This is not normal: A&E announces new series "Generation KKK"

At some point we'll have to ask ourselves whether a show like this is fighting white supremacy or normalizing it

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 20, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

"Generation KKK"   (A&E)
"Generation KKK" (A&E)

You know what would be terrific? A limited series that looks at social justice movements in a thoughtful, honest manner that isn’t relegated to public television. This is not said to besmirch what PBS is doing, by the way. But unless we’re talking about a series that stars Benedict Cumberbatch or some multi-episode ode to Americana made by Ken Burns, PBS receives far less attention for its documentary series and films than networks like A&E do.

You know what would be great? To see a series that takes a compelling look at the lives of families struggling to make ends meet, people caught up in systematically imposed cycles of poverty and injustice. Or a series that deeply explores what life is like for people in communities where unarmed men and women of color are gunned down by police or one that examines how difficult it is to exist in towns where the demand for manual labor has all but dried up.

Those aren’t sexy topics, of course. I know that. So the likelihood of a producer making such a series and selling it to a broadcast or cable network is close to nil.

Instead, starting Tuesday, Jan. 10, we’ll get a weekly look inside the lives of several families headed by members of the Ku Klux Klan called “Generation KKK.” Giving racism a platform, even under the guise of increasing the public’s awareness of its existence, is all the rage now.

Granted, that’s not the purpose of “Generation KKK.” In a Sunday New York Times article, A&E’s brass and the “Generation KKK” producer explained that the show has been in the works for more than a year and a half. That’s basically right around the time that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign began capitalizing on the sublimated bigotry and racial tension that’s been coming to the fore of our national dialogue.

The show would have made it to air regardless of the election’s outcome, understand. Between the Klan's rebranding of its intentions — it’s just about white pride now, never mind that inconvenient history of domestic terror and murder — and openly leaving literature on doorsteps in communities around the nation, the white supremacy organization has been steadily mounting its own campaign of normalizing hatred.

But this series exists, in part, because those efforts are working. The Southern Poverty Law Center has estimated that the number of independent Klan chapters across the United States was at 190 in 2015, a rise from 72 in 2014 and its membership may be as large as 8,000 people.

Two of the initial episodes of “Generation KKK” reveal a loftier intent than what the provocative title implies in that they immediately set up the series' mission as one of anti-racist activism, focusing closely on the members of Klan families who want out — mostly mothers and children — as opposed to exposing the rituals and intentions of leaders such as Steven Howard, the imperial wizard of the North Mississippi White Knights.

Howard’s daughter Maggie doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps, and Maggie’s mother Beth, who is divorced from Steven, doesn’t want her to go that route either. A similar struggle is being faced by Chris Buckley’s wife Melissa, who is terrified by the racist lessons her husband is drilling into the mind of their 3-year-old son, and Cody Hutt, a lonely teenager in Tennessee who is being pressured to join the Klan by a man he considers to be a father figure.

The series also traces the activities of three anti-racist activists, Daryle Lamont Jenkins, Arno Michaelis and Bryon Widner, who are aggressively trying to persuade the patriarchs to leave the Klan or prevent children from being indoctrinated into joining. This format resembles ones employed by fellow A&E series such as “Intervention” and “Hoarders.” And as is the case on those shows, the activists don’t exactly have a magic bullet. The prejudiced ideas that these families have learned are often the work of generations' worth of teachings and run marrow deep.

“Generation KKK” may have a noble purpose, much in the way A&E’s “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath” has also served as a piece of anti-Scientology advocacy programming (albeit one that also happened to net the channel its highest-rated premiere in two years). But it’s also joining a channel that currently airs “Duck Dynasty,” the unscripted series that follows the delightful high jinks of the Robertson family including its homophobic patriarch Phil Robertson, who remembered the Jim Crow South as an idyllic period when black people had no complaints in a GQ profile.

A&E suspended Robertson for a period but then brought him back in response to fan uproar, and his views have only become, er, more charming since.  A good reason for that is his celebrity has inoculated him from experiencing any ramifications for exposing his bigotry.

Howard, for his part, knows what taking part in a series on a major cable network means. One of his goals is to normalize the Klan as much as possible and become as famous as David Duke.

“I wanna see 'em saying my name at the presidential debates,” he says with a grin on the show.

That leads a person to wonder which party is helped by this exposure, the bigots or the people who are fighting them? Since the election several news organizations have written or telecast a number of series on the alt-right. Vice even created a glossy glamour-shot profile of its members, including Tila Tequila. At some point all of this push to understand the intolerant simply becomes free promotion — or great television. It's difficult to imagine a world where A&E executives ignored the success of "Duck Dynasty" and "Intervention."

Most people understand what the Klan stands for and the conditions that make it ripe to recruit new members — poverty, disillusionment with the political system and a class-imposed practice of keeping the poorest fighting among themselves by scapegoating minorities, for starters.  And if they don’t understand those conditions, they at least, hopefully, understand what the Klan stands for.

Meanwhile, the number of people who don’t know what, say, the Southern Poverty Law Center does, is dishearteningly large. And maybe this series will lead to greater exposure and understanding of the groups that are fighting the good fight.

At one point in “Generation KKK,” Howard’s chapter has organized a small counterprotest of a Black Lives Matter march, that has been mounted after another police shooting of an unarmed black man, Ronnie Shumpert in Mississippi. As the Black Lives Matter activists march, one of their leaders urges them to ignore the KKK members standing nearby.

“We don’t want to give them no attention,” he says.

Wise words worth considering.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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