Do I Look Like a White Supremacist to You?
I did what any person-who-happens-to-be-white would do: I rang the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, to find out how electing a black president is affecting race relations. I found out that hate group activity is indeed on the rise — there are 54% more hate groups now than in 2000 — but the bigger picture is far more reassuring.
The center has been monitoring problem for about 25 years. Still, “It’s really not possible to prove any trends with statistics,” said Mark Potok, the Director of the Intelligence Project there. “But we did see a definite increase in activity beginning last summer, when it became clearer and clearer that Obama would become the Democratic nominee.”
So while I was exulting in the progress my country was making as a man of color was making his way to the pinnacle of power, “White supremacists were freaking out,” recounted Potok. David Duke said this would wake up White America; there was a rash of racist incidents, including a couple of cross burnings. A white secessionist group reported a surge in traffic on their web site right after the election.
But more mainstream people who aren’t in hate groups, Potok said, seemed to have a spontaneous reaction, beginning about two weeks before the election and culminating three weeks after. “That’s when you had students chanting on school buses, and racist comments on newspaper websites.” I asked him if race relations are worse as a result, and he reminded me, again, that the reaction slowed down three weeks after the election.
“There’s no question that the country is moving ahead,” said Potok. For example, polling data shows each new generation of children is much more open to interracial marriages and relationships. “Overall, we’re moving maybe nine steps forward and one step back.”
I said I never expected to receive racist mail. And he said he never thought he would see a black president elected in his lifetime.
Mame McCutchin is a licensed New York City tourist guide who says she doesn’t believe in the notion of race.
Leonard Pitts Jr. sizes up racial progress here as a glass half-full or half-empty.