PELHAM, N.C. – In today’s racially charged environment, there’s a label that even the KKK disavows: white supremacy.
Standing on a muddy dirt road in the dead of night near the North Carolina-Virginia border, masked Ku Klux Klan members claimed Donald Trump’s election as president proves whites are taking back America from blacks, immigrants, Jews and other groups they describe as criminals and freeloaders. America was founded by and for whites, they say, and only whites can run a peaceful, productive society.
But still, the KKK members insisted in an interview with the Associated Press, they’re not white supremacists, a label that is gaining traction in the country since Trump won with the public backing of the Klan, neo-Nazis and other white racists.
“We’re not white supremacists. We believe in our race,” said a man with a Midwestern accent and glasses just hours before a pro-Trump Klan parade in a nearby town. He, like three Klan compatriots, wore a robe and pointed hood and wouldn’t give his full name, in accordance with Klan rules.
Claiming the Klan isn’t white supremacist flies in the face of its very nature. The Klan’s official rulebook, the Kloran – published in 1915 and still followed by many groups – says the organization “shall ever be true in the faithful maintenance of White Supremacy,” even capitalizing the term for emphasis. Watchdog groups also consider the Klan a white supremacist organization, and experts say the groups’ denials are probably linked to efforts to make their racism more palatable.
Still, KKK groups today typically renounce the term. The same goes for extremists including members of the self-proclaimed “alt-right,” an extreme branch of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism.
“We are white separatists, just as Yahweh in the Bible told us to be. Separate yourself from other nations. Do not intermix and mongrelize your seed,” said one of the Klansmen who spoke along the muddy lane.
The Associated Press interviewed the men, who claimed membership in the Loyal White Knights of the KKK, in a nighttime session set up with the help of Chris Barker, a KKK leader who confirmed details of the group’s “Trump victory celebration” in advance of the event. As many as 30 cars paraded through the town of Roxboro, North Carolina, some bearing Confederate and KKK flags.
Barker didn’t participate, though: He and a Klan leader from California were arrested hours earlier on charges linked to the stabbing of a third KKK member during a fight, sheriff’s officials said. Both men were jailed; the injured man was recovering.
Like the KKK members, Don Black said he doesn’t care to be called a white supremacist, either. Black – who operates stormfront.org, a white extremist favorite website, from his Florida home – prefers “white nationalist.”
“White supremacy is a legitimate term, though not usually applicable as used by the media. I think it’s popular as a term of derision because of the implied unfairness, and, like ‘racism,’ it’s got that ‘hiss’ (and, like ‘hate’ and ‘racism,’ frequently ‘spewed’ in headlines),” Black said in an email interview.
The Klan formed 150 years ago, just months after the end of the Civil War, and quickly began terrorizing freed blacks. Hundreds of people were assaulted or killed as whites tried to regain control of the defeated Confederacy. During the civil rights movement, Klan members were convicted of using murder as a weapon against equality. Leaders from several different Klan groups have told AP they have rules against violence aside from self-defense, and opponents agree the KKK has toned itself down after a string of members went to prison years after the fact for deadly arson attacks, beatings, bombings and shootings.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, which monitor white extremist organizations and are tracking an increase in reports of racist incidents since the election, often use the “white supremacist” label when describing groups like the Klan; white nationalism and white separatism are parts of the ideology. But what exactly is involved?
The ADL issued a report last year describing white supremacists as “ideologically motivated by a series of racist beliefs, including the notion that whites should be dominant over people of other backgrounds, that whites should live by themselves in a whites-only society, and that white people have their own culture and are genetically superior to other cultures.”
That sounds a lot like some of the ideas espoused by today’s white radicals, yet they reject the label. That’s likely because they learned the lessons of one-time Klan leader David Duke, who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana this year, said Penn State University associate professor Josh Inwood.
“(There was) this peddling of kinder, softer white supremacy. He tried to pioneer a more respectable vision of the Klan,” Inwood said.
Extremist expert Sophie Bjork-James, a scholar at Vanderbilt University, prefers the term “racist right” to describe today’s white supremacists.
“They are not simply conservative or alt-right, but actually espousing racist ideas and racist goals,” she said. “They won’t agree with this label, but I think it is important to be clear about what they represent and what their goals are.”
Whatever you call them, the muddy-road Klansmen said their beliefs have gained a foothold. The popularity of Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border – an idea long espoused by the Klan – is part of the proof, they said.
“White Americans are finally, most of them, opening their eyes and coming around and seeing what is happening,” said a man in a satiny green Klan robe.
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