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Ads Amplify the Voices of Race Hatred

White supremacists are using mainstream media to gain new followers, and legitimacy. Watchdogs fear violence if such groups grow.

February 13, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

The Panzerfaust company dissolved this month when one of the label's founders accused his business partner of being half-Mexican -- an ethnic heritage considered treasonous in the white-power world. Already, however, other groups have stepped up teen recruitment, selling swastika pendants online and promoting a "pro-white radio station" that streams supremacist ballads, heavy metal and rock songs.

Public outreach is not new for white-supremacist groups. The Knights of the KKK have been picking up litter for Missouri's Adopt-a-Highway program for years.

But hate-group monitors say the latest recruitment campaigns are much broader than any they've seen before.

Neo-Nazi organizations are not only putting up billboards, they're also instructing members to hide tattoos and dress for rallies in conservative suits to avoid being dismissed as extremists. Thomas Robb, the national director of the Knights of the KKK, urges his members to serve on community boards and in political parties so they can push their white-power agenda from positions of social respect.

"I encourage them to do that, absolutely," Robb said. "Though it has to be done gently."

The National Alliance, meanwhile, is increasingly tailoring its leaflets to current events. Local members seize on any racial tensions in their community as an excuse to blanket the area with articles explaining the white-power worldview.

As Walker, the chief operating officer, put it: "The current powers that be constantly demonize us. But if we can get our message out to enough people, we'll gain legitimacy with the public."

Civil rights advocates call this new emphasis on legitimacy insidious, because it could lure people into neo-Nazi circles before they fully understand what they're being sold.

Some of the National Alliance's ads and websites make it look "like the focus is on mainstream conservative issues," said Karen Aroesty, the Midwest director of the Anti-Defamation League. The Las Vegas billboard, for instance, urged: "Stop Immigration." The one in Salt Lake City declared: "Securing the Future for European Americans."

Although no one offers hard numbers, white supremacists contend -- and their sharpest critics agree -- that the recruitment strategy is working.

Many of the promotions are short-lived; the MetroLink ads were up just a week before transit officials removed them in response to a complaint. Such controversy, however, generates media coverage that can be even more valuable than the ads themselves.

Media reports about the Salt Lake City billboard drove 4,500 visitors to the National Alliance's local website in a single week -- compared with average traffic of 100 hits a month, Walker said.

When the flap about the MetroLink ads made news here, the National Alliance got so many calls that the phone company insisted that the group upgrade its voice mail system, said Collins, the chapter leader. He wouldn't give precise numbers, but said 80% of the callers listened to the two-minute white-power message on the group's answering machine, then hung up. He said there were two angry callers but that many people asked for more information. "I had to appoint three people just to call people back," he said.

"What evidence we've seen indicates that real-world advertisement and promotion has far more impact on recruitment than online work does," said Burghart, the Chicago human rights monitor.

"They reach a different demographic," he said. Many middle-aged recruits, he said, feel more comfortable joining a group they've seen on TV or have heard advertised on the radio, rather than one that makes its presence known mostly through racist rants in Internet chat rooms.

Hate groups recognize the power of that outreach. So they intend to keep at it.

"You know the old saying: It pays to advertise," Walker said. The thought chills Marilyn Mayo, an associate director of the Anti-Defamation League.

"Only a very small percentage of the population supports them," she said. "But they always will attract a certain number -- and how many is too much?"

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