Van White was the attorney for a high profile civil rights case in 2006, when he received an anonymous letter in the mail that included the following message:
“We the members of the Ku Klux Klan are sick and tired of these jungle monkeys getting positions, like they are better than us…”
White believes the letter was written in retaliation for his pursuit of the case. He reported the letter to authorities, who he says investigated the penmanship but could not track it back to an author.
“I’ve got to tell you I’m a civil rights lawyer when I’m not doing my school district stuff and this is not unusual,” says White, who also serves as president of the Rochester City School District’s School Board, although he notes he’s never received threats related to his position on the board.
In 2013, there were more than seven thousand reported victims of hate crimes in the United States.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says there are 784 active and organized hate groups across the country- 44 of them are right here in New York State. SPLC says they target groups by religion, sexual orientation, race and a host of other factors, and fall into various categories that include: black separatists, Neo-Nazi, Anti-Muslim and Anti-LGBT.
In the wake of the shooting in Charleston, many wonder what would drive someone to commit a hate crime and whether these groups have influence.
“People who have grown up in a condition of privilege and feel that slipping away, they’re the most likely recruits for hate groups,” says Professor Thomas Gibson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester, who has studied hate groups abroad and in the United States.
Gibson says groups find more recruits by spreading ideas online but also find peers who think alike.
“In a way the rise of social media and the way people’s extreme views can get reinforced by someone just sitting alone in a basement, I think is a cause for more concern perhaps than the organized groups,” he says.
Gibson says the patches seen in a photo of the Charleston shooting suspect, represent the past racial apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and a connection to supremacist ideologies that could easily be bolstered online.
“People who might for whatever personal reasons nurture certain grudges can now find like-minded individuals all over the country or even all over the world,” says Gibson.
Van White says although the authors of the hate-filled letter to him were never identified, he doesn’t fear them. With the Charleston tragedy in view, he is optimistic that the country can come together to send back their own message.
“We are a country that has faults but we are bar none the best country in identifying those faults and rectifying them,” says White. “Does that mean we don’t have work to do? Absolutely not, we have much work to do.”
The Department of Justice is investigating the massacre in Charleston as a hate crime.
written by: Natasha Alford