When Dylann Storm Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he joined the Bible-study class before gunning down nine African-Americans as they prayed.
Roof still communicates with his admirers on the outside. In jail, he began exchanging letters with a man in Arkansas named Billy Roper. A former schoolteacher and the son and grandson of Klansmen, Roper leads the Shield Wall Network, a group of several dozen white nationalists who organize rallies and conferences — often collaborating with neighboring hate groups — with the goal of building a white ethno-state. “I have a lot of empathy for him. I’m 47, and he’s young enough to be my son,” Roper said of Roof when interviewed recently for this project. “These millennials and now, I guess, Gen-Zers that are coming up, they are not stupid about the demographic trends and what they portend for the future. That angst, that anxiety that plagues them, drives them to do rash things — whether it’s that rash or not — I can empathize with.” I would humbly suggest we believe that Roper is being sincere, and that he speaks for many.
Roper and Roof are only two of those affiliated with the 148 white-nationalist hate groups in this country. Though it is impossible to calculate their exact membership numbers (as individual groups either conceal or inflate them), their violence is indisputable. White supremacists were responsible for the deaths of at least 39 people in 2018 alone. And the activity has not slowed this year: not in January, as neo-Nazis plastered flyers outside newspaper offices and homes in Washington State and the Carolinas and an army veteran pleaded guilty to killing a black man in New York to “ignite a racial war”; in February, as Vermont synagogues and LGBT centers were vandalized and a self-described white-nationalist Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested for plotting a domestic terror attack; in March, as WELCOME TO GERMANY and GAS THE JEWS were spray-painted outside Oklahoma City Democratic Party and Chickasaw Nation offices and, on the Upper East Side, classmates handed their school’s only black ninth-grader a note reading “n—–s don’t have rights”; in April, as a shooting at a synagogue left one dead and three injured and FBI Director Christopher Wray called white supremacy a “persistent, pervasive” threat to the country; in May, as swastikas fell from the sky — on flyers dropped by drones outside an Ariana Grande concert — and were scrawled on public spaces in at least three states; in June, as far-right groups rallied in Portland, Oregon, for the first time that summer; in July, as a man promoted a white-power manifesto on Instagram before killing three and wounding 17 others at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California; in August, as another angry young man — this one 1,000 miles away in El Paso, Texas — posted an anti-immigrant manifesto online then committed this year’s most deadly mass shooting, killing 22 and injuring 24 at a Walmart; in September, as the Department of Homeland Security added white-supremacist extremism to its list of priority threats, the same month a swastika appeared on its walls; in October, as swastikas also appeared on Cape Cod and invitations to a white-supremacist gathering were mailed to Maine residents; in November, as a white-supremacist group filmed a video outside Mississippi’s Emmett Till Memorial; nor this month, as students flashed possible white-power signs at an Army-Navy football game.
The photojournalist Mark Peterson has documented this year, traveling the country to surface the extent of the activity and catalogue the most dangerous ideologies. His quotidian look at contemporary American Confederacy and white nationalism shows us our neighbors in other robes. The people portrayed are living among us in every region of the country, in our workplaces, in our government, on social media, and, for some, in our homes. Their culture is made up of both public rallies and private rituals. We see their homes and their streets and their schools, and that these are also our streets and our schools and our neighbors. “These pictures weren’t just taken in the South,” says Peterson, who covers the right wing and began documenting the rise of white nationalism after the 2016 election. “They were taken in New York, in New Jersey, in California, in Portland. The idea of quarantining it or ignoring it: That didn’t work in the past when they tried to do that, and it won’t now.”
The barrage of daily headlines makes it easy to see this year’s incidents as isolated, as white noise in the background of our relentless political moment. But as disturbing as they are, these images portray the American story. It is our inheritance, institutionalized since the Civil War by a government that only recently, and tentatively, began to address domestic terrorism for what it is. White nationalism, legitimized by our president’s support of “very fine people,” has flourished in part because of this refusal to look it squarely in its face and acknowledge it as homegrown. Without a full accounting of the reality, there can be no remedy. To look away is a form of collaboration. —Claudia Rankine
The Klan Near New York
Rallying in Major Cities
Policing White Supremacy
Hate on the Rise
After a white supremacist killed 51 people in two New Zealand mosques in March, President Trump was asked if he thought the threat of white nationalism was on the rise. “I don’t, really,” he responded. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
Hate-crime statistics are notoriously difficult to calculate. Local and state law-enforcement agencies are not required to submit numbers to the FBI, laws defining hate crimes vary from state to state, and experts estimate that more than half of all hate crimes go unreported. According to the FBI, hate-crime violence hit a 16-year high in 2018 with the black, Jewish, Latino, and transgender communities being targeted more than ever and the nation’s largest cities seeing the most activity. The FBI’s 2019 numbers won’t be available until next November, but indications suggest they will continue to trend upward. The most deadly mass shooting of 2019 was committed by a xenophobic extremist in El Paso, Texas. “Lone wolf” killers have found their pack.