NEW YORK, (U-Wire) — Saturday the Ku Klux Klan is coming to town. This particular group, the American Knights of the KKK, is the newest but fastest-growing arm of the KKK, now with chapters in 27 states including New York. Watchgroups of the KKK often cite the American Knights as evidence for the fast growth of the racist, religious right in the United States, and, indeed, its presence is painfully felt.
Aside from the fear-invoking, psychological impact of organized groups of men wearing white hoods, the public demonstrations of the American Knights this year in Ohio alone have cost local counties almost a million dollars in security and fencing at Klan rallies. Some anti-Klan advocates have urged protesters to stay away from the rallies, and to instead show their scorn by not giving the Klansmen the time of day; they argue such an approach would put vast public funds spent monitoring the clashing groups to better uses.
Further controversy has been stirred by the mayor’s attempt to stop the rally, which he cites would violate the New York State law that prohibits people from publicly demonstrating while wearing masks. The mayor has stirred up a First Amendment issue that has resulted in Harlem’s Reverend Al Sharpton and Million Youth March organizer Khalid Muhammad to come out in defense of the Klan’s right to free speech in a public demonstration. The Klansman, cloaked in hoods and controversy, are causing a real disturbance before they make their first official appearance in the city of New York.
Yet, the controversy is almost too easy. While I, too, am deeply unsettled at the thought of faceless white hoods parading in the streets of New York, the KKK represents only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the harm being done to people of color in the United States. The other forces at play beneath the surface are less visible and therefore much more damaging.
Where are the angry protesters and front-page news stories when kids in Harlem get frisked by the cops on the way home from school? Nat Hentoff reports in the Village Voice that being stopped by the police on the way to school is commonplace among black school kids, poor and middle class. He points out, “unless a cop takes a cylinder and shoves it deep into someone’s rectum, or unloads an insane volley of bullets into an innocent man, it’s not considered a big story.”
And there will probably not be a protest downtown when a new prison is christened upstate, providing the homes for inmates who will be disproportionately black and Latino, 65 to 70 percent, usually, incarcerated for drug-related crimes. The laws that sentence these inmates target drugs that afflict poor communities with a high concentration of minorities; most people are surprised to learn that the majority of drug users in the United States, about 75 percent, are white.
I am less scared of Klansmen in public masquerade than I am of the fact that there are senators and representatives in Congress wearing business suits who have roots in the Klan and the White Citizens Council, most notably Sen. Bob Byrd from West Virginia. Our chief justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, was on the “Poll-watching Project” of 1958-1964, a group of whites in Arizona who “monitored” minorities exercising their voting rights for the first time. Eye-witnesses remember the so-called monitoring as either coercion of minorities to vote for a certain candidate, or if they refused to comply, use of threats and physical intimidation.
I could go on and on. Public television networks this season didn’t see a need to put a single character on their new series this season who was not white. While the deaths of white children because of gun violence at the hand of their peers are regarded as a tragedy worthy of months of mainstream press coverage, the deaths of poor black and Latino children in our ghettos and barrios get barely a mention, unless as statistics in New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crime data.
The influences that pervade our lives every day are more threatening vehicles of racism than the mark of the KKK. Public policy, elected officials, and the media and entertainment industries are just a few of the ways that the inequality of minorities gets manifested and perpetuated. And while I plan to be protesting on Centre Street on Saturday morning, I must remember that in fighting racism and injustice, protesting the Ku Klux Klan is only the beginning.
Kate Cortesi’s column originally appeared in Thursday’s Columbia University paper, the Columbia Daily Spectator.