SPLC's Mark Potok on Extremist and Hate Groups

Feb 20, 2017

Southern Poverty Law Center Senior Fellow Mark Potok
Credit SPLC

The news headlines over the past year have been dominated by tensions. Conflicts over illegal immigration, refugee resettlement, terrorism and community race relations all led to deep divisions nationwide. Those conflicts also became the center of a bitterly contested Presidential election.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released its latest list and analysis of extremist and hate groups nationwide, and it appears that climate bred new hate groups.

Mark Potok is a senior fellow with the SPLC. He’s the primary editor of their HateWatch list and wrote an analysis of this year’s results.

Mark Potok: Well, we produce these lists and our analyses as a way, really, of educating the public, for people to understand that these groups did not all disappear at the end of the 1960s. We have a radical right that is alive and fairly well. And in this particular year, we’re pointing out the words of leading politicians, of people like Donald Trump are very important. They have a direct effect on the divisiveness, the polarization and, actually, the hate violence that we see in our society.

Alex AuBuchon: I want to get back to the Trump campaign a little later, but first, tell me what kind of trends you noticed in this latest study.

MP: What we saw was that the number of hate groups had risen for the second year in a row. Not dramatically, by around 3%. But I think those numbers are still very high. In fact, the numbers went up from 892 in 2015 to 917 in 2016.

I think probably the most striking result of our count this year is the fact that anti-Muslim hate groups in particular went up by nearly three times, by 197%. We had 34 anti-Muslim hate groups in 2015. Last year, that number rose to 101. That was really quite stunning. We haven’t seen growth like that in any sector in many, many years. And of course, it coincides with the demonization of Muslims by the Donald Trump campaign in particular.

AA: Would you say Donald Trump is responsible for a normalization of certain types of hate groups?

MP: Yes, I do think much of the growth and the energy that we see in the movement is attributable to the Trump campaign. When Donald Trump began his campaign with a speech describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, these groups were joyous. And of course, the Trump campaign demonized quite a lot of other people as well: not only Muslims, but immigrants in general, and all kinds of other minorities – LGBT people, even black people to some extent.

So all of this, essentially, gave a kind of license – gave permission, in effect – for people who have these feelings to say them openly, out there in public. And as a result, we’ve seen a rise not only in hate crimes, but in hate speech and lesser hate incidents all around the country.

It’s maybe worth noting that in 2015, the latest year for which we have statistics from the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes went up by 67%. So we’re seeing a growth not only in anti-Muslim hate groups, but also violent hate crimes, as well.

AA: So you track hate groups and hate activity nationwide, but tell me about Alabama, and the Southeast. What are some trends unique to this area?

MP: In Alabama, one thing that is specific to Alabama and the Deep South are the so-called neo-Confederate groups, groups like the League of the South, which call for the South to secede once again, although that didn’t work out so well the first time.

The League of the South is based in Alabama, in Killen, Alabama. One thing of note about the League of the South is how incredibly radical it has become. When this group started back in the mid-‘90s, it was basically a group that said “We’re tired of us Southern rednecks being mocked by Yankees”, and so on, and that was kind of the extent of what their message was.

At this point, the leader of the group, Mike Hill, talks regularly about a coming race war. He has urged his members to arm themselves, and even at one point suggested that his followers acquire tools to derail trains. In addition, the League of the South recently started, or at least said it was starting, some kind of paramilitary force, with which it claimed it was going to help police suppress violence from the Left, and so forth.

AA: Outside of monitoring this activity, what would you suggest we as a society work toward to try and counter these sorts of groups?

MP: I think probably the most important thing is that these groups are trying to tear us apart, as a society. What is incumbent on the rest of us to try and do is to try and build intercommunal bridges. In other words, if one is a Christian, I think it’s important to reach out to Muslims and people of other faiths. If one is black, it’s important to reach out to white people, and vice versa. We have quite a sizeable contingent of people in this country who are seeking to divide the country, and I think all people of good will should be working to unite it.