96 Talking about Race with America's Klansmen
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96 Talking about Race with America's Klansmen RAPHAEL S. EZEKIEL From the Reconstruction era to 1945, between 3,000 and 5,000 black Americans were killed in mob violence, much of it instigated by the Ku Klux Klan. Some victims were hanged or burned to death; often men's genitals were mutilated. Later, during the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, reincarnations of the Klan spread terror and death, burning buses, clubbing demonstrators, and bombing homes and churches. Today we see another white racist movement, with Klansmen joined by neo-Nazis, racist skinheads , and members of intensely racist churches. Most of today's violence is perpetrated by individuals who are not formally affiliated with these organized groups-but groups such as the Klan create the climate that inspires individual terrorists. A decade ago, I set out to gain firsthand knowledge of these militant white racist groups. This is a traveler's report, so let me tell you who I am-and why this project was particularly meaningful to me. I am a social psychologist, but I don't do experiments or surveys. I visit people on their own turf and ask questions about their lives. I am 64 years old and have spent much of my adult life in academe. But until I was 12, I lived in a Texas town of 12,000, the commercial center of an agricultural county that produced cotton, peanuts, and soybeans. Hitching posts still dotted some of the main streets-and schools, restaurants, recreational facilities, and washrooms forbade racial mixing. I am also a Jew. My mother came to America from Russia when she was 7; my father's family were Spanish Jews who had settled in the United States decades earlier. My parents' politics blended prairie populism, Wilsonian idealism, and New Deal enthusiasm. We worshiped F.D.R. and played records by Paul Robeson; outside our home, in contrast, people spoke of "niggers" and elected race-baiting bigots. This mixed background left me with an abiding interest in race and prejudice. For the past 10 years, 1 have watched and talked with the leaders of various Klan and neoNazi groups and with their followers. I have gone to their rallies, hung out at their training conferences, observed their cross burnings. I was open with the people I studied, making clear my identity as a Jew, a professor, and an opponent of racism. I also let them know that I assumed they were building lives that made sense to them. This directness opened many doors: Most people agreed to meet with me. The first half-hour usually went somewhat gingerly : after that, many people spoke more freely, although I always was viewed with some suspicion. Neither I nor the people I interviewed ever lost track of who we were. CHRON. HIGHER ED., January 26, 1996, at A52. Originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission of the author. Copyrighted Material Talking about Race with America's Klansmen 587 This interpersonal terrain was intensely difficult for me. When I interviewed avowed anti-Semites, I had to check myself repeatedly: Was I forthcoming in how I presented myself , or was I shading and hedging to gain cooperation? Did my field notes tell the whole story-did I include emotions (the moments I felt friendship or anger) that embarrassed me? I found myself wanting_to nurture some of the young neo-Nazis, then asking myself whether that was reasonable. Private organizations that track these groups estimate that about 25,000 people now belong to hard-core white racist groups. Another 150,000 people are sympathizers who subscribe to the groups' literature and sometimes attend rallies. Approximately 450,000 more people occasionally read the groups' literature but don't maintain subscriptions. These are small numbers in a national population as large as ours. But the groups' history of violence forces us to pay attention to them. Whether racism is a major force, as it is currently, or in apparent decline, as in the late 1960s, the members and sympathizers of white racist groups keep the flame burning; they are keepers of the ideology. The first thing one learns when one enters this world is that it is predominantly male. Only a few women came to rallies or conferences, and they were there primarily to cook and serve meals. In 10 years, I never heard a woman give a speech. I never saw a woman leader. The groups increasingly make up a single movement. They compete...


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