By Heidi Beirich and Evelyn Schlatter
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has developed an international reputation for its tracking of extremism since the 1980s and its innovative lawsuits. Initially founded as a civil rights law firm, the SPLC has been at the forefront of groundbreaking lawsuits that have advanced social justice, furthered reform, and helped end or damage major extremist organizations including several powerful Klan groups.
Each year, the Southern Poverty Law Center produces a list of groups that fall into a variety of “hate” categories. We also produce a hate map of the United States that allows a viewer to click on his or her state and discover which groups call their state home, and what types of groups they are and the ideologies they espouse. The SPLC uses this research and list to bring attention to these organizations and expose the rhetoric and actions of group leaders and members.
This is a particularly useful approach when dealing with so-called academic racists, who operate under a veneer of educated respectability and who deliberately tone down overt racist language on their websites and in their informational materials. In an era in which direct racist language has become more unacceptable than in years past, groups like the benignly named (but thoroughly white nationalist) American Renaissance and National Policy Institute are finding an audience among a new generation of tech-savvy college-educated paleoconservatives not only in this country, but in countries around the world. Globalization appeals to racists, too.
In addition to the lists and numbers, we also produce an overview of the state of hate (called “The Year in Hate”) each year, and we include that in the spring issue of the magazine The Intelligence Report.
Since the election of President Obama in 2008, we’ve tracked a huge increase in the numbers of racist and hate groups and so-called Patriot groups, the latter of which believe that the government is attempting to enslave Americans through insidious means like, say, FEMA camps and gun control.
In 2012, we noted that the radical right had grown substantially in 2011, fueled by continuing fears generated by economic dislocation as a result of the recession, the proliferation of demonizing conspiracy theories, and the prospect of four more years under a black president who many on the far right see as an enemy of the country. In fact, many conspiracy theories considered “fringe” in the past have been mainstreamed into historically more moderate conservative circles and even adopted as official policy in some states and with the Republican National Committee.
It makes perfect sense that anti-government Patriot groups reached an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012, pushed by fears of a changing demographic in the U.S., continued economic uncertainty, and concerns about a second term under a black president. Historically, extremism tends to increase during times of economic and perceived demographic stress.
Conversely, we noticed a sharp decrease in the number of nativist extremist groups—in fact, a stunning collapse since their nadir in 2010, with 319 groups to 38 at the end of 2012. This was remarkable, given that the rise of the groups began around 2005 with the formation of the Minuteman Project, the first group to garner national prominence as an armed civilian border patrol. The movement’s collapse appears to be driven by a number of criminal scandals and press surrounding acts of horrific violence (the 2009 double murders of members of a Latino family in Arizona by border vigilante Shawna Forde and the 2012 mass murder-suicide carried out by neo-Nazi and founder of the Border Guard, J.T. Ready) as well as political shifts.
In addition, infighting among the groups broke out involving lawsuits between some of the principals, and other nativist leaders hooked up with larger movements that seemed to have greater traction, including Tea Party factions and Patriot groups. The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights noted in 2012 that many nativist leaders had joined the Tea Party and other right-wing groups beginning in 2010 and, in some cases, they’d created hybrid organizations of their own. And, as we’ve seen with some conspiracy theories, nativist causes have found purchase among some state legislatures that passed harsh anti-immigrant laws, thus further taking the wind out of the nativist movement.
Successful lawsuits against some of these laws may have helped weaken the nativist movement, as did the 2012 elections, in which GOP candidates demonstrated a dismal showing among Latino voters.
We’ve also noted that as attitudes toward LGBT people and same-sex marriage in the States shift toward more acceptance, anti-gay groups are taking their poisonous rhetoric overseas to countries with strong anti-gay views that often end in violence against LGBT people. We documented one example in a report we released a few months ago regarding the role of U.S.-based anti-gay groups in a lawsuit to overturn an anti-sodomy statute in Belize, which can net violators ten years in prison. U.S.-based anti-gay organizations are also extremely active at the United Nations. Some have what’s known as consultative status to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which gives them access not only to ECOSOC, but to its subsidiary bodies in policy development. Already, anti-gay far right groups have co-opted the term “human rights” in reference to their anti-gay and anti-choice activism overseas and at the UN.
We expect to see much more of this in the near future, as well as further mainstreaming of formerly “fringe” views, as uncertainty about the American economic and social future continues to influence extremist ideologies.