January 12, 2009

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We've been reporting steadily on the drumbeat of post-election racial hate that's being stirred up by the far racist right, particularly revolving around the election of Barack Obama. The most recent incident was the post-election assaults in New York by three teens who went looking for blacks to beat up in revenge for Obama's victory.

It's important to understand that -- just as with most hate crimes -- there isn't necessarily a direct connection between the hate groups that promote such violence and the thuggery itself. (In fact, only about 8% of all bias crimes are committed by members of recognizable hate groups.) What these crimes indicate instead is the larger spread of their toxic beliefs into the mainstream, and thus how their influence is belied by their numbers.

There was a noteworthy piece on this yesterday in the Washington Post:

Now, as McIntyre prepares to retire from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, he and other analysts are warning that the threat from hate groups and splinter organizations connected to the Klan should not be underestimated, especially at a time of economic unrest.

"In society, you have a very small number of people who are going to push the envelope and take it to the next step," said McIntyre, the resident ATF agent in charge in Roanoke.

Veteran investigators say they have advocated for increased attention to the problem since late September, when the nation's economic troubles widened, giving white supremacists a potent new source of discontent to exploit among potential recruits.

The number of U.S. hate groups has increased by 48 percent, to 888, since 2000, according to experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an independent organization that monitors racist movements.

Although questions persist about the ability of such groups to carry out violent plans, several recent national developments have combined to worry analysts, said Mark Potok, chief of the law center's Intelligence Project. In addition to the economic downturn, he cited rising immigration, demographic changes that predict whites will not be a majority within a few decades, and what some might see as "the final insult -- a black man in the White House."

These warnings are almost certainly going to prove prescient in the coming years, in part because of a component that's missing from this report: namely, the significant demographic shift that has occurred in the United States in the past decade, particularly in areas that tended previously to be predominantly white.

In fact, the focus on economic downturns is slightly misleading, because there's no real data to substantively connect hard financial times with an increase in racist activity, particularly as they are embodied by hate crimes.

What researchers have found instead is that bad economic conditions can amplify interethnic tensions when they have already been created by shifts in demographics -- particularly the influx of a readily identifiable ethnic subgroup into an area that has long been predominated by a single large ethnic bloc.

I explain this in more detail in Death on the Fourth of July:

These kinds of demographic shifts, as it happens, often become the primary breeding grounds for hate crimes -- even in decidedly non-rural settings. A study published by [Yale University political scientist] Donald Green in 1998 focused on New York City, and it found that demographic change in 140 community districts of the city between 1980 and 1990 predicted the incidence of hate crimes. The balance of whites and whatever the target group happened to be in a given community district was an important factor, but the rate at which that balance changed was perhaps even more significant. The most common statistical recipe was an area that was almost purely white in the past which experiences the sudden and noticeable immigration of some other group.

In the case of New York, what occurred was a rapid inmigration of three groups: Asians, Latinos and blacks, though in the latter case the migration was often a response to the other groups' arrival; blacks were in some ways moved around, or their neighborhood boundaries changed. A number of previously white areas—Bensonhurst being the classic case, or Howard Beach -- experienced a rapid inmigration of various nonwhite groups. What was particularly revealing about the hate-crime pattern was that the crimes reflected the targets who were actually moving in -- that is, they revealed that this was not a kind of generalized hatred. Where Asians moved in, the researchers found a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes, and likewise with Latinos or blacks. Bias crime has more of a kind of reality-based component, at least in the aggregate, than is implicated by those psychological theories that suggest that there only exists a generalized sense of intolerance on the part of those who practice extreme forms of bigotry.

In a later study, Green found this trend replicated itself elsewhere -- namely, in Germany after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s. In that case, there was rapid inmigration of immigrants into formerly homogeneous eastern Germany, which replicated the conditions in New York as the perfect recipe for bias crime. And indeed, there was a huge surge in hate crimes, which only slowed when the flow of immigrants was halted in the summer of 1993.

In any event, those conditions certainly can be found across a broad swath of the American landscape, which has seen a significant influx of Latino immigrants into formerly all-white areas of the Midwest, the South, and the West.

In other words, hate groups are almost certainly going to be exploiting fresh opportunities for recruitment, both ideological and actual. The stage has been set by the past decade's demographic shift, but the Bush Recession will in any event give them a big jug of gasoline for their bonfire. Obama's election will give them a figure upon whom they can focus their hate, and the immigration debate will give them an issue to recruit and organize around.

How to deal with it? The first step entails realizing that hate speech is in fact protected free speech -- but that we don't have to take it quietly. Moreover, it will always be smoke for law enforcement to begin sniffing out the fires. As the WaPo piece observes at its conclusion:

The trick for investigators, the ATF's Cavanaugh said, is separating hateful words from impending violence. "They all hate, they all go to rallies, but for the most part, most of them will not go out and plant a bomb or shoot," he said. "Maybe four or five out of 100 will go out and do that. The hard part for us is to sort out the free speech and find the person who's really going to make a bomb or shoot someone."

Those, of course, are the limits for law enforcement. Citizens, however, are not constrained from doing their part when it comes to the eruption of hate speech: indeed, if they're serious about combating it, they will stand up to it. This entails holding the speakers and their words up for public repudiation, both in the press and among the general public.

Because ignoring it doesn't work. Haters always interpret silence as implicit support. And besides, standing up to haters can actually be fun.

In the coming weeks and months, we may find it even more necessary than we'd like to think.

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