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May 16, 2012

Klan Freakonomics: KKK Aligns With Obama On Pocketbook Issues? (Photos/Story by Jim Lo Scalzo)

In a strange duality, Klan members rail against Obama’s race, yet infer support for the President’s economic policies by belittling GOP positions. It’s perhaps not so odd though, as KKK members have to feed their kids, pay for their clothes, save for weddings and go to the gas station, just like other Americans. Having taken these photos last summer in Southwestern Virginia, photojournalist Jim Lo Scalzo discusses the dollars-and-sense in his commentary below.

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If talking politics with members of the Ku Klux Klan seems certain to provoke cringes, then imagine my suprise at what several members confessed to me at a cross lighting last July: they supported President Obama in his budget battle with congressional Republicans.

I was several months into a photo project on the revival of the Klan in southwestern Virginia, and it wasn’t the first time that members strayed from script. (Weeks earlier, a Klan member emailed me of his excitement at visiting the Rosa Parks museum in Alabama. “…If you ever get an opportunity to tour it, do it,” he wrote. “It was great.”). Their admissions seemed to provide fodder for an unlikely prospect: could the recent rise in KKK membership in Virginia be as much a result of Bush-era economic policies—which many economists believe contributed to the recession, and which House Republicans appeared set on maintaining—as of the ascendancy of a black man to the presidency?

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Department of Homeland Security, there has been a genuine rise in right-wing extremism: since 2001, the number of hate groups across the country has nearly doubled. In fact, in 2011 their number rose beyond 1,000 for the first time since the SPLC has been keeping track. One oft-cited reason by the media is that there is an African American in the White House.

To be sure, racist vitriol against President Obama was a staple of Klan rallies I attended. Yet KKK members were just as likely to denounce the Hispanics they perceived as stealing their jobs, and the Jews they believed were controlling the country’s economic dials. Though their racial blame was vile trumpery, their economic concerns were not: like most working class members of rural counties, they bore the brunt of the economic downturn.

Even before the recession, this region’s economic health was precarious. Southwestern Virginia is in the heart of Appalachia, where myriad hollows limit infrastructure, which in turn limits economic development. Throw a sour economy and high unemployment into the mix and a person’s path to feeling pushed aside is all the more likely. Call it the freakonomics of white identity groups: in tough economic times more people turn to the Klan. Why? Because the Klan offers the economically disadvantaged three antidotes: companionship, something to be proud of, (their white race), and someone to blame.

Last summer’s budget battle between President Obama and congressional Republicans seemed to crystallize the economic clash as one between the haves and have-nots—a dynamic not lost on those I was photographing. Even if most Klan members did not admit siding with president Obama, they openly railed against Republican budget proposals, specifically the GOPs attempts to cut social programs like Medicaid and food stamps while maintaining tax breaks for the wealthy.

For once, my go-to line when Klan members asked my opinion of their views, “I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I do agree with your right to say it,” wasn’t necessary.  In this case, I found their opinions worthy of consideration.


About the Photographer

Jim Lo Scalzo

Jim Lo Scalzo spent 16 years shooting for US News & World Report, and recently joined European Pressphoto Agency. He has shot assignments in more than 60 countries, had a hanging exhibit at the 2012 Visa Pour L'Image, and written a memoir. He received a master’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and lives in Washington, DC. Jim teaches photojournalism at George Washington University. See more of Jim's work for BagNews here.

  • bks

    Pictures of Paul Ryan and John Boehner are 100 times more frightening.


    • KaylaKane69

      You are too stupid to say anything intelligent to, how do you like this worthless President Obama now. Even CNN was all over his butt the last week or so because of his incompetence.

  • cf2k

    Against the monochromatic white of traditional KKK garb, the “robe of many colors” sported by these new Klanfolk parallels the diversity of their non-lockstep thinking on political economy.

  • sparky

    They have magic underwear too.

  • Scarabus

    Oy! Beautiful photos of ugly reality. One perspective on the images reminds me of Disney World. (I live in Central Florida.) Above ground is the stage, the realm of “imagineering,” where performers act out a fantasy for their “guests’” enjoyment. Below ground is backstage, where the unpleasantness of reality — think garbage, for example — is dealt with in ways that avoid popping the bubble of escapism. That’s also where the performers put on their costumes.

    The cross burning is above ground Disney. The stage. All the performers are in costume and in role. Everything is rehearsed and carefully staged. The second and third photos are backstage, below-ground Disney. The second photo is extremely revealing in that regard. Guys in costumes representing an imagined past, heading toward the stage. The squalor of the rural South is clearly evident and in strong contrast. (Gotta say, though. That guy walking with his dress on but his hood off would be fired if this were Disney, though. Even backstage performers must remain in character.)

    The questions you raise in the text are intriguing. Have you talked with anyone at SPLC about this? The “Black President explains all” explanation is easy and obvious, like the stage illusions at Disney. Reality is a undoubtedly a lot more complicated. Good job. You pleased my eye and stimulated my thoughts. I like that!

    [P.S. Did you mean "imply" rather than "infer" in that first paragraph?]

  • tinwoman

    What is it with poor whites in the South wanting to dress up in silly costumes?  Do they watch too many movies, or what?

  • KaylaKane69

    LMAO I was looking up Obama Gas Stations my GF was telling me about one she saw in Detroit. I thought this was in-breeds protesting it but nope just regular in-breeds.

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