Former civil rights lawyer talks about ’rise of white nationalism’
DESTIN — Richard Cohen, a former civil rights lawyer and past president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, shared one of his biggest worries with more than 70 people at the Destin Library on Tuesday afternoon.
That’s when the Virginia native and current Pensacola resident gave his lecture, titled “The Rise of White Nationalism in 21st Century America.”
“In 25 years, demographers tell us, the fears of the white supremacists will come true,” Cohen said. “Our country will no longer have a white majority. And frankly, given how we’ve dealt with racial issues in the past, given how we’re dealing with them now, I worry that extremism is likely to get worse before it gets better.”
Cohen’s lecture, delivered during Black History Month, was presented by the Friends Guild of the Destin Library.
His hour-long talk included numerous references to President Donald Trump.
For example, Trump “is not a comedian, but he is definitely a performer,” Cohen said in his opening remarks. “He’s particularly good at what I would call disparagement humor,” such as by using nicknames like ’Lyin’ Ted’ Cruz, ’Little Marco’ Rubio, ’Sleepy Joe’ Biden and ’Pocahontas.’
“In some ways, Trump is like a shock-jock,” Cohen said. “He’s a man who could mock a war hero like John McCain and get away with it. Really, quite frankly, from the very moment that Trump came down that escalator in the building that bore his name on 5th Avenue, he’s been breaking social norms.
“You know, we had xenophobia. Right? ‘Mexicans are rapists and murderers and some, I guess, they might be good people.’
“We had racism: Majority-black cities as ‘hell-holes.’ And we had sexism, misogyny, a lot of it.”
Cohen said social scientists tell us that denigrating jokes, especially from prominent people, can activate prejudices and trigger discriminatory behavior.
He also noted that, “White supremacists, people with hate in their hearts, typically don’t get involved in presidential campaigns. 2016 was quite different. White supremacists flocked to Trump.”
For instance, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke said during Trump’s initial campaign that it would be treason for white people, to their race, if they don’t vote for Trump, Cohen recalled.
Instead of disavowing Duke, Trump said he didn’t know anything about him, Cohen said.
“In the aftermath of the election, we saw a rash of hate crimes,” he said. “Hundreds and hundreds in the first 10 days of the election, and about 40% of them bore Trump’s signature: They would use Trump during the course of an assault, or they wrote graffiti on a wall, ‘Make America White Again.’ ”
And in August 2017, Cohen noted, the infamous “Unite the Right” rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest talk of removing a local statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The rally involved hundreds of tiki-torch-carrying white supremacists, many of whom chanted “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” By the time it was over, a young woman was killed, two law officers trying to keep the peace lost their lives and more than 30 people were injured, Cohen said.
“The idea that demographic change is tantamount to white genocide has been a key factor driving the organized hate movement in our country for 20 years,” he said. “It was going on before Trump was president. It crested during Obama’s presidency.”
Toward the end of Obama’s second term, the number of organized hate groups in the United States decreased by about 25%, Cohen said. He thinks some group members simply lost energy, while others switched from organized groups to the anonymity of the Internet.
“But during the period that coincides with Trump’s (initial) campaign, and the first couple years of his presidency, the number of organized hate groups in our country again shot up by about 30%,” Cohen said. “Charlottesville was proof that Trump had energized the white supremacist movement and brought it out of the shadows.”
In 1970, close to 85% of the people in the U.S. were non-Hispanic whites, while today, that figure has fallen to just more than 60 percent, he said.
Also in 1970, less than 5% of the people in our country were foreign-born, while today that figure has almost tripled, and the majority of newcomers are persons of color from Mexico, Central America and Asia, Cohen said.
“If welcoming strangers was an instinctual thing, we wouldn’t have needed the Bible to tell us to do it 30 times,” he said. “It takes civilization – our families, our schools, our religious institutions – to establish the norms that curb our ethnocentric tendencies. It takes our leaders to uphold them.”