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As racial hate groups rise, strategies to shut them down

March 25, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
What motivates hate groups and domestic terrorists? With the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist movements making a resurgence, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks to Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center about solutions to stop the hate and encourage tolerance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups have gained more attention in the news recently, but as special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault explains, the national undercurrent of racism may be even more pervasive.

It’s part of our yearlong exploration of solutions to the problems of race in America.

These are boots that are intended so that, when you stomp on someone, the swastika will be left.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Heidi Beirich is leader of The Intelligence Project here at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit anti-terror organization.

She shows us memorabilia revealing some Ku Klux Klan history, boots with swastikas and boots with red laces, indicating Klan members who’ve physically harmed someone, and other racist paraphernalia. In 2014, there were some 784 active hate groups. Beirich brings us up to date.

The Ku Klux Klan has declined over the years, in part due to lawsuits that you people here at the Southern Poverty Law Center have filed. Briefly tell us about how that came about.

HEIDI BEIRICH, Southern Poverty Law Center: We started filing lawsuits against the Klan in 1981 over a lynching of a young black man in Mobile. That was our first anti-Klan law suit.

And we came up with this idea that we should sue these folks in civil court to bankrupt them. That was the plan. We have now had a series of Klan groups that we have sued, put them basically out of business, leading all the way up to very recently with the Imperial Klans of America. Our hope is that by taking their money away, they can’t function anymore.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And that was successful?

HEIDI BEIRICH: Yes. Every single one of them has been successful. Obviously, when these groups don’t have money, that means there’s less violence that they could perpetrate. The whole idea is to not allow them to function.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But at the moment, there seems to be a resurgence and what appears to be a rise in hate groups. What explains that?

HEIDI BEIRICH: We have seen a sustained rise in hate groups since basically 2000. And the main thing driving this has been changing demographics in the United States.

2000 was an important year because it was the first time that the U.S. census said definitively, in our near future, 2042 at the time, whites will no longer be the majority. And obviously, if you are a member of a hate group, right, if you’re a white supremacist, the fact that whites will be less than 50 percent of the population is something to basically be a little freaked out about.

And so we started to see them organizing by hate groups and huge growth, spiked over 1,000 hate groups in a short period of time. Obama added to that, right? Obviously, the first black president was another reason for a backlash like that to develop.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you’re getting that from former Klans-people and former white supremacists who are telling you that?

HEIDI BEIRICH: You always hear exactly the same thing, whether people are in the movement or out of the movement.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is it mostly hatred of African-Americans or is there more to it?

HEIDI BEIRICH: Hatred of black people is the driving force for America’s hate movement.

But, over the years, as you have seen a change in sort of the population of people of color here, you can add to that mix dislike of Latinos and immigrants, dislike of gay people and, very recently, we have seen a huge outburst by every kind of hate group against the Muslim community.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You have also described in some of your writings about a new phenomenon called the lone wolf, which is different from organized groups. How significant and worrisome is that?

HEIDI BEIRICH: Well, you’re pointing out one of the biggest trends in terms of racist killings that we’re seeing lately.

We have people like Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in Charleston. Our understanding of Dylann Roof, from his own manifesto, is he never met a person in another hate group in his life. He was completely radicalized online.

That’s exactly the same phenomenon that we see, for example, for people who are inspired by ISIS. They go onto Web sites where there’s propaganda that’s widely available. It enrages them for some reason. That kind of lone wolf terrorism is a big problem, and there’s more of it today than it was 10 years ago, and we don’t expect that to change.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Can you use any of the tactics that you used to decimate the Klan in this new era?

HEIDI BEIRICH: These people live on the Web, like many people do for all kinds of reasons. The only way for law enforcement to really find them and track them is to follow them onto the hate Web sites. And it’s not easy. How did Dylann Roof indicate that he was going to go on a mass shooting spree? He didn’t.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, are there any solutions, though, for people who — around the country who are concerned about these issues?

HEIDI BEIRICH: The Department of Justice has reconstituted a domestic terrorism task force that had been defunct since 9/11 to start collecting intelligence aggressively against white supremacists and extreme anti-government types. That’s a very important thing to do.

What we try to do here is publish information about these people, where they are, what groups they’re involved in, what they’re publishing, so that at least law enforcement, which is the big readership for our products, knows where they are, what they believe, what they think, so they have a chance to maybe catch someone before they escalate.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How much does education add to a solution?

HEIDI BEIRICH: It’s probably the biggest solution. And we know from talking to people who are racist today that it has a lot to do with what you learn in the home.

If it’s not counteracted in some way, right, deep racial hatred, you just — you don’t learn any differently. We have a lot of people who come to us after stints, for example, in prison for crimes committed with white supremacy in some way who meet people of other races. That’s a place where you could intervene with younger people too and bring them out of movement.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you have seen that happen?

HEIDI BEIRICH: Many, many times.

One of my favorite examples is a woman named Angela King. who went to prison in Florida for involvement with a white supremacist skinhead crew. They committed some robberies. She met a Jamaican woman who was involved — who was imprisoned with her, but was involved in some community activities in the prison there.

They became friends. That’s how Angie got out of the movement, was through that relationship. For the first time in her life, she had an honest friendship, right, with a person of a different color. Now Angela King runs something called Life After Hate, which works with people who wants to get out of white supremacist movements.

And what we try to do is bust up the groups. We try to sow discord among the organizations, show that the people who lead these organizations are hypocrites and so on, to give people a chance to look at what they have gotten involved in and maybe reconsider it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you have seen that work?

HEIDI BEIRICH: It absolutely works.

The number one thing, I would say, that drives people out of hate groups is seeing their leadership corrupt.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Looking to the future and the things that you do, are you at all optimistic that your organization and America in general can get its arms around hate and racism?

HEIDI BEIRICH: I’m optimistic in the long run, and I’m extremely pessimistic in the short run.

Some of the racial strife that we have been experiencing over the last year are all related to our inability to digest the fact that this country is changing and white people are not going to be the majority here. Right?

I think, in the long term, everything in the United States may be amazing. Right? We might be the first truly multicultural, multiethnic democracy that embraces tolerance everywhere. We would be the first if we sustain this transition in the 2050s without having things descend into chaos.

But we’re going to have to get through a rough patch. We really have to work on this issue. It’s fundamental to our democracy working.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Heidi Beirich, thank you so much for joining us.

HEIDI BEIRICH: It was a pleasure.