by Karen Kemp
The rise of right-wing hate groups is part of a decades-long trend tied to the country’s changing demographics, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). However, stoked by presidential campaign rhetoric and high-profile terrorist attacks, the number of groups specifically targeting Muslims nearly tripled last year, from 35 to 101.
Richard Cohen, SPLC president, and Heidi Beirich, leader of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, discussed their work to monitor and respond to hate groups with Sanford School of Public Policy Professor of the Practice David Schanzer on Tuesday. More than 100 students and community members attended the discussion sponsored by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.
In its annual report on hate and extremist groups released last week, SPLC counted 917 right wing extremist groups, compared to 467 in 1999. Hate went “mainstream” in 2016, the report says.
As an example, Cohen pointed to white nationalist Richard Spencer, whose post-election party featuring Nazi-style salutes to President Trump went viral. Spencer had worn a sign to the GOP convention, reading, “Want to talk to a racist?”
“It was as if the label ‘racist’ no longer carried any shame,” Cohen said.
In the first 10 days of the Trump administration, the SPLC documented 867 bias-related incidents, including more than 300 aimed at Muslims or immigrants.
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Heidi Beirich, (left) leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and Richard Cohen, (center) president of the SPLC, discussed their work to monitor and respond to hate groups with Sanford School of Public Policy Professor of the Practice David Schanzer at the Sanford School on Feb. 21.
Cohen noted that Trump linked to the Breitbart News website more than any other during his campaign. Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the platform for “alt-right” views and information, is now Trump’s chief strategist in the White House.
Beirich noted that “alternative right,” or “alt-right,” is a “smart rebranding” by white supremacists. When the U.S. Census began predicting the Hispanic population will overtake the white population, some white supremacist groups shifted from attacking blacks to attacking immigrants, she said. The new label reflects that changing focus.
Despite being a “very, very serious problem that cannot be ignored,” Cohen said the federal government has ignored right-wing extremism since 9-11.
The federal government’s failure to address right-wing and anti-government extremist groups after 9-11 “was a bi-partisan affair,” Cohen added. A U.S. Department of Justice task force on right-wing extremism was scheduled to meet on Sept. 11, 2001, but because of the terrorist attacks, the meeting was canceled. The task force did not meet again until 2014, Cohen said.
“The pendulum, in keeping track of terrorism, swung entirely in the direction of radical Islam,” Cohen said. “It was as much President Obama’s fault as it was President Bush’s fault.”
Cohen listed several cases in which the significance of groups other than those inspired by Al Qaeda or ISIS was ignored. The DOJ finally restarted the task force in 2014, after Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., founder of the White Patriot Party, murdered three people at a Jewish community center in Overton Park, Kansas.
Nevertheless, counter-terrorism efforts remain focused on Al Qaeda and ISIS-inspired violence, Cohen said.
“In Muslim communities in this country, there is a perception – based on fact – that these programs are entirely one-sided,” Cohen said. “To cast suspicion on them in that way has the potential of playing into a narrative that they are hearing from foreign recruiters.”
Schanzer, who researches U.S. terrorist activity inspired by Al Qaeda and ISIS, agreed.
One audience member expressed dismay at SPLC’s “apparent dismissal of Islamic terrorist acts… that harmed, killed and maimed American citizens.”
Cohen replied that SPLC does not discount the toll of 9-11, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Orlando nightclub massacre, and other terrorist acts, but seeks to put these tragedies in context by providing information about the range of risks from extremists. The SPLC’s list of hate groups includes some Muslim groups that profess anti-Semitic views, Beirich noted.
The SPLC relies on the official statements and ideologies of a group when designating it as a “hate group’’ Beirich said. Groups do not have to be involved in violence or criminal activity to make the list.
The key question is, “does it treat an entire group as lesser?” based on “immutable characteristics” such as race, religion, immigration status or sexual orientation, Beirich said.
Some critics assert that SPLC goes farther, tainting as “hate groups” organizations that hold conservative views. Beirich strongly disagreed. The Family Research Council, for example, was labeled a hate group because of its “ugly defamation” of gay and lesbian people, she said, not because of its beliefs about homosexuality.
Responding to a question from the audience, Cohen said SPLC will not label the Trump White House as a hate group.
“There are petitions on change.org asking us to do that,” Cohen said. “I think that would be a mistake on multiple levels.”
Cohen advised a student to engage constructively with Trump supporters by, first, not assuming racism is why they voted for him.
“Find the common values you share, think about the problems we face, and talk about solutions. Vilifying opponents might work to get votes but it will not work to make us a better society.”
Policy 360 podcast
Richard Cohen and Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center were also interviewed for a Policy 360 podcast.