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After Obama's win, white backlash festers in US

The election of a black president triggered at least 200 hate-related incidents, a watchdog group finds.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2008

Booked: Raymond Foster faces second-degree murder charges in Louisiana in last week’s death of a Ku Klux Klan recruit.

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office

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Atlanta

In rural Georgia, a group of high-schoolers gets a visit from the Secret Service after posting "inappropriate" comments about President-elect Barack Obama on the Web. In Raleigh, N.C., four college students admit to spraying race-tinged graffiti in a pedestrian tunnel after the election. On Nov. 6, a cross burns on the lawn of a biracial couple in Apolacon Township, Pa.

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The election of America's first black president has triggered more than 200 hate-related incidents, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center – a record in modern presidential elections. Moreover, the white nationalist movement, bemoaning an election that confirmed voters' comfort with a multiracial demography, expects Mr. Obama's election to be a potent recruiting tool – one that watchdog groups warn could give new impetus to a mostly defanged fringe element.

Most election-related threats have so far been little more than juvenile pranks. But the political marginalization of certain Southern whites, economic distress in rural areas, and a White House occupant who symbolizes a multiethnic United States could combine to produce a backlash against what some have heralded as the dawn of a postracial America. In some parts of the South, there's even talk of secession.

"Most of this movement is not violent, but there is a substantive underbelly that is violent and does try to make a bridge to people who feel disenfranchised," says Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "The question is: Will this swirl become a tornado or just an ill wind? We're not there yet, but there's dust on the horizon, a swirling of wind, and the atmospherics are getting put together for [conflict]."

Though postelection racist incidents haven't posed any real danger to society or the president-elect, law enforcement is taking note.

"We're trying to be out there at the cutting edge of this and trying to stay ahead of groups that are emerging," says Special Agent Darrin Blackford, a spokesman for the Secret Service, which guards the US president.

"Anytime you start seeing [extremist propaganda] floating around, you have to be concerned," adds Lt. Gary Thornberry of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, a member of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. "As far as it being an alarmist situation, I don't see that yet. From a law enforcement point of view, you have to be careful, because it's not illegal to have an ideology."

After sparking conflict and showdowns in the 1990s – think Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing – white supremacist and nationalist groups began this century largely splintered and powerless. Though high immigration levels helped boost the number of hate groups from 602 in 2000 to 888 in 2007, key leaders of such groups had died, been imprisoned, or were otherwise marginalized.

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