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Hug a hoodie: can there really be a kinder, gentler Ku Klux Klan?

The people Klansmen seem to hate most are each other

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

 New York

The Ku Klux Klan is rebranding. It’s less lynchings and cross burning these days, more novelty kitchenware (fancy an ‘Original Boyz N the Hood’ mug?), family barbecues and children’s TV shows. The traditional dress code — white robes, hoods, cone hats — still applies, by and large, but the rest of the Klan is having a makeover. ‘White supremacy is the old Klan, this is the new Klan,’ says John Abarr, a KKK chapter head from Great Falls, Montana. ‘The KKK is for a strong America. We’re not about violence. We’re about being proud to be white.’

Abarr met last year with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and has revised admission procedures for his ‘Rocky Mountain Knights’ to embrace Jews, gays, Hispanics and even blacks. Other, more conservative ‘grand wizards’ are appalled, but it’s not just Abarr: other Klansmen are trying to move with the times too. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — one of the biggest of some 163 ‘klaverns’ around America — is led by Pastor Thomas Robb, another apostle of a new touchy-feely KKK. Robb is an old-guard Klansman in his racial views, but has radical ideas about updating the KKK’s image. He calls himself ‘director’ rather than ‘grand wizard’ and — with his blonde daughter — presents a weekly internet TV show, This is the Klan, in which they give their slant on the news. For the kids, there’s The Andrew Show, presented by Robb’s cute-looking pre-teen grandson. Clearly reading from a script and holding his pet pug, Andrew discusses such hot-button topics as the inquities of racial mixing in Disney cartoons and gay prom queens. Robb also hosts $500-a-head summer camps for white families where the children play on the ‘Kids’ Korner’ playground or sing white-power songs around the barbecue while the grown-ups listen to talks from far-right extremists from around the world.

In a similar vein to Pastor Robb is Frank Ancona, imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, another relatively big klavern. Like Robb he brandishes the Bible, quoting very selectively. But he is also on LinkedIn and Twitter, where he presents himself in purple robes and pointed hat. Ancona insists his ‘Christian white group’ doesn’t hate anyone but is a ‘fraternal organisation’ that ‘does good works’.

Ancona and Robb say the KKK — whose free speech rights have been constitutionally guaranteed since it was created by a group of ex-Confederate soldiers in 1865 — is no longer about hate but love. Old Klansmen were obsessed with white supremacy but today’s grand wizards insist they’re just fighting for white survival. It’s possibly a meaningless difference but it allows them to exploit fears about immigration and statistics which show that in 2012, for the first time in history, whites accounted for a minority of the babies born in America. But the people Klansmen seem to hate most now are each other. Think of the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which Brian foolishly mistakes the lads from the People’s Front of Judea for their nemesis, the Judean People’s Front, and you have some idea how much the ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ Loyal White Knights now hate the wussy Traditionalist Knights. The continual battle for the crown of true heirs of the KKK can become comically nasty. At a rally in Memphis, Tennessee, last year, about 75 Klansmen pitched up to protest against plans to rename three parks that honoured Confederate generals. A rival Klan group turned up to protest against the first Klansmen and their support for racial hatred. If that wasn’t farcical enough, this second group was accompanied by members of a local chapter of the notorious black street gang the Crips.

Klan watchers say all that niceness is just a ruse, the last gasp of a dying movement. Certainly, for some Klansmen old habits die hard. A Tennessee member has just pleaded guilty to planting a burning cross outside the trailer home of a mixed-race couple. In April a 73-year-old former KKK leader, Frazier Cross, shot dead three people at two Jewish community centres in Missouri (unknown to him, none were actually Jewish). Frank Ancona condemned it as an ‘act of hate’ and other grand wizards also tutted.

Without the great unifying force of anger and the excitement of violence, the Klan is falling apart. Marketeers might call race hate their ‘unique selling point’. Take that away and you are left with infighting and silly outfits, and soon afterwards, with any luck, the Klan will disappear entirely.

Tom Leonard is US correspondent of the Daily Mail.

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