The contrast between the FBI’s hate crime data and the near hysterical reaction by some on the further reaches of the far-right to President Obama’s re-election have some scratching their heads.
To the surprise of many, US President Barack Obama was elected to a second term of office. For example: the wealthy and flamboyant developer Donald Trump called for a march on Washington and mentioned the possibility of revolution as a means of overturning the result. The treasurer of the Republican Party Peter Morrison, in Hardin County, Tex., called for secession following the Obama victory. Morrison wrote in his Newsletter, “We must contest every single inch of ground and delay every baby-murdering, tax raising socialists (sic) at every opportunity. But in due time, the maggots will have eaten every morsel of flesh off of the rotten corpse of the Republic, and therein lies our opportunity.” Some on the far right were farsighted. Before the balloting, a county judge in Lubbock Tex., Hon. Thomas Head, reported fearing a popular insurrection in the aftermath of an Obama victory.
Some of this was more than just talk. By November 15, a week after the electoral results became clear, the White House website had received petitions from all 50 states from citizens seeking to have their states withdraw from the Union. Led by the Lone Star State, with some 95,000 signatures, hundreds of thousands of voters were sufficiently distressed by the balloting that they raised an issue that presumably had been settled by the Civil War (1861-1865) a century and a half beforehand.
Nor was secession the only theme linking far and radical right reactions to Obama’s re-election. As reported by both the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL), for many neo-Nazis, Obama is less political opponent than horseman of the apocalypse. According to the ADL, one poster spoke for many fascists: “He is a Black, communist, muslim, racist against white, and friends with jews” – How much worse for white supremacists could it get? Comments on the leading neo-Nazi forum, Stormfront, were similarly apoplectic. Here are a few examples: “Gentlemen prepare to defend yourself! (sic)” and “I just feel sick inside. White folks need to stick together. We should secede!”
Yet however noxious, that rhetoric was to be expected. More troublingly, at the University of Mississippi, crowds of white and black students exchanged threats and curses when the vote was announced. Moreover, the MSN business website reported that the stocks of gun makers Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger soared in anticipation of increased sales. The highly regarded political psychologist Jerrold Post observed that most of these reactions were bluster but conceded that “throw enough ugly ideas into a pot and something is going to boil over.”
What should we make of these reactions to the Obama victory? The United States certainly has a long history of vigilantism, racial bigotry and, as the historian Richard Hofstadter noted several decades ago, a “paranoid style” on the far right of the political spectrum. Based on this historical record, we should anticipate a further growth in the size and number of what the SPLC calls “hate groups.” In fact, the SPLC calculated that there had been an explosion of “hate” and anti-government militia groups as the presidential election approached. The number of groups based on racial, religious, ethnic and gender prejudice – not to mention the “patriot” franchises (including armed militias) – had grown from a total of 149 in 2008, before Obama took office, to 1274 in 2011. Considering these figures and the election outcome, will there be dark days ahead?
Before going overboard in expecting a violent far-right backlash due to Obama’s re-election, we ought to consider some countervailing evidence. First, there is the matter of “hate crimes.” Since 1981, Congress has directed the FBI to compile and report annually on the incidence of such crimes. The FBI compiles data from various reports submitted by local law enforcement agencies around the country. To be sure, the process is hardly perfect. Some local agencies do a better job than others in reporting such crimes, and assigning a bias motive often requires a subjective appraisal by the police officers involved.
Nevertheless, the data collected by the FBI in the way just described suggests there has been no increase in hate crimes since Obama took office in January 2009 (see Table 1). The number of such crimes has remained relatively constant during his first term of office. If anything, they have shown a modest decline.
Not only was there no upsurge in hate crimes overall, the FBI also reported there has been a decline in hate crimes based on racial bias. The number of white-on-black or black-on-white hate crimes has actually declined of late. Despite well-publicized events – like the failed attempt in 2009 to detonate a bomb during a Martin Luther King Day march in Spokane, Wash., or the neo-Nazi shooting spree outside Milwaukee, Wisc., last year, leaving six dead – the overall record is one of reduced race-based hate crimes. Although opinion surveys taken over the course of his first term suggest that the Obama presidency has not resulted in a waning of anti-black prejudice in the public, the evidence overall indicates members of the public were less likely to act on their bigotry than was the case in the past. From this perspective, behavior appears more important than attitude.
What should we make, then, of the contrast between the FBI’s hate crime data and the near hysterical reaction by some on the further reaches of the far-right to Obama’s re-election?
First, most Americans appear to discuss politics largely with others with whom they agree. Further, voters on the right typically receive their news from such conservative sources as the Fox cable TV network and such talk radio commentators as Rush Limbaugh. During the 2012 election campaign, conservatives expected a Romney victory. They were led to this conclusion because the sources they watched (the talking heads), and to whom they listened, told them to ignore the “biased” opinion surveys and the mainstream media. So the President’s re-election may have come as a significant shock, one resulting in the reactions reported at the beginning of this commentary. It remains to be seen whether this will have any lasting purchase, even if thunder gathers in the distance.
Second, the chances of a Racial Holy War (RAHOWA) in the United States, long desired by radical right extremists, seem as remote as before Barack Obama was first elected president. His re-election may trigger a modest number of hate-based terrorist attacks, but in all likelihood that is about as far as any backlash will go. The two widely discussed racist novels, The Turner Diaries and Hunter, by the late neo-Nazi William Pierce, scenarios for white racial revolution, remain firmly confined to the realm of dystopian fiction.