August 16, 2017 8:00 am
Updated: August 16, 2017 9:57 am

Are people more open about being racist? Some blame the political climate

WATCH ABOVE: White nationalists defended themselves on Monday outside the courthouse where suspect James Fields was due for a hearing, blaming leftist "thugs" for the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Va.

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Hundreds of people marched in Charlottesville last weekend, giving Nazi salutes and carrying swastika-emblazoned flags. And as they clashed with counter-protestors, a white supremacist rammed a car into a crowd, killing a woman.

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But when did people become comfortable throwing the Nazi salute en masse in America? Some sociologists are linking the recent public white nationalism events in the U.S. to Donald Trump and the rhetoric he used during his campaign.

“It’s sort of like the genie’s been let out of the bottle,” said Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who studies hate crime and right-wing movements.

READ MORE: ‘This is Nazi f****** America!' North Carolina woman confronts neighbour over Swastika flag

Many people hold racist views, she said. And it’s not isolated to one side of the political spectrum. For example, a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted during the 2016 presidential election found that nearly half of Trump supporters and nearly a third of Hillary Clinton supporters described black people as more violent than white people. Forty per cent of Trump supporters and one-quarter of Clinton supporters described black people as more lazy than white people.

But although many people have these beliefs, they aren’t always willing to express their opinions publicly, Perry said.

She believes Trump’s campaign and subsequent election win helped normalize bigotry. During the election campaign, Trump said that he was going to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and that Mexico was sending criminals to the States.

“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists — and some, I assume, are good people,” he said.

READ MORE: Best moments from Donald Trump’s meandering, bizarre presidential announcement

He also used the term “bad hombres” to refer to some Mexican immigrants during a debate.

WATCH BELOW: Presidential debate: I’m going to get the bad hombres out: Trump (Oct. 19, 2016)

Trump’s statements “lend permission” to people to do the same, said Perry.

“The really unforgivable language he used to describe Mexicans, to describe immigrants generally, to describe Muslims. If someone in that position is able to express those kinds of sentiments, then it should be perfectly fine for me on the street to express similar language.”

David Hofmann, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, agrees that Trump’s election made people feel it was more socially acceptable to express racist views.

“I don’t think people are more racist, I think people are just more comfortable expressing their racism.”

He says that when people think their governments are reflecting their ideas — even racist ones — they find it easier to speak out, thinking, “Our ideas aren’t so fringe anymore.”

READ MORE: Family publicly disowns white nationalist son after Charlottesville march

It’s not just sociologists saying that Trump is emboldening white supremacist groups, either — several white supremacists themselves have said as much.

“Obviously the alt-right has come so far in the last two years in terms of public exposure,” said white nationalist Richard Spencer. “Is Donald Trump one of the major causes of that? Of course.

“We were connected with Donald Trump on this psychic level.”

WATCH: White nationalist Richard Spencer says alt-right is connected to Donald Trump at ‘psychic level’

Spencer also told the Associated Press that he didn’t believe Trump condemned him in his statement about the Charlottesville riots on Monday.

In that statement, Trump said, “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Trump was asked whether he thought race relations had gotten worse during his presidency.

“I think they’ve gotten better — or the same,” he replied.

WATCH: While defending the protection of monuments honouring Confederate leaders and icons, President Donald Trump said the media was portraying the alt-right “absolutely unfairly.”

Appeals to outsiders

Tony McAleer, a former neo-Nazi who grew up in British Columbia, said that hate groups appeal to people who feel that they’re on the fringe.

“The nerdy kid that wasn’t that popular in high school, always feeling like they are on the outside of things, looking for a sense of identity and a sense of purpose — and all of a sudden they get embraced by a whole community.”

READ MORE: Former white supremacists not surprised by Charlottesville deadly violence

Others are unsettled by demographic changes in their communities, which are no longer homogenously white and Christian, said Perry, and “that’s frightening to some people.” They might then turn to groups that seemingly offer an answer.

And as more such groups emerge, it becomes easier to attract new followers, said Hofmann. “You don’t form these types of opinions sitting in your basement and reading literature. It’s a group activity.”

Expanding in Canada

Canada isn’t immune to racist ideas and racist groups. Perry studied Canadian right-wing groups in 2015, finding about 100 of them, and she says she’s trying to get funding to do an update because so much has changed in the last year.

“I’m estimating a 20, 30, maybe 40 per cent increase just in the number of groups.”

White nationalist rallies are planned across Canada, including this weekend in Vancouver and in Toronto on Sept. 15. Perry thinks it’s important for people to show up and demonstrate against white supremacists.

“It reminds us of the need for solidarity. It reminds us that more people stand against the racists and the haters than stand beside them.”

Shutting down the rallies entirely just helps to fuel the groups’ message that they’re persecuted, she said.

READ MORE: White nationalist groups on the rise in Canada, planning more rallies

McAleer thinks that some supporters might also be driven away by the death in Virginia.

“I think there is going to be a number of people after the murder of Heather, that all of a sudden this has become way too real and way too dangerous. It’s not like, ‘Let’s play dress-up like the 1930s and do torch marches.'” McAleer said.

“Now it’s real — the violence is real and people are dying. I think that will shake a few people loose.”

—With files from Andrew Russell

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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