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In some parts, Obama’s election sparks white backlash

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-11-24

While Barack Obama’s election represented a break with America’s troubled racial past, in some pockets, the past lives on – as a growing number of black victims of extremist white rage have painfully learned.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 5, shortly after Barack Obama delivered his historic election victory speech, Alie Kamara was walking home from a friend’s place in New York City’s Staten Island when he was brutally attacked by two men screaming, “Obama! Obama!”

The 17-year-old high school student, who emigrated to the US from Liberia in 2000, was on Vanderbilt Avenue in a predominantly black neighborhood when a car pulled up alongside him.

Two young white men, dressed in hooded sweatshirts, jumped out of the vehicle and started to pummel the defenseless black teenager with a bat and a pipe. Throughout the attack, the men kept yelling the new president-elect’s name, according to Kamara. They only stopped when the teen, bleeding profusely from head injuries, managed to flee and jump over a fence.

When Kamara’s mother, Jeneba Ladepo, answered her cell phone minutes later, she had a distraught son at the other end of the line. “He kept saying, ‘Mama, please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die,’” Ladepo told FRANCE 24 in a phone interview from Staten Island. “I was so shocked. I was in tears. I told him, ‘Of course you’re not going to die. I’m coming right down now.’”

By the time Ladepo, a 36-year-old immigrant who does not drive, managed to get to her son, he had been admitted into a local hospital, where he was administered four staples to seal the lacerations in his head.  His torso, arms and legs were also badly bruised, according to medical records.

Kamara’s two alleged attackers were subsequently apprehended by the police and charged with second degree assault in a hate crime as well as criminal possession of a weapon.

On Nov. 4, Americans overwhelmingly elected their first black president, overcoming centuries of racial prejudice. But in some pockets of the country, a series of racial incidents targeting colored people have raised alarm bells among community activists and hate crime cells at local police stations.

The phenomenon is still too early to be reflected in official, nationwide crime statistics. But based on anecdotal evidence, community activists and criminologists are reporting a spike in racial incidents in pockets of the country.

Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based nonprofit organization that monitors hate crimes, says he has registered “hundreds” of racial incidents since the final weeks of the US presidential campaign.

“We’re seeing a fairly substantial white backlash,” said Potok. “And I think it will get worse.”

The backlash, according to Potok, includes racist graffiti, cross burnings in yards, black effigies hanging from nooses, as well as racist slurs and chants in schoolyards and school buses.  Not all the incidents, Potok noted, could be described as “hate crimes.” But they certainly qualify as troubling racial incidents.

‘Dabblers’ looking for trouble

In the aftermath of Obama’s much-heralded victory, the latest incidents show that while race did not matter to the vast majority of American voters, it still matters to a small section of hardcore racists.

“It may seem like this is a contradiction between electing an African-American president and then immediately after that, the country sees hundreds of hate crimes against African-Americans,” said Jack Levin, a sociologist and criminologist at the Boston-based Northeastern University. “But there’s no contradiction because racism is still a part of this country, although there’s certainly less of it.”

The latest available FBI crime statistics record a minor drop in hate crimes across the US from 2006 to 2007. The bureau recorded 7,624 hate crimes in 2007, down from 7,722 reported in 2006.

But to get a better sense of the falling appeal of racist groups, experts such as Levin take the long term view. “In the 1920s, for instance, there were 4 million members of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan),” says Levin. “Today, you might find between 20,000 to 50,000 members of white supremacist groups in a country of about 310 million people.”

The exact numbers of white supremacist groups in the US however are hard to arrive at. While the FBI lists 24 groups as domestic terrorist groups, it does not release the percentage of white supremacist groups among them.

But the bulk of hate crime perpetrators, according to Levin, are not members of white supremacist groups, but a demographic he calls “dabblers”.

“They are usually teenagers or young adults who will go out on a Saturday night looking for someone or something to assault or vandalize,” says Levin.

A ‘perfect storm’ of factors stirred on the Internet

For “dabblers”, the Internet is an important source of inspiration, note hate crime monitors.

While experts such as Potok warn that white supremacist groups routinely exaggerate their claims, they have no doubts that supremacist sites are experiencing an Internet boom.

In the immediate aftermath of the Nov. 4 election, for instance, Stormfront, the largest white-power Web site in the US, reported that their servers crashed due to heavy traffic.

The lure of white supremacist sites, said Levin, is particularly strong for young people who feel marginalized. “They log on to a chat room and suddenly they find hundreds of friends who hate just as well as they do,” he explained.

For hardcore racists, Obama’s ascension to the White House represents a tipping point in what Potok calls a “perfect storm” of factors churning the racial teacup. “The economy is in a terrible state and it will only get worse,” said Potok. “Unemployment is high and immigration is rising. These are all potent recruitment issues.”

But for immigrants such as Ladepo, who arrived in the US to provide a better life for their children, hate crimes are baffling. “I didn’t leave my country to have my son almost killed by a baseball bat, because that’s what they were going to do, they were going to kill him if he didn’t run away,” said Kamara’s mother.

For Ladepo, who became a US citizen last year, it was a particularly fraught experience. “I’m proud of Obama’s victory,” she said. “It was the first time I voted (in a US election) and I’m proud. I’m not disappointed in this country because there are a lot of good people here and there are some bad people. I just feel bad that some few people, it doesn’t take a lot of them, could do something so horrible to my son.”

Date created : 2008-11-24