PINE BLUFF, Ark. — On Sunday Hillary Clinton offered her standard stump speech to 1,000 supporters at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff about the economy, equal pay, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and mass incarceration of blacks, but she did not directly address Trump’s KKK controversy.
But maybe she should have—given that Pine Bluff is just north of a growing KKK party, a fact the students at the historically black university know too well.
Alexander Watkins, 20, the vice president of the Student Government Association at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said Trump’s remarks show just how far the country has to go on issues of race.
“He [Trump] is overly outspoken and it shows his arrogance that he says he doesn’t know about the KKK,” Watkins, a Hillary supporter, said. “He is totally not genuine and has no integrity.”
Watkins was just one of several young black students who came to listen to her that expressed fear that there is an escalating movement of racism in this country, thanks in part to Trump’s presidential campaign, his inflammatory rhetoric against various minority groups, and his “silent majority” supporters who tend to be white.
Earlier that day, Trump said on CNN that he didn’t know enough about former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke to disavow his support of a Trump candidacy or for that matter, other white supremacist groups who also support him.
In a turnabout on Monday, Trump, after taking heat from all sides of the political spectrum, said on the Today Show he misheard the question on CNN because of a faulty earpiece.
The growing white supremacy movement isn’t something that students like Watkins simply hear about on the national news. They see it near their homes and are well aware that it is in their own backyards. Watkins says he knows the KKK meets in a trailer camp at a park near the UAPB campus.
“It’s shocking that they are meeting that close to a HBCU,” Watkins said.
Pine Bluff, a city of 46,094 people, sits 45 miles south of Little Rock.
UAPB student Treston Hawkins, 22, said it’s alarming that such groups are increasing in the 21st century and believes candidates should address it on the campaign trail.
“It’s kind of scary how they are having these secret meetings,” Hawkins said. “The people going to be them could be your doctor, a police officer, or an employee at the Piggly Wiggly. These people are already kindling the fires of hate and now they can just follow Trump’s lead.”
He cited a KKK rally last summer in Monticello, a small town 47 miles south of Pine Bluff and 23 miles away from his hometown of Dermott, as an example of how close the hatred looms.
The fear of these groups is so strong that on Sunday some students did not want to go on record to discuss the KKK in south Arkansas. They just repeatedly said they hoped Clinton could figure out a way to solve them, especially racial profiling by police.
Once a thriving port surrounded by cotton plantations on the Arkansas River, Pine Bluff is now a city with a crumbling infrastructure, an abandoned downtown, racial problems, and a weak economy.
In the 1980s, a white flight movement from Pine Bluff to surrounding rural towns left the city with a declining population, lower tax revenue and tense racial divides. It is in many of these nearby white flight towns where pockets of KKK groups meet.
Many UAPB students think that there has been a growing hatred for minorities since Obama became president. That theory is not without merit. The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama, found that the number of hate groups operating in 2015 was 14 percent higher than in 2014. The SPLC states that 892 such groups are in the United States.
In the Southern primary states on Tuesday, where Trump is expected to win many of them, 156 groups are listed on the SPLC website.
Another 101 groups are in Texas and Oklahoma, states that also hold primaries on Super Tuesday. Many of these groups are clustered at the Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas state borders.
Kelven Hadley, 19, attended the Hillary rally wearing a Bernie Sanders T-shirt. That’s his candidate, he said, because he believes Sanders would have solid policy issues to address racial issues.
“There’s an air of hostility in the country brought on by the right wing,” Hadley said. “That rhetoric plays on the fear of white people. It has nothing to do with Obama. It has to do with when you have someone like Trump saying all Muslims are terrorists. They listen to that rhetoric and they start to believe it.”
Clinton hasn’t released a statement on Trump’s KKK controversy, but on Monday, ABC News Politics tweeted a soundbite of Scandal actor Tony Goldwyn talking to Clinton about Trump’s remark that he didn’t know who David Duke was. “Oh, that’s pathetic,” Clinton said.
On Sunday, her campaign retweeted a tweet from the Sander’s campaign that said: “America’s first black president cannot and will not be succeeded by a hatemonger who refuses to condemn the KKK.”
Republican presidential candidates Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also attacked Trump’s refusal to distance himself from the KKK.
Salonica Hunter, 19, is a Hillary supporter who said she doesn’t believe Trump doesn’t know anything about the KKK. But, if that is the case, she said he is completely unqualified to be president.
“It shows he is disconnected from the average American and the black community and the current state of the nation as a whole,” Hunter said. “That might be the case, but it’s like he is also advocating racial profiling by not denouncing a group like the KKK.”