The middle-aged white woman in the David Duke sweatshirt was pleasantly enthusiastic.
"He's for fair play for all," she said of the ex-Ku Klux Klan leader she had come to hear. "Right now it's like we've become the minority, and we need someone to do something."Duke, who has made the jump from radical fringe to elected official, points to such people as proof his message is becoming mainstream. Now leader of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, Duke won a seat in the Louisiana Legislature by talking about the high birthrate among unwed welfare women and claiming that whites are victimized by civil rights laws.
"I think I spoke out loud what a lot of people say around the dinner table," he said. "People were so impressed by the ideas that they voted for me despite the controversy of my background."
Duke is not alone in his thinking. Much of what he says is echoed by those who have opposed him throughout his career.
"The David Duke election was a signal of a sour mood of resentment on the part of some whites that has been a long time in developing," said Irwin Suall, director of fact-finding for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "There is a perception out there that blacks are being favored at the expense of whites, not merely in employment but in status in the media."
Some dismiss Duke's slim, 200-vote victory as an anomaly; his suburban New Orleans district is 99 percent white. But Suall and other trackers of racial tension believe disparate events, like Duke's election and the rise of the racist skinhead subculture, are warning signs to be taken seriously.
"These people and these events represent something larger," said Chip Berlet, a researcher for Political Research Associates of Cambridge, Mass. "They are like the canaries in mines telling us there is an undercurrent of people that are very unhappy."
This unhappiness, says Berlet and others, runs long and deep. It is the result of economic changes that have nibbled away at the blue-collar union tradition; of fear of drugs and crime; of the perception that civil rights programs like affirmative action are unfair to whites, and of a general hopelessness within the white working class that sees a shrinking of its power in society.
At a shopping mall on the edge of Duke's district, a white woman in her 30s offered her opinion but declined to give her name:
"You see all this about black power and black pride and helping blacks economically and I guess that started out with good intentions. But it's not right when whites lose jobs and it's not fair when you're called a racist for complaining about it."
It is difficult to measure this mood. Most polls show the American public far more tolerant of racial differences and integration programs than it once was. But Michael McKeon, a pollster who has worked with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said standard surveys that ask yes-no questions can't plumb the depth of individual attitudes.
McKeon said his phone surveys, which involve more dialogue with subjects, show "big-time disenchantment."
"It's nothing you can put a number on, but there is a resentment out there that the lower middle class, and their children, aren't going to be any better off than they were," he said. "If you ask, `Are you mad because your kid didn't get a scholarship and a black kid did?' they're going to say no. But if you talk to them you're going to see this resentment woven into the fabric of their thoughts."
Those in the civil rights trenches, like Curt Koehler, an organizer for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, note a simmering anger, especially among young whites.
"A growing number of white people in their 20s feel they are on the short end of the stick," said Koehler, who tries to defuse racial tension in the blue-collar neighborhoods on Chicago's southwest side, an area that has seen Klan rallies and violence by skinheads.
Koehler said the lower middle-class white bastion of the secure union job is crumbling. At the same time, the disenchanted see a growing black middle class moving in and believe it is the result of favored government treatment.
"A black on his way up might have a chance to buy a home in a neighborhood where a young white kid just saw his job leave," he said. "The anger is being placed now on black folks and affirmative action."
Beyond the economics is an issue of group identity and pride. The higher profile of minorities on stage, film and the television screen gives some whites, already worried about their status, the sense that their importance in society is diminishing.
Berlet noted that while relatively few blacks appear on TV, their numbers have increased so rapidly that their representation can seem disproportional. "Blacks make up 15 percent of the population and maybe only 4 percent on TV," he said. "But when some whites see . . . more black faces on television, they think they're taking over."
Gregg, a 20-year-old Atlanta skinhead who declined to give his last name, complained bitterly about what he sees as "black propaganda."
"I was watching television and they had these blacks sitting around, telling everybody it was blacks who invented this and blacks who invented that. It was a bunch of lies," he said.
Bert, a fellow skinhead, sees such concepts as black pride and black history coming at the expense of white identity.
"White heritage is not being taught in school. It's like you're supposed to be ashamed of being white while they're teaching black heritage full force," he said. "They completely downplay the role whites have in this country."
These frustrations can blossom into acts of racial violence that Koehler has seen in his Chicago neighborhoods. "Or," he said, "these people can vote for a David Duke in the belief they can protect what is mine."
Whether or not that translates into the election of more candidates with similar ideologies is debated by the pulsetakers of society.
Martin Lipset, a Stanford University sociologist, thinks other white rights candidates may be elected to local office, "but they're dead if they have any ambitions to go further."
Duke, however, believes he is only the first to tap into a sentiment that will grow.
"I think that this is the beginning of a time when we will see candidates discuss these things," he said. "A candidate who doesn't have to carry the political baggage I had to carry and who discusses these issues will win."
Duke's success followed several failure at the polls. In 1979, he lost a bid for a state senate seat. Then he topped two other candidates but ran a distant second, with 30 percent of the vote.
The difference between then and now, says Duke, was the sophistication of his organization and a change in the mood of the voters.
"There has been a tremendous shift in the last few years," he said. "I think there is a majority of whites that is starting to say we have rights, too, that we have a heritage that is worthy of preservation and we don't want to face racial discrimination."
Sam Altobello, registrar of voters in Jefferson Parish for 18 years, said this time Duke's message hit such a responsive chord that people outside his district called to see if they could register to vote for him.
"He got his message over," said Altobello. "He was saying things that people have been thinking for a while. He said it, and it went over."
Whether Duke's rhetoric and success will translate in other parts of the country remains to be seen. Several groups with Klan or Nazi ties have announced plans to field candidates. Duke says he has been contacted by more than 200 candidates or elected officials interested in his campaign.
"I think the radical people are going to be getting more votes in this country. The shrinking middle class sees those in power have nothing left to offer," said Tom Metzger, the former Klan leader who heads the White Ayran Resistance, a white separatist group that has courted the skinhead movement.
Metzger's words resonate eerily in an observation from the ADL's Suall.
"I think we are going to see more of (a white backlash)," Suall said. "There's a lot of resentment out there."