Thanks to Donald Trump, a president-elect who’s courted their support both implicitly, and—in the case of former Breitbart News president Steve Bannon, his campaign CEO and chief strategist—explicitly, white supremacists are now enjoying unprecedented time in the national sociopolitical spotlight. They’re getting image-reconfiguring profiles in the Los Angeles Times. They’re relishing rising attendance numbers at their annual conferences. And, emboldened by this mainstreaming of their movement (via the euphemistic “alt-right” moniker), they’re stepping up their recruitment efforts via fliers and websites. It’s a veritable coming-out party for the country’s most loathsome elements.
With brazen intolerance on the upswing, A&E likely thought its latest reality-TV series, Generation KKK—which premieres Jan. 10, and which has been in production for the past year and a half—was fortuitously timed. Fixating on three different families with strong Ku Klux Klan ties, as well as their interactions with “anti-hate activists” determined to confront their prejudices (and prevent their kids from following in their elders’ abhorrent footsteps), it’s a supposed investigation of the ways in which hate is inherited and maintained—or as its mission statement proclaims, “The following program explores how hatred and prejudice are born and bred in our country.” According to A&E General Manager Rob Sharenow in an interview with The New York Times, “We certainly didn’t want the show to be seen as a platform for the views of the KKK. The only political agenda is that we really do stand against hate.”
In theory, that’s a noble aim. Yet in practice (at least on the basis of the first four episodes offered to press), Generation KKK is a reprehensible work—one that normalizes people, and beliefs, that deserve only vilification. While immediate online and social-media reaction to the show’s existence was harsh (see here, here, here, here and here, just for starters), it only skimmed the surface of the program’s true wretchedness. That’s because A&E’s newest series does something worse than just provide a platform for the KKK: It employs the formal format and devices of the channel’s other hits (Hoarders, Intervention) to transform its bigots into colorful characters, thereby placing them on the same plane as the rest of cable TV’s freaky reality stars. By situating them in a familiar faux-verité package, Generation KKK makes clear that these rancid people are just as suitable subjects for our entertainment as anyone else. In short: It legitimizes them.
Generation KKK focuses on three different households in deep with the Klan. There’s Steven Howard, a Tupelo, Mississippi, “Imperial Wizard” who dreams of being the next David Duke, and who is forced to contend with a 14-year-old daughter, Maggie, who doesn’t like his racist ways (and who secretly has two black friends). More “sympathetic,” meanwhile, is Chris Buckley, a PTSD-suffering military vet in Georgia who struggles with his decision to leave the Klan, albeit not before raising his young son CJ to spout the N-word and believe that Barack Obama is a decapitation-loving Muslim. Finally, there’s Cody Hutt, a fatherless Tennessee teen trying to decide if he should listen to his surrogate daddy (and “Grand Dragon”) Richard Nichols and join the KKK, even though he loves his mixed-race relatives.
Throughout, Klan members are presented as uneducated, heavily tattooed country folk who were conditioned to hate by family members and peers, and who took to the organization because it offered them a sense of community and belonging—as well as an outlet for their anger, depression, and big-shot dreams. Chris, Steven, and Cody make it sound like a cross between a college fraternity and the mafia; a “brotherhood” that’s only rejected by “traitors.” The first problem with this portrayal, however, is that one might have guessed as much without having ever watched a single second of Generation KKK. Its insights are of the confirming-what-you-already-know variety. There are no eye-opening revelations to be gleaned here; on the contrary, it’s a stark example of stating the obvious.
In each of its three storylines, Generation KKK’s Klansmen are also confronted by a peace activist. For Steven, it’s Daryle Lamont Jenkins, and for Chris and Cody, it’s rehabilitated former neo-Nazis Arno Michaelis and Bryon Widner, respectively. These men are incorporated into the series to counterbalance—and combat—the abhorrent filth spouted by its main players, as well as to try to save Maggie and Cody from succumbing to their insulated environment’s intolerance. As such, they’re the action’s catalysts, aimed at drumming up dramatic conflicts and incidents that the show can exploit for maximum suspense. And exploit it does, via regular shouting matches and face-to-face showdowns, all of which begin with lots of big talk and end with little actual incident (Steven in particular loves to preface scenes with promises of violence, only to then act cordially in the face of resistance).
That structure will be recognizable to anyone who’s watched a reality-TV program over the course of the past decade—and it’s Generation KKK’s most reprehensible aspect. By having its subjects constantly restate the same soundbites (Daryle is going to “put boots on the ground”; Cody views Richard as a “father figure”), and by repeatedly manufacturing a sense of impending doom—through interview snippets, and ominous music—that never materializes, the show feels like just another small-screen effort aimed at drumming up spectacle through staged scenarios and manipulative aesthetics. It’s akin to a multi-episode KKK variation on Teen Mom or My 600 Lb. Life, except with more go-nowhere handwringing by hatemongers who aren’t committed to (or interested in) changing.
Generation KKK seems to believe it’s exposing these cretins for who they truly are (and what they stand for). However, by using a standard-issue TV template to let them prattle on about race-mixing and white power, about their oh-so-sacred “naturalization” ceremonies performed next to dirt road shacks, about their “religious” “cross-lighting” rituals, and about the color-coded ranks of their hate group, the show treats them no differently than any of its other reality TV oddballs. That includes the bearded hillbillies of Duck Dynasty, whose hit A&E show is, coincidentally, going off the air shortly after Generation KKK—another program courting rural white viewers—premieres. The network’s apparent underlying business model isn’t difficult to decipher. But it’s certainly something to condemn.