|White supremacists shift tactics to attract middle Americans|
The USA's largest neo-Nazi group is ditching its trademark brown Nazi uniform with swastika armband for a more muted look in black fatigues.
In Pennsylvania, the Keystone State Skinheads is changing its name to Keystone United to attract members.
The nation's largest white-power website, Stormfront, has a new feature that lets members create social-networking pages. The site has had as many as 42,700 unique visitors in a 24-hour period this month, a steady rise since it started in 1995.
Supremacist groups are on the rise as they market themselves to middle America, according to leaders of the groups and organizations that monitor them. They are fueled by the debate over illegal immigration and a struggling economy.
"Many white supremacist groups are going more mainstream," says Jack Levin, a Northeastern University criminologist who studies hate crime. "They are eliminating the sheets and armbands. … The groups realize if they want to be attractive to middle-class types, they need to look middle-class."
Levin estimates fewer than 50,000 people are members of white supremacist groups, but he says their influence is growing with a more sophisticated approach.
From 2006 to 2007, the number of such groups rose by 5% to 888, says the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks them through news reports and other sources. The number is up 48% since 2000.
The FBI knows of about 24 domestic terrorist groups. Spokesman Richard Kolko would not say how many are white supremacists.
Jeff Schoep, head of the National Socialist Movement, says the government classifies his group as a domestic group of interest, not domestic terrorists. The FBI would not comment.
Interest in the group "has really spiked up," says Schoep, who would not say by how much.
"Historically, when times get tough in our nation, that's how movements like ours gain a foothold," he says. "When the economy suffers, people are looking for answers. … We are the answer for white people.
"And now this immigrant thing in the past couple of years has been the biggest boon to us," Schoep says. "The immigration issue is the biggest problem we're facing because it's changing the face of our country. We see stuff in English and Spanish. … They are turning our country into a Third World ghetto."
The National Socialist Movement is the largest neo-Nazi group in the USA, according to the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League, which works to fight bigotry. The NSM has chapters in 38 states, its website says.
Mark Potok, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, says the debate over immigration has led to a rise in hate groups.
In Pennsylvania, where the Hispanic population increased by 41% from 2000 through 2007, Keystone United has been busy.
Members distribute fliers calling on residents to fight crime they say is committed by illegal immigrants, gangs and drug dealers. In September, members joined a rally against illegal immigration in Shenandoah that was organized after four white teens were arrested in connection with the beating death of a Latino illegal immigrant.
"A lot of these small working-class towns are being invaded by different types of people," says Douglas Myers, one of Keystone United's founders. He says the group speaks out for the rights of whites being pushed aside by newcomers.
"It appears they are tapping into and fanning the flames of mainstream America's fear of immigrants," says Ann Van Dyke of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. "They are increasingly using the language of Main Street, things like, 'We want safe communities to raise our children.' "
Myers says the group is organizing family-friendly activities, rejecting the violence that made skinheads notorious. For example, they plan gatherings in public libraries.
"It's not the footage from the '80s with people burning crosses. It's a very healthy environment," Myers, 26, says.
The renewed activity includes a boom on the Internet, says Don Black, creator of the Stormfront website. The site has 144,000 registered members.
"Many people in this country, even if they were upset with the country's immigration policies, never felt that threatened until now," Black, 55, says. "White people were the majority. That's rapidly changing."
Black says the candidacy of Barack Obama has raised his site's profile.
In the past year, members have posted 337 entries on Stormfront related to Obama, ranging from whether an Obama victory will start a revolution among whites to whether the candidate will take away gun rights.
Black's son, Derek, 19, was elected to the Palm Beach County, Fla., Republican committee in August. Local Republican leaders are trying to unseat him after learning of his white supremacist ties.
Don Black, once a Ku Klux Klan leader in Alabama, says he's encouraged by the enthusiasm he sees.
"We see a lot of people coming out of the woodwork," he says.