist and bloody-minded white supremacists really are.
Mark Potok is director of the Center's Intelligence Project.