White supremacists have leaders and followers with entirely different agendas.
The leaders have economic goals that can only be accomplished by mobilizing the masses. The followers are filled with resentment, hatred, and jealousy. They think someone is taking something from them that is rightfully theirs. The Klan, in times past, was more of a grassroots organization. There were hundreds of local chapters (Klaverns) that had loose relationships with a national body. Today’s white supremacists are more top-down driven, with followers mimicking official policy without always being able to articulate why.
My definition of the Klan is admittedly broad. Historically, most of the hundreds of Klan organizations at least had the word Klan in their name. They were joined by organizations like the Knights of the White Camelia and the White League. Many organizations try to downplay the current size of the movement. They would tell you only a few thousand Klan members are remaining, and they are dying out. They would ignore the thousands of organizations with millions of members with the same agenda. In my view, the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, and the Oath Keepers are all the Klan, though they might despise being linked to their low-class brethren.
So what is their agenda? The Klan has had three recognized waves in this country. The first was inspired by the freeing of Black people from enslavement, The second was a reaction to the film Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Klan as heroic and Black people as the enemy. The third wave was a response to the Civil Rights Movement. I submit we’re in the middle of a fourth wave, inspired by the election of a Black president.
The followers within the Klan have always been motivated by fear of loss, that someone was getting something that belonged to them. That could be jobs, land, or white women. They initially confined their resentment to Black people but, over the years, included Catholics, Jews, and everyone else considered non-white.
Each rendition of the Klan sought power locally and nationally; the current version is no different. They have always infiltrated police forces, often leading them. Especially in the South. The Klan dispensed justice and injustice, ensuring things always went their way. Their deeds beneath robes in the night were protected by badges and judicial robes during the day.
Since the 1920s, the Klan has exercised its political power. Long before Black Muslims organized a Million Man March, the Klan marched on Washington in 1926 with a crowd of thousands cheering them on. Klan members and supporters have occupied every political office up to and including the president of the United States.
Today’s Klan is run by those who both have an economic agenda of their own and don’t give a damn about their own members. They will let you go to jail and then fundraise off of your sorrow. They are part of the group vastly increasing their income while encouraging you to cry a tsunami of tears about the injustice you’re enduring (the “you” is white people, if you couldn’t tell).
Today, the Klan is more literate than ever before, better educated, and well-versed in using social media to influence others to do the work they wouldn’t do themselves. One of the old sources of Klan revenue was the sale of hoods and robes. Today, its merchandise sales include MAGA hats, Confederate flags, and “Let’s Go, Brandon” stickers.
Many of the people supporting the Klan are unaware they’re doing so. They think what they do is supporting the cause of “freedom,” when in reality it’s about promoting a class and race war. The Klan fears a united lower/middle class, which is why part of their agenda is to separate people and blame them for their actions. White wasn’t even a thing in America (or the world) until Bacon’s Rebellion, when white indentured servants, Black indentured servants, and Black enslaved people joined forces to attack Jamestown. Indentured servitude was eliminated, and white poor people were moved up a notch socially and economically. They were encouraged then as now to create a distance and suppress the brown and Black races.
The fourth wave of the Klan, at this moment, is getting stronger. It's popular to be racist. Former White House Senior Advisor Steve Bannon says when called racist, “wear it like a badge of honor.” Many people are doing just that. In the 1920s, the Klan peaked at up to 5 million members. It’s hard to tell how many there are now; it’s some percentage of the 70 million people who voted for Trump.
Republican politicians are openly attending white supremacist rallies and facing no punishment from their leadership. Democrats in the past were intermingled with the Klan; in this era, it’s the Republicans. When asked about the Klan or other white supremacist groups, they refuse to denounce them. It’s not only Trump who thinks they’re “very fine people”; Republicans think the support of white supremacists is key to winning elections.
It says a lot about America that they might be right.
I dream of an America where Klan membership is viewed as despicable and intolerable. I dream of a day when white people that say they hate the Klan turn against political parties that align with them. That day has not yet come.