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Homegrown hate groups increase in number

The recession and the election of first black president have led to a rise in hate groups. NBC's Mara Schiavcampo reports.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, hate was on the march in St. Louis. About 85 members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the nation’s largest neo-Nazi group, gathered in the shadow of the famed Gateway Arch for a march and rally celebrating its 35th anniversary.

Clad in all black, with their pants tucked into tightly laced combat boots, the group carried swastika flags and signs urging immigrants to leave the country. They chanted “Sieg Heil,”  a popular rallying cry in World War II Germany, accompanied by a Nazi salute: one arm outstretched, fingers tightly joined, palms facing down.

Their critics say that groups like NSM are the faces of homegrown hate, something the NSM denies. They instead call themselves a “white civil rights organization.” Its ultimate goal is to whitewash America. If they had their way, U.S. citizenship would be limited to “those of pure white blood”; minorities would live in the country as guests. All Jewish people and gays would be forced to leave and immigration would be prohibited.

As shocking as those views are, groups like this are more popular than ever.

“Right across the board, extremist groups are thriving right now,” says Mark Potok, Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.

The SPLC has been tracking hate groups for almost 30 years. In its spring 2009 Intelligence Report, they found that 926 hate groups are currently operating in the U.S., an all-time high. These groups include the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and Black separatists.

Potok attributes this rise in hate groups to the recession, the election of the nation’s first black president, and the immigration debate.

“We’re looking at a kind of perfect storm of factors that really favor the continued growth of these groups,” he says.

Last month the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on the expansion of right wing extremist groups, saying those organizations are being fueled by the economic downturn and the election of Barack Obama.

But experts say it is the immigration debate that is most significantly contributing to the rise of hate groups, an issue that is exacerbated by the shaky economy.

“These groups have really successfully exploited the immigration issue,” Potok says. “For them it’s ‘brown skin people are coming into this country to destroy us.’”

Some groups, like the NSM, blame immigrants for the scarcity of available jobs.

“The government keeps telling us that these people are coming here to take the jobs that no one else wants,” says Jeff Schoep, head of the NSM. “I think it’s a lie, I think it’s a farce, and I think the American people are tired of being lied to.”

Officials say the NSM is a non-violent organization. But others are turning their frustrations into violent action. The immigration backlash has led to a surge in hate crimes against Hispanics, up 40 percent between 2003 and 2007, according to FBI statistics.

Last November, 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero, a 16-year resident of the U.S., was attacked while walking near his home in Patchogue, New York. Prosecutors say a group of seven teens taunted Lucero with racial slurs, beat him, and fatally stabbed him in the chest. The reason? According to prosecutors they were “beaner hopping”: attacking Hispanics for sport. All of the defendants have pled not guilty.

“In that moment, the world collapsed on my shoulders and everything changed,” says the victim’s brother, Joselo Lucero. “I don’t want my community, my people suffering anymore. Because everyday people wake up to work and they don’t know if they’re going to come back.”

Potok says the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president has also been a powerful recruiting tool for some hate groups, and led to a rash of violence and vandalism in the days after the election.

While that overall situation is worrisome, Potok points out that in some ways it also marks signs of progress.

“The long arc of history really does bend towards justice. What we are seeing I think is a backlash to real and significant social advance.”