In the years before Barack Obama was elected, many groups on the extreme right kept a relatively low profile. With the election of a Black president, that changed. This is the third episode of a five-part series produced in collaboration with The WNET Group’s reporting initiative Exploring Hate. Click here for the Extremism in America series

In partnership with The WNET Group

Extremism in America: Missed Warnings

Series Senior Producer and Writer: Scott Michels
Series Supervising Editor: Brian Kamerzel

The latest installment in our series examining the rise of white supremacy and domestic terrorism in the United States looks at the white supremacist movement’s reaction to the election of a Black president and explores how a focus on terrorist threats from abroad allowed a homegrown threat to fester.

The night Barack Obama won his first presidential election, the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, a Black church in Springfield, Mass., was burned, exposing the nation’s deep racial divisions.

Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., the church’s pastor, had been sound asleep. “My phone rang,” he told Retro Report. “And the words I heard was – They are burning our church to the ground. What was left was charred ruins. And, well, who did this?”

In the years before Obama’s election, groups on the extreme right had kept a low profile. Many Americans saw the outcome as a sign that racial tensions might be easing. But Obama’s victory became a rallying point for extremists.

“People on the extreme right understood that the percentage of white people in America was dropping every year,” Mark Potok, a leading expert on extremism, told us. “So when Obama appeared on the scene, there was a massive freakout on the radical right.”

But when counterterrorism officials tried to warn that white nationalists posed a threat to public safety, they were often ignored. In 2009, while the government was focused on the threat from overseas, Daryl Johnson, part of a small team at the Department of Homeland Security that tracked domestic extremism, wrote a report warning that the threat at home was re-emerging. The report was leaked, and Johnson found himself at the center of a political firestorm.

This is the third episode of a five-part series produced in collaboration with The WNET Group’s reporting initiative Exploring Hate, on the roots and rise of hate in America and across the globe. Leadership support for Exploring Hate is provided by the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Antisemitism. To learn more about Exploring Hate and for a full list of funders, visit pbs.org/exploringhate.

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