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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.

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