After 250 years of slavery, a century of Jim Crow laws, and a legacy of racial terror that includes the lynching of thousands of African Americans, America has elected a black president. It was a day that many thought would never come.
In all the euphoria after the election of Barack Obama, it is tempting to see the era of overt racism in the United States as past, a dead letter that has no relevance in a country that has finally overcome its ugly history. But sadly, that would be a mistake. Obama's election reflects the fact that the country has made enormous progress in the area of race relations and is likely to propel it to even greater heights. But progress is never a straight line. There is always the danger of a backlash.
Even before the campaign was over, racial rage, clearly driven by fear of a black man in the White House, began to break out around the country. Effigies of Obama appeared hanging from nooses on university campuses. Angry supporters of John McCain and Sarah Palin shouted "Kill him!" at a campaign rally and even screamed "nigger" at a black cameraman, telling him, "Sit down, boy!" The head of the Hillsborough County, Fla., Republican Party sent an E-mail warning members of "the threat" of "carloads of black Obama supporters coming from the inner city to cast their votes." A reporter who has covered every presidential election since 1980 told me he had never seen such fury. Similar scenes were reported nationwide.
Naturally, the rage also engulfed the radical right. Thom Robb, an Arkansas Klan leader, described for a reporter the "race war" he sees developing "between our people, who I see as the rightful owners and leaders of this great country, and their people, the blacks." In Tennessee, two neo-Nazi skinheads went further, allegedly planning to murder black schoolchildren, shoot and behead other African Americans, and assassinate Obama. They were arrested two weeks before the election.
A healthy majority of Americans did vote to send Obama to the Oval Office. But, clearly, there are people -- perhaps millions of them -- who are deeply upset over his victory for reasons that are fundamentally racial. And their anger is likely to intensify as the economy, especially unemployment, continues to worsen.
"Historically, when times get tough in our nation, that's how movements like ours gain a foothold," Jeff Schoep, the leader of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group with 73 chapters in 34 states, told USA Today. "When the economy suffers, people are looking for answers. ... We are the answer for white people."
Unfortunately, Schoep is right. And the economic meltdown set in motion by the subprime crisis is not the only reason. Indeed, there seems to be a kind of perfect storm brewing of factors favoring the growth of hate and hate groups.
Non-white immigration has been successfully exploited by white supremacist groups in recent years, to the point where the number of such groups has spiraled from 602 in 2000 to 888 last year -- a 48% increase. ("This immigrant thing in the past couple of years has been the greatest boon to us," Schoep said.) And nativist fears have not been limited to extremist groups; politicians and pundits routinely vilify Latino immigrants in public forums. That is likely to continue or worsen as the economy raises new fears among Americans of job loss and wage depression.
At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that whites will lose their national majority by shortly after 2040, leading many to fear that they are somehow losing the country that their forefathers built to both Latino immigration and the comparatively high fertility of our native Latino populations.
And now, a black man has been chosen as America's president.
David Duke, the former Klan leader and convicted felon who is the closest thing the radical right has to an intellectual leader these days, believes this could all work to his benefit. In an essay this summer, the neo-Nazi ideologue argued that an Obama victory would serve as a "visual aid" to white Americans, provoking a backlash that Duke believes will "result in a dramatic increase in our ranks."
Even as we embark on a new national adventure, the signs are worrying. It may be that the hatemongers are wrong, that Americans' better angels will prevail and the changes that are sweeping America will not result in a growing rage on the right. But experience tells us that while we hope for the best, we also must prepare for what could be a dangerous, racially motivated backlash of hate.