Around sunset, in the backyard of a house in a small Ohio town, a group of men set fire to a wooden swastika they’d built. As the flames rose, they raised their right arms and made a Nazi salute. “White Power!” they shouted. “White Power!”
I’m forbidden to say who these men are, or where exactly we were — that was part of the deal for me to witness this grim ceremony. But similar hate-fueled gatherings are happening across the U.S. with increasing ferocity.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the number of radical groups operating in the U.S. has grown from 784 in 2014 to 892 in 2015; and organizations affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan from 72 to 190. This year, hatred and hate crimes seem to be trending. Over the last six months, I’ve traveled around the country with a team of other journalists and filmmakers to create a documentary called “Hate Rising.” What we’ve found is deeply worrisome.
In Texas an imperial wizard in the Ku Klux Klan told me without hesitation that he was superior to me because he is white and I am Hispanic. In Virginia a commentator from the so-called “alt-right” media warned me that, sooner or later, I’d have to leave the U.S., along with millions of other Hispanics, so that hate groups can build a mostly white country.
White supremacists are angry — but they’re also terrified. In three decades, non-Hispanic whites, who account for some 60% of the population in the U.S., will no longer be a majority, according to census projections. Indeed, America’s future demographics will look more like those of Texas, California and New Mexico today — states where minorities are the majority. Racists, however, are trying to resist our inevitable multicultural, multiracial future.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric has only emboldened them to speak up. The Republican presidential candidate says things that no other national politician would dare. The dynamic is what Karen Stenner, an expert on authoritarianism, calls the “activation” theory. When a group such as the white supremacists feels threatened, it seeks a leader who identifies a common enemy, expresses the group’s fears and offers a plan of action to combat the perceived enemy. That’s what Trump offers to racists when he pledges that if elected he will build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, deport millions of undocumented residents and prevent Muslims from entering the country.
Meanwhile, white supremacists continue to act out their hate. I recently met a Somali immigrant who told me that an assailant smashed a beer glass against her face because she wasn’t speaking English. And I met a Mexican immigrant who was brutally beaten on a Boston street by two brothers who praised Trump.
These aren’t isolated cases. The Council on American-Islamic Relations logged 63 attacks against mosques last year. And the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 20 people were killed by white supremacists in the U.S. in 2015.
Racist groups, like the ones I encountered during the filming of our documentary, often gather in secret and boost their membership through the internet — the use of social media is one of their leading means for recruiting. However, in this election cycle, many have come out from the dark and are making themselves heard in public.
I’ve lived in the United States for 33 years, but I’ve never felt so much hatred. In Ohio that night, I watched as the flaming swastika slowly burned out. Surrounded by white extremists, I tried to speak as little as possible. After all, I have an accent. I knew that this wasn’t a safe place for an immigrant like myself — a place in a country whose own Declaration of Independence, signed more than 240 years ago, states that all men are created equal.
The documentary, “Hate Rising”, will air this Sunday October 23rd at 10 pm on Fusion in English and on Univision in Spanish