An African-American U.S. president is bringing out the best and the
worst in the nation, say United Methodists who advocate against racism.
recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center says there are more
suspected hate groups in the United States now than ever in recorded
history. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
A recent report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center states
there are more suspected hate groups in the United States now than ever
in recorded history. The annual survey revealed 926 active hate groups
in 2008, a 4 percent increase from the year before and a 54 percent
increase since 2000, when there were 602 such groups.
“Sadly, it does not surprise me,” said the Rev. Andy Oren, a
Milwaukee pastor, commenting on the report. “While the election of
President Obama has been hailed by many … it has fueled the flames of
racism within many as well.”
The Rev. Taka Ishii, a Japanese-American pastor of Golden Hill
United Methodist Church in Bridgeport, Conn., sees a reactionary fear
of the unknown at work among many who join hate groups. “We see this
African-American president in the media every day, and although a
majority of us celebrate his election, some are afraid of his
presidential power and believe something awful might happen to them. It
is fear of the unknown because he is not white.”
In addition to the first African-American president, two other key
factors seen as contributing to a growing number of hate groups are the
failing U.S. economy and vocal opposition to the growing presence of
undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Hispanic/Latino. The
immigration controversy has been an ongoing source of hate-group
recruitment, but the election outcome and the worsening economy,
including fear over loss of jobs and homes, bolstered those numbers in
2008, some analysts said.
“This is a time of extreme anxiety for many,” said the Rev. Jerry
DeVine, a West Michigan Annual Conference superintendent. “In such
times people often look for quick blame and easy answers rather than
working at creating a community of new alternatives. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. long ago contended that economics is a core part of
systemic racism, and thus we can see a linkage to racist groups during
unsettling and uncertain economic times.”
Dee Weaver, of Dallas, Texas, sees a backlash against President Obama, immigrants and the economy in the rise of hate groups.
“There is a racial component to the immigration issue. I believe it;
I have lived it,” said Weaver, who is Mexican American and a member of
the North Texas Conference. She feels that “misinformation and lack of
truth” about immigrants and the economy contribute to widespread
ignorance and hatred. She also fears for, and prays for, Obama’s safety
from racists who would seek to harm him.
“Our society is getting better at covering racism. Today we call it
everything except racism,” said the Rev. Bescye P. Burnett, a local
pastor who chairs the Minnesota Conference Commission on Religion and
Race. “Since we are not true to ourselves as a nation in regards to
being inclusive, we keep the same hatreds in our hearts. Since we fail
to get serious about who is our neighbor, we tend to treat others as
Signs of hope
The Rev. Sharon White, director of advocacy ministries in the
Indiana Conference, suggests that even if hate groups are growing, the
number of groups working for racial equality and reconciliation might
be growing as well—another research project worth undertaking perhaps.
“I do think things are getting better simply because of the greater
number of young people who do not harbor the same attitudes as some of
their parents and many of their grandparents and great grandparents,”
said Curtis DeVance, who chairs the Iowa Conference Commission on
Religion and Race. Questioning if overall membership in hate groups has
actually increased, he reports that the Ku Klux Klan and other groups
“are alive and well here in Iowa, but they are having little or no
impact so far.
“I think the real issue is how long will the silent majority remain
silent?” asked DeVance. “What can we do to provoke more of a response
by that silent majority?"
The Rev. Greg Johnson, of York, Pa., believes things are getting both better and worse.
The Rev. Greg Johnson
“There are inroads among many of us who are building bridges
and being in true committed relationships across national, ethnic,
cultural, social, economic and, most importantly, spiritual barriers,”
he said. “But there are also those who are separating themselves
from fellow human beings, and seeking to do harm that may lead to
death as the final separation.”
Wisdom of love
The Rev. Eliezer Valentín-Castañón, executive for advocacy with the
commission, laments the rhetoric of hate that “has created an
environment of hostility and distrust perpetrated against all
immigrants, not just the undocumented.
“In fact, many Latinos who have been victims of hate crimes in the
U.S. have been either citizens or documented residents,” he reports.
“Hate cannot distinguish between documented and undocumented, between
U.S. citizens and immigrants.”
Valentín-Castañón said the death of racism, asserted by some after
Obama’s landslide election, has been greatly exaggerated. “This is like
saying that after the Emancipation Proclamation black people were
instantly made free. Or that after the passage of the 14th Amendment
black Americans were treated with equality and dignity. Or that after
the 1965 Civil Rights Act black, Latino, Asian and Native Americans,
suddenly gained acceptance and equality.
Migrant workers harvest tomatoes at a farm in Immokalee, Fla. A UMNS file photo by Scott Robertson.
“It is precisely when we see progress in America, especially in
these movements toward equality and justice,” he explained, “that the
forces of evil rise up and draw misguided new converts to their
perverse cause. They traffic in fear, false pride, confusion,
misdirected anger and destructive hatred. As people of faith we must be
vigilant in opposing and speaking up against these activities. We must
educate our people to resist the ignorance of hate and choose instead
the wisdom of love.”
*Coleman is communications director for the United Methodist
Commission on Religion and Race. GCORR has launched a new blog site at www.endingracism.org, where this article is featured, along with additional comments about this concern.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.