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Hatemongers Poised to Exploit Obama Election, Tough Economic Times

President Obama may have smashed the ultimate political barrier to African Americans, but his presidency and the deepening economic crisis are creating the perfect storm for white supremacists intent on swelling their ranks.

Updated: 01/29/2009

President Obama may have smashed the ultimate political barrier to African Americans, but his presidency and the deepening economic crisis are creating the perfect storm for white supremacists intent on swelling their ranks.

Racist extremists have been energized by Obama's election, hoping to exploit an Obama backlash among whites who resent having a black man in the White House.

Neo-Nazi David Duke says Obama will be a "visual aid" for angry white Americans and will provoke a backlash among relatively mainstream whites that will "result in a dramatic increase in [the] ranks" of extremists. Many other hate group leaders agree.

That backlash was evident in the aftermath of the election as scores of racially charged incidents — beatings, effigy burnings, racist graffiti, threats and intimidation — were reported across the country.

"There's a real fury out there in certain quarters," said Mark Potok, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project.

White supremacist groups boasted of a post-election surge of new members as well as overwhelming traffic to their websites. At least two hate groups — Stormfront and the Council of Conservative Citizens — said their websites crashed because of heavy traffic. Stormfront also claimed to have gained thousands of new members immediately after Obama was elected on Nov. 4. The League of the South, a neo-secessionist group, said it saw a surge in phone calls from potential members and that its web traffic increased sixfold.

Even before the election, racial rage began to break out across the country. Effigies of Obama appeared hanging from nooses on university campuses. And angry supporters of John McCain and Sarah Palin reportedly shouted "Kill him" and "terrorist" at a campaign rally. Racist graffiti targeting Obama abounded.

Law enforcement agencies say Obama has received more threats than any previous president-elect. Two suspected assassination plots already have been broken up — one involving two racist skinheads in Tennessee — and, just before Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, a Wisconsin man was arrested for threatening to kill Obama in an Internet posting. On Jan. 27, a Denver grand jury indicted a Colorado man who sent e-mails to the FBI's Washington office eight days before the inauguration, threatening to kill Obama within the next 48 hours and blow up a mall.

At the same time, the economic meltdown is helping to create the conditions in which racist extremist and militia groups typically thrive, often by scapegoating minorities and by stoking fear and division among those who are harmed by events beyond their control or understanding.

Neo-Nazi Jeff Schoep may have offered the clearest vision of how the economy can be exploited.

"Historically, when times get tough in our nation, that's how movements like ours gain a foothold," the leader of the National Socialist Movement told USA Today. "When the economy suffers, people are looking for answers. ... We are the answer for white people."

The Obama era comes after years in which white supremacists have successfully exploited the immigration debate — both providing racist propaganda that seeps into the popular culture and benefiting from the vilification of Latino immigrants. Mainly as a result of the bigotry and xenophobia surrounding the immigration debate, the number of hate groups operating in the United States has risen by nearly 50 percent — from 602 to 888 — since 2000.Now, these groups have begun to turn their attention to Obama — distributing racist propaganda, filling Internet message boards with threats and messages of hate, and, in some cases, taking more direct action against minorities. Here is a sampling of racial incidents reported in the wake of the election:

  • Police in Riverside County, California, said five attacks on minorities were likely related to the election and were believed to have been carried out by a local white supremacist gang.
  • In Shreveport, La., a black man wearing an Obama T-shirt was brutally beaten by a group of white men screaming "f--k Obama" and "n-----r president." The attack left the man with a broken nose, broken eye socket and broken tear duct, requiring multiple surgeries.
  • In Springfield, Mass., a black church was burned hours after the election was called for Obama. Authorities later arrested three white men.
  • In Staten Island, N.Y., a black teen was bloodied and bruised by two white teens who shouted "Obama" while pummeling him with a bat and pipe.
  • In Rexburg, Idaho, second- and third-graders on a school bus chanted "assassinate Obama."
  • In Torrance, Calif., swastikas and racial slurs were spray-painted on homes and cars of people who displayed Obama signs or bumper stickers.
  • In Milwaukee, a poster of Obama with a bullet going through his head was discovered in a police station.
  • In Maine, a sign at a convenience store invited customers to join a betting pool on when Obama would be assassinated. The sign said, "Let's hope we have a winner."