MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. There's been a simmering concern in police departments around the country. How will white supremacists respond to an African-American presidential candidate or president? This week, the case of two skinheads in Tennessee drew attention to those worries. The men were arrested and accused of plotting to kill Barack Obama. As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston discovered, Obama's presidential run has split white supremacist groups. Many oppose his candidacy, but some believe an African-American president will help their cause.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Days before Barack Obama accepted the nomination in Denver, a rather ominous story hit the airwaves.
(Soundbite of news broadcast)
Unidentified Reporter: The FBI is investigating a possible threat on Barack Obama's life. Three men described as white supremacists are under arrest in Denver after...
TEMPLE-RASTON: While law enforcement officials say Obama was never in any danger in either the Denver episode or the incident that came to light yesterday, in the same breath, they say they can't afford to take these cases lightly.
Mr. JOHN KARL (Officer, Criminal Conspiracy Unit, LAPD): There is a probable hypothesis that in the event that Obama becomes president, that you could have a galvanization of these white supremacist groups.
TEMPLE-RASTON: John Karl is in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department's criminal conspiracy unit.
Mr. KARL: Obviously, law enforcement needs to be prepared. And how do you prepare? You need to become as resourceful and as comprehensively understand the groups and individuals involved in that field. But we're restricted at the same time too. No crime has been committed. No activity has come up on the radar screen. And so we can't just arbitrarily start rounding people up. You know, there's a little problem with the Constitution, things like that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Karl says the First Amendment ties law enforcement's hands. They can't move in until and unless these groups actually commit a crime. Travel out of L.A. to Southern California cities further inland where supremacists have traditionally congregated, and law enforcement is clearly on high alert.
Mr. CHRIS KEELING (Officer, Hate Crimes Taskforce, FBI): OK. What was going on there?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Chris Keeling is part of the FBI's hate crimes taskforce working out of the Santa Clarita Sheriff's office. As he sees it, Obama's affect on the hate movement is no longer theoretical. It's already happened.
Mr. KEELING: There's more things on the Internet. There's more flyer, more leafleting going out because now they have a target. Take Obama out of the situation, you're still going to have leafleting. But I think, by Obama being in there and being a stone's throw from being the president, has it increased the Internet activity? Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
TEMPLE-RASTON: These days, Keeling works about six hate crime calls a week. Some of them are serious. A couple of months ago, some skinheads beat up a customer at a restaurant just because he was black. And others are crimes of opportunity. Obama posters, for example, have become an easy target.
Mr. KEELING: Now you have Obama placards throughout people's businesses, in their homes. If a guy has a certain view and now he defaces it, it made it a little easier. Other than that, he had to go find a wall somewhere and spray paint it.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI set up a taskforce in Santa Clarita because racist skinhead gangs have long been a fixture there. For years, the Antelope Valley has been a white enclave, a refuge from L.A. Then immigrants began moving in. Keeling says Obama's candidacy is adding fear and uncertainty to an already volatile mix.
Mr. KEELING: This is different. This is new. This has never happened before. We're not doing anything extra, but we're just kind of being more cognizant.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Part of the problem is that Obama is playing into the neo-Nazi and white supremacists narrative, says Brian Levin who studies hate and extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Professor BRIAN LEVIN (Director, Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, California State University, San Bernardino): So what they're saying is, everything we warned about - that Jews and Blacks coming out of the urban areas are going to take over this white nation of ours - has occurred. So, what they think is this is a great recruiting tool.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Levin says you only have to look at the Internet to see how white supremacist leaders like David Duke are using Obama to rally their troops. David Duke has called Obama a visual aid for hate groups. He says an Obama presidency would prove one of the basic tenants of the white power movement, that whites have lost control of America.
Dr. DAVID DUKE (White Supremacist Leader): This is a cultural and racial battlefront, and Barack Obama is symbol number one of the worst the future has to offer.
TEMPLE-RASTON: While Obama may be an easy focus of discussion for haters, he hasn't unified them. In fact, in many ways he's managed to do just the opposite. He's divided the movement. Tim Zaal is a former white supremacist from Los Angeles who has renounced his racist past. He's in his old neighborhood in West Hollywood.
Mr. TIM ZAAL (Former Neo-Nazi): Back in the day, early 1980s, 1981, 1982, this used to be my stomping ground.
TEMPLE-RASTON: As Zaal sees it, the split Obama has created is almost generational between old-school Ku Klux Klan types who are viscerally against a black man running for president and a new wave of haters.
Mr. ZAAL: The more - it's kind of strange to say it - but a progressive white racist sort of attitude where the worse it gets, the better. Get a woman in there. Get a black man in there. Get people angry. In my eyes, from that point of view back in those days, great, great.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Zaal says the new generation is particularly focused on what they see as the coming race war. They have been trying to spark one for years. Some think, even hope, that an Obama presidency will do just that. Zaal says some will actually vote for Obama under the belief that it will send the country into a tailspin.
Mr. ZAAL: The worse it gets, the better. The faster this country falls, the sooner white revolution will arise.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That kind of thinking is all over neo-Nazi Web sites. On one, a man with the penname "Last of My Kind" writes, quote, "Could it be that the nomination of Obama finally sparks a sense of unity in white voters? I would propose that this threat of black rule may very well be the thing that finally scares some sense back into complacent whites," unquote. And that is what worries police and the FBI. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.