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White supremacists are ditching the Klan for khakis and memes, new study shows

The dramatic decline of KKK groups in the U.S. has coincided with the emergence of an internet-savvy movement.

by Tess Owen
Feb 21 2018, 7:42pm

It’s not cool to be Klan anymore, but white supremacy is alive and well in the growing “alt-right” movement that embraces a khaki-and-memes aesthetic, a new report shows.

A Year in Hate and Extremism,” by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, looked at white supremacists among a range of hate groups and their activities. The report counted just 72 Ku Klux Klan chapters nationwide in 2017, compared to 130 chapters the previous year. The dramatic decline of KKK groups in the U.S has coincided with the emergence of an emboldened, internet-savvy movement championed by angry young white men, often referred to as “the alt-right.”

SPLC Intelligence Project Director Heidi Beirich doesn’t think it’s a matter of Klan members gravitating to the newer white supremacist groups. Rather, Beirich thinks that the century-old Klan, once synonymous with white supremacy, just isn’t cool anymore in the white supremacist world.

“This clean-cut look with its fashy haircuts can’t relate to the Klan,” said Beirich on a press call Wednesday morning. “It’s extremely old-school and weird to them. They think that’s not what the image of white nationalism should be.”

“I think they’re [the Klan] collapsing,” said Beirich. “They showed up in Charlottesville [the violent rally last August], and they tried to glom onto the hipper part of the movement like Identity Evropa, Vanguard America, and the National Policy Institute. That’s where the action is.”

Under the sanitized umbrella term “alt-right”, new and existing white supremacist groups have thrived. The biggest increase in the white supremacist arena observed by the SPLC was among neo-Nazi groups: They numbered 121 in 2017, up from 99 the previous year, with Vanguard America gaining the most attention .

Overall, SPLC counted 954 active hate groups nationwide in 2017, up 4 percent from 917 the previous year. The number of hate groups tends to fluctuate from year to year. The 2017 figure has continued the upward trend observed since 2013, but it’s still fewer than the 1,018 hate groups counted in 2011.

Beirich attributes the uptick in hate group activity to the rhetoric coming out of the Oval Office, pointing to President Donald Trump’s equivocation between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, the times he’s shared alt-right memes on Twitter, and his characterizing of Haiti and African countries as “shithole” countries. “There has been a substantial emboldening of the radical right,” Beirich said. “And that’s largely due to the actions of President Trump.”

READ: A radical anti-immigration group infiltrated the GOP. Now it's in the White House.

You can see the emboldenment especially on college campuses, where aggressive fliering and recruitment efforts have made white nationalist groups like Identity Evropa are becoming more of a household name. According to the SPLC, Identity Evropa went from one chapter when it was founded in March 2016 to 15 chapters nationwide by the end of 2017. The Alabama-based civil rights group found that white nationalists dropped fliers on college campuses almost once a day in 2017. Identity Evropa was responsible for the lion’s share of those incidents, along with the neo-Nazi Vanguard America (which, like Identity Evropa, has focused its recruitment efforts on young, white men). Meanwhile, white nationalist “thought leaders” like Richard Spencer and Matthew Heimbach are currently on college tours, trying to spread their ideas and recruit more students.

It’s not clear whether these recruitment efforts are yielding results. “Some of the hate groups have claimed that the campaigns are working, but we can’t take those claims on their surface because hate groups are always trying to seem more powerful than they are,” said Beirich. “That said, we’ve found that some of the organizations that showed up in Charlottesville, like Identity Evropa and Vanguard America, have really young members from Generation Z, and I wonder if some of that is because of these aggressive recruitment efforts.”

The tectonic shifts in the white supremacist movement detailed in the report became especially apparent during the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia last August, which the alt-right calls “The Summer of Hate.” About 100 preppy white men marched across the University of Virginia’s campus wielding tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi slogan) on Aug. 11. The following day, they were joined by their swastika-tattooed counterparts for a “Unite the Right” rally, clashing violently with protesters in the streets of Charlottesville. A young man with alleged neo-Nazi sympathies rammed his vehicle into a crowd of protesters, sending bodies flying, killing 30-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding dozens more.

Up until that weekend, The Daily Stormer, a popular online hub for white supremacists run by neo-Nazi troll Andrew Anglin, had been enjoying a significant uptick in web traffic. According to the SPLC, the number of unique monthly page views went from 140,000 in 2016 to nearly 750,000 as of August. But the brazen display of white supremacy in Charlottesville spurred social media companies and web hosting services to action, to dismantle the structures that allowed such groups to organize, move money, recruit and spread their hateful ideologies. The Daily Stormer was forced to retreat into the dark web after being booted offline by multiple web hosts.

Read: This new mapping tool shows where neo-Nazi trolls live

Meanwhile, companies like PayPal also worked to sever ties with known white supremacists. As a result, white supremacists have increasingly turned to funding their activities through cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.

There was also a significant uptick in black nationalist groups, which make up about a fifth of the list of organizations deemed “hate groups” by the SPLC. Those groups, such as the Nation of Islam — which have earned the hate group label due to anti-LGBTQ, anti-Semitic, and anti-white views — rose by about 20 percent, from 192 to 233. The SPLC considers this growth “a reaction to rising white supremacy and Trump’s emboldening of racists.”

The SPLC also observed growth among nativist or anti-immigrant groups. In addition to the three major Beltway organizations — FAIR, NumbersUSA, and the Center for Immigration Studies, which are enjoying unprecedented access to the government — the number of anti-immigrant groups grew from 14 in 2016 to 22 in 2017. The symbiosis of immigration hard-liners and the policies of the Trump administration, according to SPLC, have energized the movement: Emboldened nativist groups ramped up their advocacy efforts, and dormant figures resurfaced, revitalized by Trump’s election,” SPLC wrote in their report.

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