On Election Night in 2008, Americans gathered in Grant Park, Chicago. They cried tears of joy knowing Barack Obama would become the first black president.
For millions of Americans, Obama lifted the nation. For white supremacists, he lit a powder keg.
His election supercharged the divisions that have existed since the country’s birth.
The hate created two Americas. Two realities. Split-screen reactions to the same events, that continued and were exacerbated with President Trump’s victory and time in office.
When a gunman massacred nine people praying at a predominantly black church, America wept and asked for grace. But the virulent racists cheered, hailing the gunman a hero for helping to start the race war they dreamed of.
When much of America was horrified by the sight of neo-Nazis in their streets in 2017, white supremacists were almost gleeful their views were front and center.
And when a gunman stormed into a synagogue just last month, declaring “all Jews must die,” Americans wept over the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history. But white supremacists breathed a sigh of relief. One of their biggest targets had been successfully attacked.
The era that started with hope and change had now become one of unapologetic hate.
Very different rallying cries
Most African-Americans polled immediately after the 2008 election called Obama’s victory “a dream come true,” one they never expected to see in their lifetime.
Not all Americans saw it that way. Racists viewed a black man in power as a signal of the browning of America. It was the sight they feared the most. They were terrified and infuriated.
White supremacists, Klansmen and others began to vent, plot and act. As Obama called for people to come together, they used his existence to drive the nation apart.
Their rallying cry became “We have a black man in the White House and you need to do something about it,” according to Ken Parker, then a KKK Grand Dragon and neo-Nazi.
“We would even joke amongst ourselves, we’re going to send President Obama a honorary membership to the Klan because he’s our … biggest recruiting tool.”
Some racism was out in the open – especially that directed at Obama and his family.
The former President was shown as a witch doctor and photoshopped often onto “Uncle Ben’s” rice. His face was superimposed onto the body of a chimpanzee. His wife and former first lady Michelle Obama was called an “ape in heels.”
Donald Trump, then a private citizen, questioned if the first black President was born in America. Some repeated the lie that Obama was Muslim, as if to exaggerate his “otherness.”
This undercurrent of racism came as the country struggled with a divided Washington and the economic crisis following the Great Recession.
Kevin Nelson, a pastor in Kentucky, knew the reality of being a black man in America. More likely to be thought a thief. To be pulled over. To be a target. The pastor knew that a black man ascending to the highest office could not magically change what happened on the ground, in the neighborhoods where attitudes were so deeply rooted.
Yet Nelson was among the cautiously optimistic: “I think like most people, I celebrated the fact that our country had come to a point where we did not allow the pigmentation of a person’s skin to stop them from getting to the Oval Office,” he told CNN recently.
Any hope for progress toward racial harmony took a hit with a seemingly never-ending run of mostly young, unarmed black men being killed, often by police officers.
Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald and Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Alton Sterling. Activists put out a blunt message: “Black lives matter.” Critics countered with “Blue lives matter” in support of law enforcement or just “All lives matter.”
White supremacists went further. The neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer published stories declaring, “Actually, No, Black Lives Don’t Matter.” They called Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, a “heroic killer” of Brown, whom they dubbed a “black terrorist,” with no evidence whatsoever.
Then came Charleston and a man trying to start a race war.
He walked into the Mother Emanuel church and sat next to the black pastor for Bible study. For over an hour, the worshippers prayed and talked about scripture. They welcomed the stranger. Then he took out his gun, and shot them. He reloaded, and shot again. Because they were black. Because he believed lies that black people were inherently violent. And that they were always raping white women.
President Obama went to Charleston to comfort America and again try to heal some racial wounds. He sang “Amazing Grace” after delivering a eulogy and emphasized the United States of America.
But online, racists were cheering the killer.
“They had a Klan hotline and the prerecorded message, clearly said we needed more warriors like Dylann Roof,” said Parker, the former Klansman.
The message ended simply: “Hail Dylann Roof, hail victory.”
In a neo-Nazi chatroom, readers of the Daily Stormer used different symbols to celebrate attacks against non-whites, similar to Facebook’s “like” button. The Charleston killer’s bowl haircut became one of them. A caricature of the face of a Jew was another. A gas chamber button, too.
Once again, it was clear black churches were not safe. That, as in the dark days of the Civil Rights movement and the murder of four little girls in an Alabama church bombing, worshippers could be targeted for the color of their skin.
In Kentucky, Pastor Nelson started locking his church doors. He could never have known it would save his worshippers’ lives.
Not black and white
Obama’s presidency spanned a time of multiplying, complicated hate.
Between September 12, 2001, and the end of 2016, far-right extremists were responsible for 73% of deadly extremist attacks, though the numbers killed by far-right and Islamist extremist perpetrators were similar, government statistics show.
There was no simple target, cause, or perpetrator for the extremist attacks. A Muslim couple in California who had pledged allegiance to ISIS killed 14 at a holiday party in San Bernardino. Another American Muslim massacred 49 at a gay club in Orlando. A black man who told negotiators he was angry at police shootings and that he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers, murdered five cops in Dallas.
Obama would acknowledge the reality while trying to reinforce optimism in his final speech as President.
“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic,” he admitted. “For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago.”
As Obama left office, more than half of Americans polled said they thought race relations between whites and blacks had gotten worse – up even higher than after the Charleston church attack.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail in 2016 seemed to bring those divisions out into the open. Trump received great support in perceived and outwardly racist language. From his call for a so-called Muslim ban, to denigrating Mexicans at his campaign announcement, Trump stirred America’s melting pot of diversity and haters emerged.
It wasn’t just race. Jews, Muslims, Latinos, gays, immigrants and other minority groups found themselves as targets of hate – both online and in real life.
When Trump declared he was going to Make America Great Again, racists heard a clarion call. White supremacists perceived the message as it was time to make America “white” again.
Trump’s victory coincided with readership growth on white supremacist internet sites and language on message boards like 4chan and Reddit became increasingly vitriolic. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center looking at hate groups in 2017 found there were more than 600 groups that adhere to some form of white supremacist ideology. Within that category, neo-Nazis saw the most growth over the past year, from 99 to 121 groups.
Less than a month after the election, white nationalists led by Richard Spencer shouted in support of their new President.
“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Spencer yelled as supporters of the alt-right – in reality just rebranded white nationalists – raised their arms in a Nazi salute.
Lawyers for a man convicted of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction to kill Somali Muslim refugees the day after the election now argue that he should be given leniency as he was swept up in Trump’s rhetoric.
The ugly words from the campaign trail seemed to be echoed on the streets, in stores and even in schools. Day after day, stories of people becoming victims of hate incidents seemed to pop up. White schoolchildren telling classmates with darker skin to go back to Mexico. Swastikas spray-painted onto temples and cars in Jewish neighborhoods. Muslims wearing head coverings attacked on the streets. Videos of the incidents shared online and ricocheting around the world.
The FBI reported hate crimes increased in both 2016 and 2017, though it only has access to incidents classified and voluntarily reported by local agencies. A broader review by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates there were 250,0000 hate crime victimizations a year between 2004 and 2015.
Each incident sparked outrage in the mainstream, which helped recruiters for the hate movement. Parker was one of those recruiters, for the Klan and the National Socialist Movement. He found himself vulnerable when he left the Navy after 11 years’ service as a torpedo man on submarines and came home in a bad state to a crumbling marriage.
When he reached out online, looking to fill a void, a Klansman got back to him within 15 minutes and started sowing the hate. Parker was hooked, eventually tattooing a swastika on his chest, a white power symbol on one leg and on the other, two SS lightning bolts, a reference to Hitler’s, elite paramilitary force is now common imagery for white supremacists.
And he would recruit too, saying the goal was to “wake up the white race, let them know that we have a problem with minorities, Jewish people running everything.”
His hate spilled into real life.
“If me and another one of my white supremacist buddies were in the grocery store and we saw a Jewish person, … we’d start making fun of them,” he explains. “Like, oh, that hooked nose Jew over there, you know, probably looking for pennies,” he said. “Where you see a Muslim in the grocery store, we’d start talking about, you know, the new Mohammed cartoon … sometimes we thought about grabbing a pack of bacon and throwing it in her shopping cart and walking off.”
As he spewed his insults, websites like Daily Stormer grew its readership; the site is now visited more than 2.5 million times a month, according to data from analytics firm SimilarWeb. YouTube channels and podcasts dedicated to white supremacy began growing exponentially, creating an easy way to spread racist and religious hatred propaganda.
Anti-Semitic fliers began showing up on campuses as an attempt to sway young minds. Banners were strung across roadways.
“For race and nation,” one read. “‘Diversity is a code word for White Genocide,” another declared. “Danger: Sanctuary City Ahead,” read another. “You will not replace us, end immigration now,” another said.
The goal, as always, Parker explained, was to grow the numbers of people who felt the same as them.
“You can’t go into a battle with like five people,” he said. “So that was the perspective they were looking at. We’re going to have a race war one day. And the more people on our side, the better.”
Looking for a fight
If there was a war to be had, the preliminary battle seemed to be Charlottesville.
“I’m not gonna lie, like there were all kinds of people that went to Charlottesville that knew there were going to be a bunch of conflicts and they were just chomping at the bit waiting to be able to defend themselves with, like, extremely excessive force,” Parker said.
As he rode in a van to Charlottesville from Jacksonville, Florida, with “all kind of white nationalists, Southern nationalists, Nazis whatever,” he thought of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell had used a “hate bus” to harass Freedom Riders in the 1960s. Parker liked the similarities and dubbed his transport the “race bus.”