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Social movements evolve over time, and the white power movement is no different. White racial extremists have shifted their language and tactics to adapt to different eras. As NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam reports, violence is emerging as a defining characteristic of the movement.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: When Art Jipson first began studying white supremacists in the 1990s, he expected them to sound menacing or hateful. Instead, he heard this...
ART JIPSON: My movement is not about hate. My movement is about love, love of family, protection of children, protection of women.
ALLAM: Jipson was witnessing a transformation that's sometimes called boots to suits. It's when scary-looking skinheads and cross-burning Klansmen took a back seat to well-dressed politically savvy public figures - think David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard who ran for president. White supremacists still attacked with regularity throughout the '90s and early 2000s, but historically, they've been overlooked as a domestic terror threat. And after 9/11, they were eclipsed by the focus on Islamist extremists. Now, however, attacks like the massacre of Latino shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso make racial violence impossible to ignore. Jipson and other researchers say it looks like the movement is changing again.
JIPSON: The message now, in some ways, has returned back to some of those appeals towards violence.
ALLAM: The FBI calls white supremacist violence a, quote, "persistent, pervasive threat," but they're not clear on the scope of it. Law enforcement data is unreliable in part because racially motivated attacks aren't always categorized that way. Still, researchers say, the numbers they do have point to a surge. For example, hate trackers at the Anti-Defamation League found that right-wing extremists killed more people in 2018 than in any year since 1995. Most of those incidents - 78% - were connected to white supremacists.
AMY SPITALNICK: You look at Charlotte. You look at Pittsburgh. You look at Poway. You look at Christchurch. She look at Gilroy. You look at El Paso. That is a level of violence and of extremist violence that we have not seen in years.
ALLAM: That's Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America. It's a nonprofit behind a civil lawsuit against organizers of the Unite the Right rally that turned bloody in Charlottesville, Va., two years ago. Spitalnick says hoods are a thing of the past.
SPITALNICK: These neo-Nazis and white supremacists have absolutely no shame about what they believe and their willingness to commit this violence.
ALLAM: In fact, they spell it out in the screeds they often post on social media before attacks. They name-drop earlier attackers, and in turn use language meant to inspire others to take up arms. Parts of the manifesto linked to the El Paso suspect read like a how-to manual.
KATHLEEN BELEW: It's giving really direct tactical and - tactical instruction, target instruction, information about ballistics and gun selection. That's meant to be picked up and used by other attackers.
ALLAM: Kathleen Belew at the University of Chicago is a leading historian of the white power movement. She says it's dangerous to ignore the movement's shift toward violence. Rampages like the one in El Paso, she warned, should not be viewed as a one-off attack.
BELEW: It's not enough to simply say this is a horrible thing. We have to understand that it is meant to provoke an even more horrible thing, an even greater series of violent events.
ALLAM: In other words, she says, the El Paso attack wasn't the end goal. It was meant as a beginning. Hannah Allam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.