Watchdog group on organized racism responds to Trump’s victory

Terri Johnson on Nov. 30, 2016
Terri Johnson Executive Director of Center for New Community speaking about the presidential election of Donald Trump on Nov. 30, 2016. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)

By Cloee Cooper

Many organizations were caught off guard by Donald Trump’s election. Some saw it coming when the presidential campaign geared up last January.

“Everyone is understanding now that the far right is now mainstream. Its running the country. We and others have been warning others about this for a long time,” says Reverend David Ostendorf, founder of Center for New Community (CNC), a national civil rights organization that serves as a watchdog against organized racism.

The organization’s investigative research analyzes the threats to policy and media discourse posed by far right movements. According to them, since the end of the civil rights movement, some of the overtly racist organizations rebranded themselves and found issues that would push their agenda into the mainstream without ever having to speak about race.

“We and our partners had prided ourselves on the fact that we had marginalized a lot of these people and helped people understand their agenda,” says Terri Johnson, Executive Director of CNC, referring to far right, white nationalist organizations and their connections to prominent public figures. “And now, we are going to be talking about people who are holding office and that is a different ballgame,” Johnson said.

CNC’s small office in Chicago doesn’t have a sign on the door and research staff didn’t want their names revealed for this story.

Johnson says after attempting to marginalize extremist groups, and hold mainstream media outlets accountable to accurately identify them, it is painful to see their resurgence through Trump’s campaign.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who met with Trump last week to discuss plans for the Department of Homeland Security, drafted the controversial anti-immigrant SB1070 law in Arizona, known as the “papers please” law. He currently counsels the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal affiliate of Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and has been affiliated with the group since July, 2006.

FAIR was founded by John Tanton, who wrote in a letter to a colleague in 1993, “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that,” according to CNC.

ACT for America, the largest anti-Muslim grassroots group in America which boasts a membership of 400,000, sent a letter to their constituents celebrating Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the President-elect’s choice for national security advisor. Flynn sits on the board of ACT for America.

Another specialist in the field lauds the work of CNC in marginalizing anti-immigrant groups in the media prior to the presidential campaign, but said the work ahead is to reach beyond media outlets to the general public. Chip Berlet researches and writes about the far right and formerly worked as an investigative journalist at Political Research Associates (PRA), an organization focused on challenging the right and on building social movements.

“Who these people were was outlined repeatedly prior to the election,” says Berlet. “But, what didn’t happen, is these groups were certainly not marginalized in the general public.”

For Berlet, the election reflects a push back amongst white people who are afraid of losing their white majority status. “It’s hardly a secret that us white folks are running out of white folks,” he says. “The anger that millions of Americans have been pushed down the economic ladder mobilizes resentment toward a scapegoat. A whole range of scapegoats.”

“That is right wing populism,” says Berlet.

In the two weeks following the election, the SPLC reported 879 hate crimes in the United States. Of those, 280 were anti-immigrant, 187 were anti-Black, 100 were anti-semitic, 95 were anti-LBGT and 49 were anti-Muslim. The highest number of hate crimes were reported the day after the election and twenty-five have been reported in Illinois. The SPLC collects this data through their #ReportHate page and media accounts.

“The ripple effect is that people are scared,” says Johnson. “And not just for the people who could potentially be deported, and for the people who potentially won’t be welcome here. It’s also the people doing the work are raising some questions about how do we stay safe?”

CNC is partnering with Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) Chicago, the American Friends Service Committee, and Jewish Voices for Peace on the Chicago Coalition Against Islamophobia, a partnership grounded in responding to rising anti-Muslim activity and rhetoric.

Even with increased fear, Johnson says the work must continue. “We can’t allow people to be vulnerable because we got an emboldened group of people who decided it’s ok to say and do whatever you want to people who don’t look like you, people you perceive aren’t praying like you.”

Berlet is working on a book and doing workshops about the far right, and what progressive groups can do next. He has been urging people to continue to organize despite the fear.

“Being afraid is a realistic assessment, but being paralyzed is not,” he says. “It is a very bad moment. It is a tricky moment. It could go either way. We are called to resist.”

Photo at top: Executive Director of Center for New Community Terri Johnson speaks about the presidential election of Donald Trump. Nov. 30, 2016. (Cloee Cooper/MEDILL)