An African-American U.S. president is bringing out the best and the worst in the nation, say United Methodists who advocate against racism.

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.

Uncertain times

“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 strangers.”

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.

“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.”

Migrant workers harvest tomatoes at a farm in Immokalee, Fla. A UMNS file photo by Scott Robertson.

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.

“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.”

By John Coleman who is communications director for the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race. GCORR has launched a new blog site, where this article is featured, along with additional comments about this concern.