The name, ‘The Southern Poverty Law Center’ (SPLC) is misleading. The SPLC does little to alleviate poverty, its own stated goals are: fighting hate, teaching tolerance and seeking justice. At the moment, the SPLC lists its top activity as attempting to remove confederate statues and symbols. This is consistent with the activity for which the SPLC is best known, its annual hate map in which it locates so-called ‘hate’ groups on a map of the United States. How is it that one of the best funded poverty law centers acts as an arbitrar of hate instead of as an advocate for the poor?
The term ‘Poverty Law’ usually refers to the more mundane practice of representing poor people who are often un or under represented. But the SPLC’s goals are more lofty, here’s how Mark Potok, a Senior Fellow at SPLC described his mission. “It’s not what most in the media think. Sometimes the press will describe us as monitoring hate crimes…Our criteria for a ‘hate group’… have nothing to do with criminality or violence or any kind of guess we’re making about ‘this group could be dangerous.’ It’s strictly ideological. I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, to completely destroy them”
Each year, the SPLC advertises over 900 hate groups on its hate map. Author Laird Wilcox says the SPLC “Has specialized [in] a highly developed and ritualized form of defamation … a way of harming and isolating people by denying their humanity and trying to convert them into something that deserves to be hated and eliminated. They accuse others of this but utilize their enormous resources to practice it on a mass scale themselves.”
To begin with, the SPLC uses a very loose definition of 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 immutable characteristics.” They bolster this with the false claim that the FBI uses a similar definition of hate crime, “[A] criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” But the FBI’s words do not refer to practices or beliefs, they characterize an actual crime which may have been inspired by bias.
Without advocating hate or prejudice I find the SPLC’s categories hilarious. They are: Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, Christian Identity, Neo-Confederate, Black Separatist, Anti-LGBT, Anti-Muslim, General Hate (Anti-Immigrant, Hate Music, Holocaust Denial and Radical Traditional Catholicism) and Other Hate (a grab bag of ‘hateful’ ideologies). Query, if a neo-nazi gets a haircut will he become a racist skinhead or a neo-confederate?
One ‘hate’ group, Radical Traditional Catholicism, are excoriated for blaming Jews for the killing of Christ and “They also embrace extremely conservative social ideals with respect to women.” Is this a hate group? Ultra Orthodox Jews have some pretty vile thoughts about non Jews and also adhere to extremely conservative social ideals for women. Why aren’t the Lubovitches, for instance, on the list?
Holocaust denial is the only hate group defined by simply questioning authority. SPLC claims such groups “only pretend to be interested in historical research.” Instead, even the claim that Jews may have died in ways other than the gas chambers form [hate groups] because they are used simply “to rehabilitate the German Nazis’ image as part of a bid to make the ideology of national socialism more acceptable.” A number of historians investigating World War II might find this assertion surprising.
“The SPLC’s list is wildly inflated,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League. The National Socialist Movement, for example, was listed 49 times in the 2015 Hate Map, since the count included each of the NSM’s individual chapters. The SPLC also counts single individuals as a group or chapter. The result is a count totally at odds with Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. Hate crimes plummeted 24% between 1998 and 2013, according to the FBI. Yet the SPLC claims the number of hate groups in the U.S. shot up by 75% during this same period.
The SPLC has so many categories of ‘hate’ and those categories are political as much as violent. So is there any actual harm from a listing on the hate map?
There was when Floyd Lee Corkins entered the Family Research Council intending to kill as many as possible because “he found us listed as a hate group on the SPLC website,” said executive vice president retired Gen. William Boykin. “We and others like us who are on this ‘hate map’ believe that this is very reckless behavior. … The only thing that we have in common is that we are all conservative organizations. …”
Gurnee IL is an unlikely location for a hate group. A prosperous suburb of 30,000, the town is careful with its reputation with tourists as it is home to Six Flags Great America amusement park, the Gurnee Mills indoor shopping mall and the water park, Great Wolf Lodge.
But the SPLC bestowed upon Gurnee the label that makes small-town officials sweat. Towns usually earn their reputations as harbors for hate groups in more public ways. They may be unlucky enough to be the place the Klan decides to march and someone later dies (Charlottesville) or be home to the media-trolling Westboro Baptist Church (Topeka, Kansas). But for towns like Gurnee, designation as one of the 917 locales on SPLC’s Hate Map comes without warning or explanation.
When the town asked the self appointed cartographers of hate to remedy the listing they were told, “I know it is disturbing to find hate groups in your community but I don’t think that should be seen as a reflection of what I am sure is a wonderful community.” Sorry, but the map is only updated once a year. “Call back in January.” The town protested that its police had searched and failed to find a hate group in Gurnee. SPLC Intelligence Chief Heidi Beirich would not budge. “ Even though the police couldn’t locate them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”
Given the low threshold for inclusion on the list, it is not surprising that other towns were included for questionable reasons. In 2004, Olathe, Colorado earned a white hood icon when a self-proclaimed “international imperial wizard” from Indiana told a Denver newspaper that a chapter in Olathe, “a little Klan klavern,” had asked him to come and speak. Neither he nor any of the town officials could name any of the members. Olathe stayed on SPLC’s list for three years.
Amana, Iowa, was placed on the hate map when someone at the SPLC spotted a chat thread on the Daily Stormer. Someone with the screen name “Concerned Troll” proposed a neo-Nazi “book club” meeting in an Amana café. No one in Amana was able to confirm to the SPLC whether or not the meeting actually took place, but that was enough to earn the corn-carpeted state its only swastika.
But still, Beidich worries more about undercounting than over inclusion. She thinks the undercount groups hide in shadows. She does not explain why listing what are ‘un’ hate groups, by her own criteria, will cause hate groups to emerge from the shadows. In fact, it is not clear why we are not all better off if a ‘hate’ group stays hidden.