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Narrative Change Makes White Supremacy Groups More Dangerous, Expert Says


And let's track a change that one of the nation's most respected civil rights organizations has been following. The Southern Poverty Law Center has for decades tracked white supremacist groups, groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens. It's an organization the accused Charleston killer Dylann Roof was believed to be following. Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says the appeal of these groups seems to be growing.

RICHARD COHEN: The number of white supremacist groups in our country is at a high level, about 800, and actually is down by about 200 over the past few years. And although the groups have gone down, more people are identifying with the white supremacist movement. There's a very famous website called Stormfront, where people post and get their daily, you know, fill of hate. It has 300,000 registered users, millions of visitors. And that number's up by about 50 percent over the past five years.

GREENE: And what's drawing people might be a new narrative, one that seems to capture Dylann Roof. It's the idea that racial diversity is threatening the survival of white people.

COHEN: Well, I mean, I think he swallowed it hook, line and sinker. You know, his manifesto says that, you know, his entry point into the world of hate was the Council of Conservative Citizens, their website. That's a group that describes black people as a retrograde species, of being a group that rants and raves about black-on-white crime and white genocide. And when the shooter, you know, spoke at the church, you know, explaining why he was doing what he was doing, you know, again, it was black-on-white crime and this idea that, you know, people are taking over the country.

GREENE: And just to be very clear so our listeners understand, when you talk about white genocide, this is the feeling among some white people that, you know, the rise of multiculturalism means that white people are essentially risked being wiped off the face of the earth.

COHEN: That's correct. And, you know, they look at - you know, they're a lot of talk about, you know, the killings of farmers, you know, in Zimbabwe and in South Africa. That's the fate that, you know, we're going to suffer - you know, these white racists say - unless we come together and take action. And those kind of ideas, you know, clearly motivated the Charleston shooter.

GREENE: These groups that you follow once focused on preserving segregationist laws, you know, largely in the American South. And now we have this sort of different focus. A lot of these groups seem to be driven by the notion that whites are under attack. It's a narrative that is appealing to people not just in the United States but globally. Why are people being drawn to it?

COHEN: Well, you know, in this country, you know, we've seen a tremendous change in our demographics. America's becoming an increasingly diverse country. In 1970, less than 1 in 5 persons was a person of color in our country. Today, that figure's doubled. And, you know, there's been a backlash to that. We - you know, you see that in the reaction of President Obama. You know, he ran on a platform of change, yet he reflects the change that many people are scared of. They perceive black gains in civil rights and human rights as something that diminishes their rights. And then worldwide, you know, we have the similar issues of changing demographics in Western Europe. People look to South Africa, the former outlaw regime of Rhodesia, and say, look what's happened to white people there. That's the kind of future that we have. And, you know, this is not new. The day after President Obama was inaugurated the first time, a white racist in Brockton, Mass., you know, killed three people. And, you know, he had been radicalized entirely on the net and was convinced that a white genocide was afoot.

GREENE: And the fact that this narrative has sort of grabbed people around the world - some of these groups have been able to recruit and draw people in from around the globe. There is this debate now - right? - about whether it's fair to start comparing white supremacy groups and their recruitment to, you know, say ISIS or al-Qaida.

COHEN: Yeah, I don't want to push the comparison too, too far, but I think it's important to recognize that they are both forms of terrorism, that there is an international dimension not just to jihadi terror but to white supremacist terror. I think it fits the classic definition of terrorism. It's politically motivated violence by a non-state actor designed to intimidate or injure not just the immediate victims of the crime but a wider group of people. You know, the question is, how do we respond?

GREENE: The Southern Poverty Law Center has quite a legacy, I mean, spending decades fighting hate and extremism. Did you expect to be fighting this hard against white supremacy now, in 2015?

COHEN: No, we've been at this for, you know, quite some time. And it's never going to go away entirely. But, you know, when we - you know, we had filed a number of lawsuits that bankrupted major clan organizations, major neo-Nazi organizations in this country - I think the thing we didn't anticipate was, you know, the backlash that we were going to see from our changing demographics. And, you know, the people at the Census Bureau say that sometime in mid-century, what we call the majority today will be the minority. And, you know, so - and I think we're going to have, you know, a continual struggle for the country to come to terms with this. And it's going to require people of good will to come together.

GREENE: Richard Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and he joined us from his office in Montgomery, Ala. Thanks so much for coming on the program. We appreciate it.

COHEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.