It is Not the Economic Crisis,
The Department of Homeland Security Gets It Wrong, Again.
by Leonard Zeskind
Murder and mayhem motivated by white nationalist ideas never seem to end. In Brockton, Massachusetts in January, a 22-year old white man who lived with his mother and spent his time reading white power propaganda on the internet, allegedly killed two immigrants and raped a third before his racist murder spree ended in his capture by police. In Pittsburgh in April, 23-year Richard Poplawski, who had also spent his spare time on white nationalist internet sites, killed three police officers and was arrested after a prolonged gun battle. These were not the only violent incidents of their kind during 2009. In February in Richmond, California, for example, a black UPS truck driver was badly beaten by a group of seven white youths.
Now comes an "assessment" report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) entitled, "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." Among its key findings: "The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment." Further it argues that a prolonged economic downturn could "result in confrontations between such groups and governmental authorities."
Since the current downturn is already one of the longest in American post-war history, the DHS' contention needs a serious analysis. (The conservative squealing in anger at this report does not qualify as either serious or analysis.)
First let us look at the unemployment rate.
The unemployment rate for white men, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the month of February 2009, was 7.4%; for white women, it was 6.1%. These numbers are high, higher than they have been in decades. Still, they do not count white men and women who have stopped looking for work and are no longer considered part of the labor force. More, a significant swath of the white population suffers from the lack of health care. Many are on the verge of bankruptcy or have already lost their homes. Together, they feel the piercingly ill-effects of the current economic crisis.
For black men, the unemployment rate was 14.9%, almost twice as high as that of white men, as recorded in the same February report. For black women that number was 9.9%. Further, the percentage of the black population that is not considered as part of the labor force for one reason or the other (such as jail), is even higher. As a consequence, black people individually and black communities collectively have an even greater and desperate experience of the crisis. The sources of this disparity and the advantage that white people have in the job market are multiple: differences in educational opportunity and achievement, continuing and documented discrimination in hiring practices, proximity to jobs via public transport, etc.
In aggregate, these causes are rooted in racism--both historic and present day. Therefore it is not an exaggeration to say that the current economic crisis exacerbates the net effect of racism in our society. As the common sense aphorism puts it: when white people get the economic sniffles, black people catch pneumonia.
Now, let us look at the economy during the 1990s. Not because we want to compare the Clinton presidency to that of W Bush, but because we need to establish a set of baseline facts for the arguments to come. From 1991 to 2001, the economy experienced one of its longest periods of continuous expansion. Inequality grew, as the share of income garnered by the top one percent continued to grow at the expense of those in the middle and at the bottom of the scale. Nevertheless, income levels generally grew and unemployment levels declined. Unemployment levels for black workers, which had risen during the early 1990s, dropped to 10.4% n 1995, according to the Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract of 1999. Unemployment levels for white workers fell similarly to 4.9%in 1995--the year Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building. By 1998, the rate of unemployment for whites fell to 3.9%, considerably less than the recessionary rates that exist now in 2009.
This period of relative prosperity for middle class white people in the mid-1990s was also marked by extremely high levels of white nationalist activity, which I have described more fully my book, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (www.bloodandpolitics.com). Among the organized criminal white power types, the Aryan Republican Army robbed 22 banks in the Midwest between 1994 and 1995. Three people in Oklahoma plotted to bomb gay bars and civil rights groups, in addition to the aforementioned federal building horror. In Arizona, twelve militiamen were charged in a bomb plot, and in Georgia another three were arrested in a different plot. A gang calling themselves the Aryan Peoples Republic robbed a gun dealer in Arkansas, came back a year later and murdered him and his wife and little girl, kidnapped others, killed an erstwhile comrade, and shot it out with the police. In Washington State a group known as the Phineas Priesthood bombed the local newspaper, a Planned Parenthood clinic and robbed banks. And in more than another dozen instances not mentioned here, killings, shootings, bombings and plots by racists and anti-Semites added to the count.
By comparison, the level of violence by white nationalists in the current period is much smaller, as noted above. Shootings, bombings and killings by white nationalists continue to plague many communities, and in many instances the victims have been randomly selected immigrants. It is worth noting in this regard that think-tanks, lobbyists, and Minuteman-styled militias have carried on anti-immigrant activity at a feverish pace. In addition to the Brockton and Pittsburgh murders described above, several members of the Sons of Dixie Klan in Louisiana last November were charged with murdering an Oklahoma woman who started to join their Klan but then tried to pull out in the middle of the initiation rite. Further, two white power skinheads were charged last Fall with conspiracy to assassinate Barack Obama. But the level of murder and mayhem in 2008 was generally such that the ADL--which is not prone to downplay the issue--reported that "extremist-related killings [were] down in 2008."
By this standard, the Department of Homeland Security's general argument that an economic crisis leads directly to increased "rightwing extremist" violence does not hold up to the data at hand. More, there are very specific mistakes in the DHS assessment. It claims the "resurgence" of what it calls "rightwing extremism" in the 1990s was "fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to U.S. power and sovereignty by other foreign powers." This contention is wrong on its face. After January 1993, during the peak of the previous resurgence, unemployment was going down and incomes were rising, as described above.
When the DHS looks for an instance to confirm its analysis in the present, it cites the case of Richard Poplawski, the cop killer in Pittsburgh. But Poplawski became a member of the white nationalist website Stormfront in 2006, before the economy started going down and before the election of Barack Obama.
The errors in the DHS assessment, and there are more than just those noted here, are common mistakes of analysis. The DHS construct of "rightwing extremism," among other faults, fails to delineate between white nationalists likely to engage in organized violence and the mainstreaming activity of the electioneering types. A similar mistake was made by the Missouri Information and Analysis Center in its report on the militia (see www.LeonardZeskind.com Fortnight No. 14).
This author does not believe that white nationalist activity has declined in the current period. Indeed, the election of Barack Obama--along with the loss of the white monopoly on political power, the approaching demographic transformation of the majority status of white people into a minority among minorities, and the prevalence of notions that the United States is or should be a white Christian nation--promise significant battles now and in the near future. To win this contest for the future, we will need an analytical framework stronger than the Department of Homeland Security's terrorism threat assessment. Stay tuned for further installments in this discussion.