David Duke was on the phone, talking about Barack Obama. Yes, that David Duke: After a query lodged at his website, the infamous ex-Klansman had responded via a mysterious e-mail address--he appeared in my inbox as "info45." (Duke regularly changes address to combat hate mail--the kind he doesn't like, that is.) Duke said he was traveling in Europe, where he often meets with fellow Holocaust deniers, and agreed to discuss the possibility that the United States might soon elect a black president.
Putting it mildly, one would not expect Duke to applaud this development. During Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign, after all, Duke said Jackson's election "would be the greatest tragedy ever to befall this country." Warning that "the white majority in this country are losing their rights," Duke announced his own counter-candidacy, one whose main purpose seemed to be hounding Jackson.
Yet, far from railing at Obama's rise, Duke seems almost nonchalant about it. Self-described white nationalists like himself, he explained cordially, "don't see much difference in Barack Obama than Hillary Clinton--or, for that matter, John McCain." Sure, Duke considers Obama "a racist individual," citing his Afrocentric Chicago church. But soon the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of White People was critiquing Obama as overhyped and insubstantial in terms you might hear from, say, Clinton strategist Mark Penn. "They say he's for change. What change? He's become almost a cult figure. I don't see any shining light around Obama's head. I don't see any halos," Duke said.
Sure, we may not see David Duke strolling around with The Audacity of Hope under his arm any time soon. But his mild tone is still a curious reaction to what white supremacists have long considered a sign of racial apocalypse. "Does Race Still Matter?" asks the latest issue of US News & World Report, which features Obama on its cover. Undoubtedly, it does. But, thus far, Obama is largely delivering on his promise as a post-racial candidate--and hilariously confounding the worldview of white supremacists at the same time.
After Obama won the Iowa caucuses last month, Mark Potok, a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center, decided to survey the latest writings of the major right-wing hate groups he regularly monitors. How would America's vilest race-mongers respond to a black candidate's victory in a white Midwestern state? Again, the response was counterintuitive. "It was extremely weak," Potok says. "You could find people saying nasty words about Obama, but it wasn't red-hot at all."
That has remained the case even as Obama has become the front-runner. On several websites, forums, and online journals that promote the view of white superiority over blacks--the types of outlets that rejoiced over Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward--there is precious little discussion of Obama's campaign. The day after Obama's blowout win in Wisconsin, for instance, the home page of the poisonous Vanguard News Network featured stories on Serbian nationalism, home schooling, Holocaust-denial, and Pat Buchanan--yet nothing about Obama. It turns out that, although the white right certainly has no love for Obama, its hatred of him is muted--and directed less at Obama himself than at other nefarious forces behind him.
To be sure, it's no challenge to unearth racist invective about the man. One bilious anti-Obama blog's URL, for instance, seamlessly conjoins his name with the N-word. Elsewhere, Obama is cast as a covert black-power agent. An essay by a David Duke compatriot compares Obama to Malcolm X and likens his slogan of "Si Se Puede!" to chanting "Kill the whites!" There are rumblings about mass slavery reparations (even though, in 2004, Obama said he opposes "just signing checks over to African Americans"). And some even see hints that Obama may be leading a national black uprising. "Are blacks becoming more hostile towards whites?" asked a recent entry at the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens website. The author, citing the early February rampage by a black gunman near St. Louis, Missouri, advised that "the success of the Obama campaign might be emboldening blacks to be more aggressive towards white[s] on a national scale." (No word on whether such hostility subsided after Hillary's New Hampshire and Nevada victories.)
Yet, for every instance of loony racist paranoia, one finds a countervailing explanation for why Obama's rise is not a story about black America rising up. White supremacists are less inclined to hate Obama than the white race-traitors who are enabling him. "If you are a white supremacist who is dedicated to a biological understanding of racism that says blacks are inferior, the only way [Obama] could be elected is with the conniving of unseen forces," explains Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a Boston-based expert on white supremacists.
Thus, a recent essay by one John Brown on the website of the racialist journal American Renaissance attributes Obama's rise to white liberals in search of an idyllic post-racist society (which of course they will never actually find): "The reality is that white America has more invested in this candidate than does black America." For Brown, Obama's success against Hillary should actually comfort anyone wringing their hands over a White House beholden to black America: "[I]f Clinton wins, she will be more beholden to African Americans than Obama will be if he wins. She will owe them in a way that Obama [never] will."
There's an even bigger culprit in this world than white liberals, however. Naturally, we speak here of the Jews. It turns out that what truly animates the white supremacist contingent these days is not racism but anti-Semitism. The black man is of trifling concern next to the "Zionist Occupation Government," or ZOG, a term that describes puppet regimes of the global Zionist conspiracy. As one commenter on the popular white-power Web forum Stormfront explains it: "The blacks would be a non-factor if it weren't for the ZOG's legislations and skullduggery (civil rights act, hate crime laws, affirmative action, welfare, forced integration, etc etc ...), allied with a compliant media that promotes black worship." Thus, when the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published an anodyne article on Obama's support among American Jews, white-power sites like National Alliance News ("your single source for worldwide pro-White news") quickly pounced. "Barack Obama: The Jewish Connection" came the breathless headline. (Never mind that Obama has had a rockier relationship with the American Jewish community than has Clinton.) "[U]ltimately he's just another Jew puppet," concludes another Stormfront commenter. "I look at his foreign advisers," adds David Duke. "[They're] Israeli supremacists. He's even got Dennis Ross!"
All this contorted rationalization suggests that white supremacists feel compelled to explain away the confounding notion of an immensely gifted and appealing black man. Yet it also reflects the fact that, unlike Jesse Jackson, Obama simply lacks certain cultural signifiers--not to mention an urban-centric policy agenda--that would viscerally threaten racist whites obsessed with maintaining "white rights," ending affirmative action, and cutting off nearly all non-European immigration.
But there may be one more factor at work: hatred overload. It's a testament of sorts to Hillary Clinton that, by virtue of her cartoonish image as a leftist man-hating shrew, she manages to arouse more vitriol among white supremacists than a black man. Meanwhile, white racists absolutely despise John McCain for his support of George W. Bush's immigration reform plan, which they view as a dire threat to America's European-based culture. "I don't think Obama will be any more negative for the United States than Hillary or John McCain," explains Duke. "In fact," he added, "we probably have less preference for a European like a John McCain or a Hillary who has betrayed our interests, our heritage, our rights."
Edward Sebesta, a Dallas-based expert on neo-Confederate groups, says that, in a match-up against Obama, McCain might wind up suffering the brunt of the hatred: "They really hate McCain," he says. "They're suffering from emotional exhaustion. They might not have the energy to be infuriated by two candidates at the same time." Amazingly, some commenters on racist websites are already debating the grim choice between Obama and McCain. Who knows, maybe David Duke can form the oddest MySpace group of all time: Klansmen for Obama. Now that would be post-racial.