U.S. Hate Groups Rose 30 Percent In Recent Years, Watchdog Group Reports

Feb 20, 2019
Originally published on February 20, 2019 8:19 pm

Updated at 2 p.m. ET

For the fourth year in a row, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that tracks hate groups, reports that hate and domestic extremism are rising in an unabated trend. The center found a 30 percent increase in U.S. hate groups over the past four years and a 7 percent increase in hate groups in 2018 alone, according to the center's annual "Year in Hate and Extremism" report. The group designated 1,020 organizations as hate groups in 2018, a high of at least 20 years.

The watchdog group blames President Trump, his administration, right-wing media outlets and the ease of spreading hate on social media platforms for the alarming increase. The growth, it says, is largely driven by "hysteria over losing a white-majority nation to demographic change."

"The numbers tell a striking story — that this president is not simply a polarizing figure but a radicalizing one," Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, said in a statement. "Rather than trying to tamp down hate, as presidents of both parties have done, President Trump elevates it — with both his rhetoric and his policies. In doing so, he's given people across America the go-ahead to to act on their worst instincts."

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a revered civil rights watchdog group that has been around since 1971. It is credited with dealing the final blows to the Ku Klux Klan through legal battles.

But in the Trump era, it has been accused of blurring the line between watchdog and activist. Critics accuse the group of overblowing the threat of hate and including groups and individuals on its lists who might not belong, from anti-immigrant groups to exclusionary religious organizations. In 2018, SPLC President Richard Cohen publicly apologized and the group paid out $3.4 million to British political activist Maajid Nawaz for including him on its anti-Muslim extremist list in 2016. The self-declared former Muslim extremist is often criticized for aligning himself with right-wing anti-Muslim politicians, but even his critics questioned his inclusion on the list.

The center found that the majority of hate groups in the United States are driven by white supremacist ideology including neo-Nazis; the Ku Klux Klan, which is on the decline; white nationalists; racist skinheads; and neo-Confederates. But in reaction to the flourishing of white supremacists, the center says that black nationalist groups are also "growing their ranks." It said the groups are often anti-Semitic, anti-LGBT and anti-white but, unlike white nationalist groups, have little support and basically no sway in politics.

The SPLC defines a hate group as an organization that "based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people typically for their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity."

The center's report tracks with the steady rise in hate crimes documented by the FBI from 2015 to 2017. It reported a 17 percent jump in hate crimes in 2017, with a particular increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes. But that list isn't complete because local law enforcement agencies report hate crimes to the FBI on a voluntary basis.

The report found that although white supremacists are emboldened under the Trump administration and driven by the fear of the United States' changing demographics — by 2044 the U.S. is expected to be majority minority — and by xenophobia, the groups are beginning to lose faith in the president. It quotes the now infamous white nationalist leader Richard Spencer as evidence. Spencer led a group of white supremacists in Nazi salutes and chants of "Hail Trump" after the 2016 election. But in 2018, following the midterms, he said, "The Trump moment is over, and it's time for us to move on."

Three groups are suing the Southern Poverty Lawsuit Center over their inclusion on the hate groups list. Among those suing is the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank that is widely seen as anti-immigration.

"We stand by our hate group listings," said Heidi Beirich said in a press call. "I would suggest that people take a look at our extremist files ... The Center for Immigration Studies, the group has a history of making racially inflammatory statements associating with white nationalists and circulating the work of racist writers."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The civil rights watchdog group the Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of hate groups in the U.S. is growing. The center attributes the rise to what it calls hysteria around the changing demographics of the country. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The annual "Year In Hate And Extremism" report from the Southern Poverty Law Center says last year, the number of hate groups rose by 7 percent. It's part of a four-year trend that has seen a 30 percent increase. Heidi Beirich, who heads the group's Intelligence Project, says the majority of these groups are driven by white supremacist ideology.

HEIDI BEIRICH: The other thing that we have seen in recent years is a wave of racist and anti-Semitic violence break out across the country at levels that we hadn't seen prior.

FADEL: She points to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, among others. The report states that this rise of hate groups is being driven by the president's rhetoric and right-wing media that plays on fears of a less white country.

BEIRICH: The words and imagery coming out of the Trump administration, and from Trump himself, are heightening these fears. These images of foreign, scary invader - this is fearmongering, and it's making people feel like this country is changing in a dangerous direction.

FADEL: The report points out there is a reaction happening - the growth in black nationalist movements with extremist views. The key difference, though, the report says, is they have little support or political sway.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been a stalwart of civil rights work for decades. But lately, it's been the subject of controversy. Critics question whether it's blurring the lines between its role as a watchdog and political activism. In 2018, the center's president, Richard Cohen, apologized to British activist Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation for including him on a list of anti-Muslim extremists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD COHEN: Although we may have our differences with some of the positions that Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam have taken, they are most certainly not anti-Muslim extremists. We'd like to extend our sincerest apologies.

FADEL: It paid a settlement of $3.4 million. The Southern Poverty Law Center is also being sued by three organizations on the hate group list, including the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank that advocates for restrictive immigration policies. Beirich says she stands by the decision to include groups that she says disseminate hate speech.

One of their new report's key findings is that some of the fringe groups that felt emboldened by the rise of President Trump are starting to lose faith in him. She warns that if these groups don't feel there is a political path, more people could turn to violence. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.