The ATF has disrupted the plot of two neo-nazis to kill 88 black people, decaptitating 14 of them, and ending their killing spree with the assassination of Barack Obama. The numbers 88 and 14 hold significance within white supremacist movement rhetoric, “88” stands for “Heil Hitler,” (H is the eigth letter of the alphabet) and “14” represents the “14 word” slogan of white supremacists (“we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”).
The two men, Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tennessee (picture here in an undated MySpace photo picked by the AP), and Paul Schlesselman 18, of West Helena, Arkansas, are being held without bond.
This news story, like the one of the failed hoax by Ashley Todd who claimed she was assaulted by a black man, will no doubt get filed away and dismissed for most Americans as the behavior of a “few nutcases.” But, I want to suggest that interpreting this sort of behavior through a mental health lens is another way of using the white racial frame to interpret events that obfuscates a larger pattern. While it’s true, as Adia points out, that whites are supporting Obama in record numbers, it’s also the case that there is a centuries-long history of this sort of racist activity in the U.S. For example, at one time another white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, included 4 million members nationally. Of course, their numbers are nowhere near that level today (the SPLC estimates there are probably 800 groups nationally). But that doesn’t mean white supremacists are not a threat. It simply means they are a different kind of threat. They are not likely to draw large numbers to their ranks, but those that are in the groups are potentially very dangerous, as is evident in the arrest of Cowan and Schlesselman.
The problem with interpreting the actions (or planned actions) of individuals like Cowart and Schlesselman merely as “nutcases” is that such an interpretation blinds us to the fact that white supremacist groups have been a consistent presence in this country since 1866. And, each time their numbers fall, whites who are not members of these groups, claim that these groups “are dead.” Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking more than accurate observation.