Trading White Sheets For Pinstripes

  • A cross set aflame by men in white sheets is surely ter- rifying. But here's something possibly scarier: an Internet- connected, media-savvy gang of racists who cloak their members in suits and their rhetoric in mainstream politics. In 1999 which really sounds worse--a white supremacist with a club or one wielding a law degree?

    The question isn't academic. In the 1990s hate has grown up and logged on. The Ku Klux Klan doesn't use the term cross burnings anymore; it prefers "sacred cross lightings." Klansmen have waged more legal war than race war in the past few years, trying (mostly in vain) to persuade local judges to let them Adopt-a-Highway. "If somebody comes up with a bottle of Jack Daniel's in one hand and a shotgun in the other and says, 'Let's go kill 'em all,' I say, 'You're not for our group,'" says Jeff Coleman, grand wizard of the Royal Knights of the K.K.K. "We're just trying to serve the community."

    That sort of p.r. is helping reverse years of declining membership. It is about 5,000 today, in contrast to a high of 5 million in the 1920s. But the Klan added 36 new chapters last year, for a total of 163, according to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Klanwatch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Similarly, the neo-Nazi National Alliance--headed by William Pierce, author of the race-war fantasy The Turner Diaries--grew by 13 chapters in 1998, to 35 in all.

    Even hipper among the haterati are the nonorganizations, especially Internet hate sites (there were 254 last year, up 55%) and local cells, small bands of racists without time-consuming newsletters or top-heavy structures. These cells' guerrilla hate campaigns are virtually impossible to monitor. "There is a whole philosophy of leaderless resistance, and that is making it more difficult for us to track them," says Ray Velboom of Florida's department of law enforcement. John William King and his alleged accomplices in Jasper, Texas, can be seen as an example of followers whose behavior may never be traced back to any organizer.

    Why is malevolence booming? Like any other faltering old enterprise that has reinvigorated itself, hate has learned to sell itself better. "Instead of saying, 'The dirty Mexicans are stealing our jobs,' they say, 'We are overwhelmed by immigration,'" notes Mark Potok of Klanwatch. "They are learning to use issues that have real resurgence among white Americans." Many white supremacists have moved into antigovernment "patriot" groups that (publicly, at least) attack gun control instead of blacks and Jews. Y2K fears and the spread of the Christian Identity movement, which counts whites as the chosen people, have also helped growth.

    It's important to mention that less than 5% of crimes motivated by bias are committed by organized groups. But those groups are cheerily spreading a message of antipathy that can inspire acts of violence. Hate is not a passive emotion. And when people act on it, they should be punished.

    But should they be punished for simply thinking hateful thoughts? Consider the case of Matthew Hale of the World Church of the Creator. He's the racist who can be seen on TV complaining about the Illinois state bar panel's decision not to admit him because of his white-supremacist views. The panel's denial has created a tidy First Amendment case, one that Alan Dershowitz may take. And the Rev. Hale, as he likes to be called, has flaunted his victimhood on TV for weeks. "I do feel I've already made a difference," he told TIME. "I'm bringing the news of my religion."

    The "news" is standard racist blather. But Hale has been a terrific messenger--young (he's 27), well spoken, clean-cut. He has a law degree, plays Tchaikovsky on his violin and still lives with his dad, a retired cop, in East Peoria, Ill. His opinion on Jasper manages to convey a racist calculation of humanity without using any hot-button words: "From any standpoint," he says, "killing nonwhites is detrimental to our cause and to our movement. If you look at what happened in Jasper, we see three white men's lives ruined and one black killed. Simple arithmetic doesn't urge that kind of course to be followed."

    It's likely that the panel's rejection of Hale has made him more powerful than he would otherwise have been. Even the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith wants the bar panel to admit him. "Our involvement is purely on the principle, and in this case Hale's right to spew his venom as he chooses," says league regional director Richard Hirschhaut.

    That suggests a better way to deal with the hate that has newly infected the country: monitor the racists, but don't make them martyrs. Says Hirschhaut: "If history is any judge, this bigot, like so many others, will one day hoist himself upon his own petard."