The Hate List

J.M. Berger, Foreign Policy, March 12, 2013

The Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual “Year in Hate and Extremism” report last week, and as usual, it was terrifying. In an article for the SPLC’s Intelligence Report magazine, researchers said they had identified an “all-time high” of 1,360 antigovernment groups active during 2012 and about the same staggering number of hate groups as last year, a total of 1,007.

Many news organizations, from wire services to TV networks, covered the new figures uncritically. The SPLC looms large in most discussions of American extremism, in large part because they have little or no competition. Very few journalists cover domestic extremism on a regular basis, and those who do tend to work for publications that have an overt political slant.

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The problem is that the SPLC and the ADL are not objective purveyors of data. They’re anti-hate activists. There’s nothing wrong with that — advocating against hate is a noble idea. But as activists, their research needs to be weighed more carefully by media outlets that cover their pronouncements.

“The Year in Hate and Extremism” report classified domestic extremists in two broad categories: hate groups and antigovernment organizations. The raw numbers for antigovernment outfits were unavailable, but the data on the 1,007 hate groups cited in the report can be found online.

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The SPLC presents its hate group data by state, rather than in one unified list. When the state entries were gathered into a single spreadsheet, the total number of groups came to 1,007, as advertised. But once you get past simply counting the rows, serious questions arise.

The biggest issue raised by the hate list is when a local group should be deemed a separate entity from a national group. When you go to find the raw data online, the SPLC’s site explains that it counts counted “1,007 active hate groups in the United States in 2012,” including “organizations and their chapters.” But “The Year in Hate and Extremism” did not make the “chapter” distinction explicit. It is rarely drawn out in the organization’s frequent media appearances, nor was it mentioned in a letter from the SPLC to the Justice Department warning of the growing threat.

One of the clearest examples of how this counting methodology can be confusing concerns the American Third Position Party, or A3P, which is listed 17 times, with each of those instances counting as a separate hate group.

A3P is a national political party devoted to white nationalism. We don’t say there are 102 political parties in the United States because the Republicans and Democrats each have a national party as well as state chapters (not to mention local chapters), and there are states which have A3P listed more than once.

Similarly, the American Nazi Party is listed six times, and the Council of Conservative Citizens is listed 37 times. There are many more. When you filter the list for organizations with identical names, the list of 1,007 becomes a list of 358.

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Some of the duplicate names on the list are legitimately distinct — for instance, there are at least two major splinter groups of the Aryan Nations (although seven appear on the list). But others appear clearly problematic, like “Georgia Militia,” which is listed 14 times. One listing has a county as its location, another says “statewide,” and the remaining 12 list no location and contain no links to additional information.

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If three Klan chapters in one state are part of one specific national Klan organization, should they count as separate groups? If a skinhead gang is part of the Western Hammerskins, do you count both the local and the regional? The SPLC counts the Midland Hammerskins and the Northern Hammerskins three times each, and the Confederate Hammerskins nine times.

And what about the Jewish Defense League (counted nine times), the National Socialist Movement (55), or the Nation of Islam (105)?

The list isn’t pristine on other fronts either. The Political Cesspool is a website and podcast, the Crocker Post is a blog, and Silver Bullet Gun Oil is a business that markets offensive tchotchkes to anti-Muslim extremists. VDARE is a white nationalist website with multiple authors, but it does not on the face of it appear to be a traditional boots-on-the-ground organization, at least not according to a profile written by the SPLC.

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Radical bookstores and racist record labels also appear on the list. Are these hate groups, or hate businesses, or just businesses? {snip}

Reasonable people can debate these reasons for including or disqualifying each of these listings, but the number of entries that require such debate is staggering given the specificity of the SPLC’s reporting. We’re not talking about a difference of 5 or 10 percent in the relative counts; it’s 65 or 70 percent.

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But at the end of the day, it’s not clear how it’s a “distortion” to say “400 groups in 1,007 locations around the country” as opposed to “1,007 groups.”

These distinctions also pertain to the broad numbers on antigovernment groups provided in “The Year in Hate and Extremism” report. Most coverage of the report focused on this realm, where the SPLC reported massive growth during President Obama’s first term.

Although the data was not made available, the questions raised by the hate group list are at least as relevant for antigovernment organizations. If a statewide militia has chapters in several towns, is it more than one militia? If a Patriot movement group under one umbrella has one or two (or even five or six) people in each of 17 different states, should we count 17 groups?

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Based on my own tracking of antigovernment extremism, I’m fairly certain the movement has grown in recent years, perhaps substantially. But most of the movements I track are geographically diffuse, even though they operate under a single organizational banner. I’m skeptical that the number of distinctly separate antigovernment organizations in the United States runs anywhere close to the 1,360 reported by the SPLC.

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