At a special White House screening of “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said about the film, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
What Wilson saw as “so terribly true” was a Ku Klux Klan hagiography that demonized Black men as sexually rapacious threats to white women and glorified white terrorism as the epitome of American patriotism. The sinister reach of the film’s virulent propaganda helped revive the Klan and ushered in another deadly wave of anti-Black violence.
More than a century later, racist propaganda remains a potent tool in promoting white supremacy. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 6,751 recorded incidents of white supremacist propaganda activity last year, a 38 percent increase nationwide and an all-time high. And except for Texas, no state saw a more dramatic surge than Massachusetts.
A neo-Nazi group draped racist and antisemitic banners from highways in Saugus and Danvers. Residents in Ipswich, Chatham, and Hamilton found fliers from a white nationalist group on their property. Someone scrawled racist graffiti in a restroom that threatened Quincy High School’s Black principal.
These are just a few of the 465 incidents that occurred in Massachusetts in 2022, a 72 percent increase from the previous year. That’s only part of the story. Including Massachusetts, there was a 96 percent increase in recorded white supremacist propaganda activity across New England in 2022. Patriot Front and Nationalist Social Club, or NSC-131, are the most prevalent in this region and account for the majority of hateful propaganda.
Peggy Shukur, ADL New England’s interim regional director, said these groups “have made a concerted effort to concentrate in New England,” in part because of the region’s “liberal“ reputation. Texas-based Patriot Front, she said, “think of it as a bigger impact when they come here. That’s part of their drama and theatre.”
Propaganda is also used for recruitment in an attempt “to lure people into the movement,” Shukur said. That’s made New England’s many college campuses a favored target for white supremacist literature.
“There are many examples of communities where driveways are littered with [plastic] bags containing really hateful information, whether it’s from Patriot Front, Goyim Defense League, which isn’t really big in New England yet, NSC-131, or any of the copycats,” Shukur said. “The fact that this stuff isn’t just in some random place, but in communities and crossing the threshold of someone’s home in that way is very troubling to me.”
How white supremacist propaganda proliferates changes. For decades, lynching postcards that depicted the murders of Black people weren’t just gruesome keepsakes and souvenirs. They also served as calling cards promoting white supremacist violence.
What’s unchanged is propaganda as a hate accelerant. Now it can spread in the darkest corners of the Web, on social media, in movies available on Amazon, or on right-wing TV networks. When he was president, Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric inspired mass shooters at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019.
Republicans continue to normalize the vilification of certain groups, especially trans people. Hate speech in state legislatures gets legitimized and replicated in propaganda. It’s not a big leap from anti-trans bills passed under the guise of “protecting children” to graffiti and fliers falsely branding drag performers as “groomers” and “pedophiles” intent on harming kids.
And it’s not just right-wing politicians who are responsible. ADL reported that at least 30 antisemitic incidents nationwide in recent months directly referenced hateful comments made by rapper Kanye West. Many of them involved graffiti, banners, and fliers distributed at college campuses.
“It all feeds each other,” Shukur said. “It normalizes using these tropes of hate and scapegoating.”
The startling statistics on Massachusetts and New England are a reminder that no part of this nation is exempt from organized hate. Given this state’s abolitionist history and status as the place where same-sex marriage was first legalized, there can be a kind of geographical superiority complex, as though white supremacy hasn’t always festered in our own backyard.
When the next community wakes up to find racist fliers on their doorsteps or antisemitic graffiti in a local school, people should reject the idea that “this doesn’t happen here.” It is happening here. What remains to be seen is what leaders, law enforcement, and residents will do to safeguard their communities and those targeted to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.