The phrase “white supremacy” likely conjures up images of groups in white robes with pointed hats, committing acts of violence or otherwise overtly disturbing the lives of marginalized groups.
However, not all white supremacists are so easily detectable; some are donning suits as they work in powerful positions throughout America. Hate groups in general have a propensity for hiding in plain sight while they recruit members and propagate harmful rhetoric.
Although certain hate groups target particular marginalized people, their prejudice is often built upon white supremacy and extends to members of many marginalized groups, such as Black Americans, LGBTQ people and Jewish Americans.
As hate crimes have increased in recent years, the need to identify hate groups is perhaps more pressing than ever.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies and Numbers USA are all examples of anti-immigrant hate groups dubbed with benign names, according to the department head of the University of Tennessee sociology department and critical race scholar Stephanie Bohon.
Numbers USA draws unassuming Americans in through its social media campaigns and videos which, using gumballs as metaphors for populations, present themselves as civil lectures rather than propaganda, Bohon explained.
“It’s really insidious, and this is intentional, and this is how hate groups operate,” Bohon said.
Additionally, prominent figures with ties to anti-immigrant or other hate groups have held positions of power in unassuming organizations. Virginia Abernethy, a former Vanderbilt Professor, was previously Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal Population and Environment but also sat on the board for The Occidental Quarterly, an established white supremacist publication, Bohon said.
As such, Abernethy leveraged her position as Population and Environment’s editor to covertly incorporate pieces pushing an anti-immigrant narrative, such as an article discussing a large growth in the Latinx population and linking such to environmental concerns.
In another instance, Bohon explained, wealthy and white supremacist John Tanton held connections to the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood but also created the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and Numbers USA. Media outlets played a role in legitimizing these hate groups by referring to them as sources, although this has decreased in recent years, Bohon said.
Whenever a seat opened up on the Sierra Club’s board of directors, Tanton would attempt to stack the board with other anti-immigrant personnel, with the hope that the Sierra Club would release a statement claiming that immigration is detrimental to the environment, Bohon said.
Bohon cited these examples as evidence that a racist does not always appear in stereotypical fashion.
“We have this folk theory of racism that people who are racist are backwards or ignorant or uneducated,” Bohon said. “These people are very smart, very slick, very well-connected. They know what they’re doing, they know how to get a message across, they know what people will buy or not buy. They wrap this up really pretty.”
President Donald Trump has also made anti-immigrant remarks, such as referring to Mexicans as “drug dealers, criminals and rapists” and did not condemn white supremacy when asked to do so at the first 2020 presidential debate. Trump instead said “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” a statement that could have been interpreted as a call to arms for the white supremacist group.
UT sociology professor Jon Shefner explained that Trump’s language has altered what some view as permissible speech.
“The kind of violence and hate-filled language that the current president has used against immigrants kind of took the gloves off what seemed to be acceptable or is not totally acceptable,” Shefner said.
Trump’s rhetoric likely emboldened hate groups, Shefner said.
“I don't think it’s an accident that immediately after his election, a whole series of white hate groups were extremely integrated,”Shefner said, “and this has continued throughout the past four years.”
Hate groups were also active during the Obama administration, as President Barack Obama himself was the victim of anti-immigrant and nativist rhetoric. Conspiracy theorists, including Trump according to The New York Times, propagated the claim that Obama was born in Kenya, had a falsified birth certificate and was thus ineligible to be president of the United States. As the first and only Black president, Obama was also the target of racist speech.
Although it may be difficult for most to detect when hateful rhetoric infiltrates mainstream culture, it makes itself clear to those looking for it, Bohon said.
“These kind of dog whistles are all around us, and the idea is to have these messages out to the people who know what the messages are and when to hear them,” Bohon said.
Citizens must be able to recognize these hate groups in order to prevent them from growing.
“Educating people so that they’re aware, that’s a good first step, and then being really vigilant,” Bohon said.
The ability to recognize hate groups when they exist is necessary to prevent hate violence, as such groups’ actions far exceed the verbal targeting mentioned above.
In 2019, an anti-immigrant and white supremacist shooter killed 23 people and injured 23 more at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The shooter had posted a manifesto online, which explained that he was targeting Hispanic people, Mexicans and immigrants in response to a “Hispanic invasion.”
Overall, the number of American hate groups has been rising. In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 892 hate groups throughout the country. In 2019, it tracked 940 nationwide, with 38 located in Tennessee. In Knoxville in particular, SPLC tracked hate groups Act for America, All Scripture Baptist Church, League of the South, Legion of St. Ambrose and Shield Wall Network in 2019.
The Knoxville community is no stranger to hate speech. Over the last few years, the Rock on UT’s campus has been painted multiple times with anti-Semitic speech and symbols of Nazi propaganda, including an incident that took place last month. In 2018, a flyer with anti-Semitic symbols was placed on a rabbi’s car at a local temple.
Nationwide anti-Semitism has been on the rise as well; in 2018, a white supremacist gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11 and injuring six with an AR-15 rifle.
The internet has played a role in the growth of hate groups of all kinds, whose traditional, geographically spread-out membership of small pockets is now more connected than ever before, Shefner said. Nefarious online sites, including those only accessible through the dark web, connect white supremacists and members of general hate groups with one another.
“They’ve really taken advantage of the new technological resources in such a way that their reach is much farther,” Shefner said. “They can represent themselves as more rational and not defined by hate and bring people in that way, but others certainly still are absolutely set on presenting a hate-filled front and are not interested in any kind of facade.”
Hate groups also recruit new members online, preying on those who have some sense of disenfranchisement. In general, Shefner said, such groups attract new members by blaming other, marginalized groups for general or economic loss.
“That, I think, pulls in people who are feeling disenfranchised in various ways,”Shefner said, “who are being told that whatever seeming loss of their power — whether they think of their power as political or economic or cultural, whatever they interpret as their loss of power — is due to immigrants, Black (people), Jew(ish people) and others, and including women.”
Hate groups’ extensive but dangerous breadths of power are not only hidden in plain sight but also maintained by the American status quo.
Such groups are often upheld by governmental institutions, UT assistant sociology professor Tyler Wall explained, citing a long history of connections between the police and racial violence. This further complicates the already elusive nature of hate groups.
The slave patrol, which operated to maintain slavery and prevent slave revolts, was one of the first policing presences in America. Police have historical ties to the Ku Klux Klan, and members of white supremacist groups have infiltrated police forces throughout American history.
Additionally, in the past, police have participated in lynchings or controlled traffic at lynchings, actions that emboldened citizens to take the law into their own hands through hate crimes, Wall said.
“Can you really rely on the police to police these hate groups when there’s been such a historical affinity between them?” Wall said. “In terms of policing, I think we need to start building alternatives to policing.”
Police sometimes still embolden citizens attempting to take the law into their own hands; for example, in August, video footage captured police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, thanking and giving water to citizens who arrived armed to protect local businesses at a protest against police brutality. One such citizen, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, went on to kill two protestors and injure another later that evening with an AR-15 style rifle. Rittenhouse is currently awaiting trial.
Additionally, Wall explained that people of color and those from impoverished communities are disproportionately represented in police data and in the criminal justice system, indicating a racial disparity in the way citizens are treated. As long as police exist to maintain the status quo, Wall said, they are upholding a racist system.
“What that really means is that they’re maintaining an order of inequality,” Wall said. “They’re maintaining an order of racism, of white supremacy, of exploitation and oppression, so policing as an institution in the United States has a long history of upholding racial hierarchy and racial inequality. That’s not particularly controversial, and we know this.”
In 2018, Matthew Heimbach, co-founder of the white supremacist group the Traditionalist Worker Party, held an event at UT, although former UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport stated that the group was not invited to campus.
Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the meeting and were met with many police officers armed with riot gear, Wall, who attended the protest, said. Wall and some of his students were surprised that police seemed more concerned with protestors, rather than the overt white supremacist group holding an event at a public university.
“The police were all aimed at us, and I saw a lot of people being upset at that,” Wall said.
Other institutions have played a role in upholding anti-immigrant rhetoric, such as the U.S. Border Patrol, whose employees were caught referring to immigrants with a slur, onomatopoeia for the sound a flashlight makes when it hits a head, Bohon explained.
“Either certain kinds of people are attracted to these jobs, or -- and I don’t think it’s either-or, I think it might be both -- you get into a culture where these kinds of ideas, this kind of dehumanization of people develops and is maintained,” Bohon said.
When governmental organizations such as the police or Border Patrol perpetuate hate speech or action, the work of hate groups is normalized.
In order to prevent the spread of hate groups, citizens must focus on maintaining civil discourse, Shefner said, a goal that could be helped by a change in presidential administration.
“When you are governed by a person who thinks that the epitome of argumentation is name calling, I don’t think that does us any good as we think about the possibilities of how to talk to each other better,” Shefner said. “I think that a new administration in its kind of bearing or its appearance could make things better. I think what’s really going to have to happen to change things is a changed public policy which diminishes inequality.”
Shefner added that citizens should not ignore hate speech when they hear it occurring.
“I think it’s important to speak out when we are hearing things,” Shefner said. “I think it’s important to speak out when we hear people say things that we think may not be serious but have serious implications and impacts.”