Since President Obama took office, fringe right-wing groups have pushed an agenda that is infected with White nationalism and violent rhetoric. ESSENCE spent six months infiltrating their secret conferences and backroom meetings to go inside this frightening movement that has widened both the racial and political gap in America.
It's June, two months after the Cumberland River flash floods tore through Nashville, and the local hotels still feel like ghost towns. The Grand Ole Opry and equally famous Gaylord Opryland Hotel, damaged during the punishing storms, remain closed. The Radisson, however, is high and dry, housing 100-odd guests from Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, the Carolinas and elsewhere. At first glance this all-White gathering could be for a trade show or the Rotary Club. They're average folks: retired lawyers and professors, ministers, housewives, business managers. Any of them could be your neighbor, until you take a closer listen. "USA Today reported more interracial marriages than ever," laments one audience member. "It's ethnic cleansing!" shouts another. They've all come here for the 2010 convention of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC), a White Nationalist nonprofit opposed to race mixing, non-European immigration and hate crime legislation. The organizers kept the conference location fiercely secret from the media, mainly because months earlier keynote speaker Jared Taylor was forced to cancel a program on the "dangers of diversity" after antiracists pressured four D.C.-area hotels. Today, a who's who of White Pride luminaries mingles among a crowd of Neo-Confederates, Separatists, Patriots, Constitutionalists and even an elderly woman in a sweatshirt that reads, SECEDE. As a White journalist hired by ESSENCE to tell this story, I'm able to mingle with them. I discovered they have widely varying agendas, but two things clearly unite the majority: unyielding loyalty to their race and a hatred for President Obama. In his keynote Taylor, who believes Whites on average are genetically smarter than Blacks, rails against multiculturalism. He reserves special ire for Hispanic immigrants, rhetorically asking, "Are you telling me the country my ancestors built was a dung heap until you lot showed up?" Taylor calls himself a "race realist," someone who prefers the company of his own race, to the point of separatism. "We deplore everything leading to the eventual obliteration of our people," he says. "When we talk about taking the country back, the America we want to 'take back' is from the 1950's, when Whites were 90 percent of the population, and no one dreamed we would become a minority in fewer than 100 years." This is the outcry of the fringe radical Right. It's shouted at private conventions and meetings and spread via the Web. Now the same sentiment has made its way into conservative grassroots movements for which small government and sealed borders are imperative. It's an agenda born of fear -- fear that the future of our nation may no longer belong to Whites. Devotees will tell you they're not racist -- "If Clarence Thomas was the candidate, some of us would have voted for him," says CofCC CEO Gordon Baum. But Obama's historic victory, combined with a White population expected to shrink to less than half the country by 2050, has forced the group's members to confront realities of race in ways they never have before. Anxiety about race continues to plague many Americans, as evidenced by vitriolic town hall meetings where once hidden bigotry is now publicly expressed. So what's changed? Since President Obama took office, pundits, politicians and protestors have vilified him as an "other," a foreigner, Muslim, Commie, Hitler, Islamic terrorist, witch doctor, monkey and even "a racist," as Fox News host Glenn Beck so infamously declared and later retracted. Even though President George W. Bush was also disparaged, whoever inherited 2008's eviscerated economy and terrifying levels of unemployment was bound to suffer blame. "It takes on a special resonance with a Black president in a bad economy," says John Avlon, author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America." "It's much worse with Obama, based on much less." "Racism is part of the United States of America," says Leonard Zeskind, an expert on White Nationalism and president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, which recently released the most extensive study thus far of the evolution of the national Tea Party movement, which racist groups are trying to infiltrate. "You don't have to be a jackass to be a racist. You can be a regular guy." The new, soft-pedaled tactic of the fringe is particularly insidious. It allows members to blend in with more mainstream groups, like the Tea Party, which is angling to play a key role in the midterm elections and beyond. "Unequivocally what was once radically charged rhetoric is now just conversation on the news," says David Glawe, chief of the FBI's Domestic Terrorism Operations Unit. "It makes extreme behavior seem closer to the norm." NO SKINHEADS ALLOWED At the CofCC convention, speaker after speaker hammers the triumphs of the White race. They sound nothing like the stereotypical tattooed skinheads or white-hooded malcontents of traditional hate groups. Instead of calls to violence, Charity and Shelby, blond teenage sisters otherwise known as Heritage Connection, serenade the crowd with ballads of Aryan warriors. Their mother, Rachel Pendergraft, a spokes-woman for the Knights of the KKK, beams proudly. "We wrote this song [C.H.A.N.G.E.] after the election," one sister explains. "The title stands for 'Come Help a Negro Get Elected.' First time we played it, people thought it was the funniest thing ever!" Another speaker, Louis March, who was once an aide to the late conservative Senator Jesse Helms, encourages Whites to procreate to secure a White-centric world. "Mainstream middle America Whites are catching up to you and I," he says. "The prospects for winning Whites to whiteness have never been greater!" By focusing on White alienation, White power advocates hope to mobilize supporters and win recruits, eventually resulting in electoral success. True believers spread the word on Facebook and Twitter, the same social networks that helped put President Obama in office. Don Black, a former Klan wizard, is deemed the first to recognize the Internet's potential to spread his message. Married to David Duke's ex-wife, Black was shot in the chest over KKK infighting and served time in federal prison for plotting to overthrow the government of the Caribbean island nation of Dominica. In 1996 he quit the Klan and launched stormfront.org, the Web's most active White Nationalist site. Along with gun talk (why are non-Whites allowed to own them) and photos of White women earmarked as Aryan beauties, Stormfront forums also offer strategies on how to successfully crash the Tea Party movement. Don't hand out KKK flyers, cautions one post, comparing the seduction to a drug dealer trying to persuade high school kids to try heroin. "Better to use a gateway drug," the post suggests, like providing an address of a "race-conscious" site to pull them in slowly. The KKK -- and there's not one Klan; any group can use the name -- while losing both relevance and supporters over the years, now mostly consists of law-abiding, family-oriented folks, or so says Pendergraft. The modern-day Klan suggests that hiding beneath bed sheets is pass, despite a noticeable emphasis on anonymity in The Crusader, the Knights' newspaper. One issue advertises an informational DVD that police officers can order anonymously. Another ad encourages members to volunteer for the Democrat and Republican parties: "Then keep your Klan affiliation private.... You can gain tremendous influence and make inroads that could help our cause. Think about it and keep us informed in your activity report form." These new efforts are have the potential to make inroads with average Americans, Tea Party members included. A 2010 poll by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality found that, compared with non-members, Tea Party supporters were 25 percent more likely to be "racially resentful" and less likely to believe African-Americans are intelligent, hardworking or trustworthy. RINO HUNTING DOWN SOUTH On a warm Friday night in Greenville, South Carolina, the parking lot of a supersize Denny's is jam-packed. Inside the dining area is empty, but in a large back room, a group known as RINO Hunt -- "Republican In Name Only" -- is planning an ultraconservative sectarian battle. Befitting the group's "my way or the highway" political mind-set, its founder, Harry Kibler, a 43-year-old fitness club corporate manager, drives a pickup with a toilet bolted on back. A mannequin stuck headfirst in the commode indicates the impending fate of Republicans who don't march in step with the GOP platform. RINO Hunt helped flush 12-year incumbent GOP representative Bob Inglis out of Washington, D.C. Inglis said he lost for refusing to bash President Obama, but RINOs say he simply quit doing his constituents' bidding. At this meeting, snowy-haired RINO Hunt members are listening in on a side conversation with Roan Garcia-Quintana, a political consultant who served in the Reagan administration and helped organize a Tea Party event in Greenville. Garcia-Quintana calls himself "a Confederate-Cuban, born in Havana, raised in Savannah," and emphasizes his parents' apparent direct lineage to Spain. He's discussing the incident concerning Shirley Sherrod, the former Georgia state director of rural development at the USDA, brought on by right-wing provocateur and blogger Andrew Breitbart. By now, most people know Breitbart posted a video of Sherrod that initially appeared to paint her as a racist. (He has since said that the version he received from a source had already been edited.) Immediately the NAACP and White House denounced her. The truth came out within a day, but not before Sherrod was asked to resign amid hate messages in e-mails and phone calls. "What Breitbart did with that video was beautiful!" Garcia-Quintana enthuses. "He brought down Fox News, the NAACP and the White House. There are no rules in politics. I learned that from Lee Atwater, who learned it from Nixon." As for Sherrod, he says dismissively, "She was collateral damage." HOPE TURNS TO HATE Gracie Floyd knows more than she cares to about collateral damage. Floyd is the sole African-American sitting on the county council in Anderson, South Carolina, where WAIM radio talk-show host Rick Driver greets listeners with sentiments like, "Hate is an emotion, not a crime, folks." Callers especially love to jeer council members and Floyd is a favorite target. "The Tea Party became a vehicle for extremists to say everything building up inside, and we feel its presence on WAIM," claims Floyd. She worries that radical venom like this becomes legitimized when it isn't condemned. Although Anderson's mayor is Black, she believes a lot of good people are afraid to run for public office. "These loud voices have made good, intelligent people who supported Obama remain silent. If you don't quell the voices they get louder." By fostering fear and hate in people for the sake of bringing down a Black president, Wingnuts author Avlon warns, "We are giving cover, sometimes a sense of purpose, to the crazy among us." His point is, no one can predict what might prompt an unhinged soul to act out. And yet GOP Congresswoman Michele Bachmann expressed that America is turning into "a nation of slaves," while Sarah Palin told a beleaguered Dr. Laura Schlessinger (who shot a volley of the N-word on her radio show in August; and resigned soon after), "Don't retreat...reload!" Might this rhetoric be looked upon as a trigger? What's to stop someone like, say, White supremacist James W. von Brunn--who killed an African-American security guard in a shoot-out at the Holocaust Memorial last year--from taking these words literally? Most members of the CofCC and like-minded groups claim not to "hate" anyone. They don't mind if non-Whites celebrate their own race--as long as they do it somewhere else, preferably in another country. The chairman of the Indiana CofCC chapter, Matt Parrott, a 28-year-old business analyst, envisions dividing the United States proportionately, "ceding much of the Southwest to Mexico, the South to Black Americans, and large swaths of coastline for White liberals and their minority friends." Parrott claims there's plenty of room for every national identity, calling his plan, "Zionism for crackers." "I strive to keep an affirmative tone," Parrott argues, "but I don't have illusions about the seriousness of what we're presenting. We're demanding Black Americans stop receiving trillions in wealth transfers and that Mexican immigrants go back. They're not going to like that. While I believe every race and nation should be treated with dignity, feelings will be hurt. In this game of multicultural musical chairs, somebody's going to be left standing when the music stops." For now, White separatists may be too marginalized to make good on this threat, something not lost on Parrott, who concedes: "You can fit all the White advocates who are truly serious about 'taking America back' into one hotel conference room." Still, to ignore them or their agenda is risky and may allow localized racism to metastasize into a more perilous, widespread disease. "If you're angry that Obama is called Hitler," asserts Avlon, "you need to also condemn those people in the past who compared Bush to Hitler. Otherwise the cycle will never stop." Ours is a nation in transition, and change has always provoked ugly resistance. And still the enslaved won freedom, women won the right to vote, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. The future of Obama's presidency and the possibility of his winning a second term will surely continue to trigger resistance, just as the image of a commanding Black man in the White House will continue to anger White separatists. "African-Americans endured 250 years of slavery and then nearly a century of Jim Crow," reflects Mark Potok, intelligence project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Yet little more than 40 years later, tens of millions -- Black, White, Latino, Asian -- came together and voted for a Black man as President." That boundary has been crossed; we can never go back. Even kicking and screaming, America must move forward.