Hatred in the U.S. on the Rise

06/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Apr 01, 2013

The number of anti-government "Patriot" groups in the United States has increased in the last year by 244 percent up from 148 documented groups in 2008 to 512 groups in 2009, according to a recent Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report entitled "Rage on the Right."

The stunning spike in numbers, says SPLC's Intelligence Project Director Mark Potok, is being driven by three principle factors; the change of racial demographics in the U.S. (i.e. the election of Barack Obama), the economy and the role mainstream politics and media ostensibly play in fueling the fire.

"We've seen a good ten years of non-white immigration which has driven the rate of hate groups and neo-nazi groups. It's been a long running thing. But with the appearance of a black man in the White House, there's a new type of urgency for those who think this is a white country," explains Potok. "A lot of the rage has been focused on the head of Barack Obama not only because he is a black man entering the White House but because he represents such a major change in this country -- the disempowering of formerly dominant whites. There are a lot of other things going on -- but it's a perfect storm for the continued growth of these groups."

Whites are also shrinking in numbers. According to the U.S. Census, by the year 2050, whites will lose the majority in this country and that, Potok says, has taken on huge importance for white supremacists:

"The reality is, we're becoming a multiracial democracy in which no one racial group dominates for first time in history."

Adding to fervor is the idea that the government is spending billions of dollars to bail out bankers and the auto industry while the average man and woman is struggling. Potok points out, part of the nation's economic woes are related to the unavoidable effects of globalization, and the subsequent loss of jobs moving overseas. But the plight of the middle class is an added ingredient in the bubbling cauldron of hatred as many of the unemployed are looking for someone to blame.

Yet opposition to the U.S. government is nothing new. The presence of militias and anti-government groups in America dates back to the colonial era. In the 1990s Americans witnessed a resurgence of militias with David Koresh's Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas and Randy Weaver's shootout with the FBI at Ruby Ridge. But Potok notes, the difference between militia movements of the 1990s and recent patriot movements is that today, they are much more broadly based and deeper than what was considered to be more of a marginal phenomenon.

"Then you had much more of a fringe element like Helen Chenoweth, the Idaho poster girl of militias and a fairly limited number of talk radio hosts, a batch of state representatives from Texas and Colorado, for example [sic] and a number of sheriffs supporting the movement but that's what it was limited to. Today we see enormous amounts of support given to people by responsible individuals who know better."

Responsible people like former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, fueling the fire with the statement that a health care bill provision for advance care planning consultants was tantamount to "death panels." Or Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's (R-MN) accusation that President Obama is requiring children to attend political re-education camps. Let's not forget Congressman Steve King's (R-IA) claim that every day, 12 Americans are killed illegal immigrants. Former Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo) joins the bandwagon with warnings of a secret plot by Mexico to invade and conquer the United States.

Potok says talk show hosts are also responsible for fabricating news and inciting racial hatred, including Fox News' Glenn Beck, with claims that FEMA is running secret concentration camps to House Republicans.

"Everyone of those allegations completely 100-percent false, made up of whole cloth, but pushed into the mainstream by politicians and commentators pandering for coverage and votes."

He adds, the public has heard very little from the Republican leadership in response to recent threats and violence against Democrats.

"What John Boehner said is a day late and a dollar short. Where was he and Mitch McConnell when Palin was talking about death panels? They've done a great deal of damage to democracy in America and to hear them say they disagree with violence is a bit outrageous especially since the genie is already out of the bottle. There's already a conspiracy theory coming from the right that the bricks thrown (at Congressional lawmakers over the health care vote) were from liberals trying to give the right a bad name. John Lewis wasn't spit on or Barney Frank wasn't called a faggot. Many times the reaction of the political right with regards to violence on left is to attack the left. I think a great many of these people bear a lot of moral responsibility. Our own response has been to name and shame. Lou Dobbs is the classic example. We took him on five years ago over his leprosy claim."

In 2007 a reporter on Lou Dobbs Tonight claimed there had been 7,000 new cases of leprosy over a three-year period, brought on by illegal immigrants. The Centers for Disease Control disputed the claims but Dobbs never retracted the statement. Potok says Dobbs' statement is the very kind of thing that leads directly to political and racial crimes. The SPLC reports, between 2003-2007, when Dobbs was regularly reporting stories about immigration, hate crimes went up 40 percent against Latinos.

The rise in hate crimes against Latinos has also been documented in a report conducted by The Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights. The study shows a direct correlation "between the tenor of this rhetoric and the daily lives of immigrants and many fear that the unintended consequence of media celebrities vilifying immigrants will be an atmosphere in which some people will act on these demonizing screeds, violently targeting immigrants."

The report further describes Dobbs' efforts to stir the pot.

"On May 2, 2007, Dobbs held a special "Broken Borders" town hall meeting edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight in Hazleton, Pennsylvania to spotlight that town's passage of its "Illegal Immigrant Relief Act." This town ordinance sought to suspend the business permits and licenses of employers who hired "unlawful workers" or landlords who rented to illegal aliens. During the show, Dobbs praised the town: "Hazleton, the community, is leading the battle against illegal immigration, stepping in where the federal government has simply failed to perform its duty." The website of the Lou Dobbs Tonight show solicited contributions for the town's "legal defense fund" after a lawsuit filed by MALDEF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) prevented the law from taking effect.

Fourteen months later, 20 miles from Hazleton in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Luis Ramirez, a 25 year-old Mexican and father of two, was murdered because of his ethnicity in a brutal beating allegedly by four current and former high school football players. The teenagers reportedly yelled, "This is Shenandoah, this is America, go back to Mexico," as well as ethnic slurs. They then repeatedly punched Ramirez, knocking him to the ground, and then kicked him multiple times in the head. As Ramirez lay unconscious, convulsing and foaming at the mouth, one of the assailants reportedly yelled, "Tell your fucking Mexican friends to get the fuck out of Shenandoah or you'll be fucking laying next to them."

Potok says the Southern Poverty Law Center didn't take action against CNN until last summer, when Dobbs "crossed the rubicon" with statements that President Obama was not a U.S. citizen. A campaign was then launched to pressure CNN to take Dobbs of the air.

"There was a huge response, it was a genuinely popular movement and the upshot was Dobbs had to leave. That was a clear victory."

But Potok notes Dobbs represents a small part of a bigger problem -- news organizations should be held responsible for opinion shows masquerading as real journalism.

"Look, it offends me more and it offends American democracy to hear about falsehoods put out by American news agencies. When Pat Buchanan talks on PBS, he's talking as a white nationalist. That's entirely wrong and reactionary but the man doesn't lie in order to make his point about easily verifiable facts. He's less offensive than Lou Dobbs and Mike Savage. I think that media organizations owe some allegiance to the actual truth. That does not dictate that they should be liberal or conservative in their orientation. But if they're going to pose as news organizations, they should respect actual facts."

Meanwhile law enforcement is doing its part by monitoring the Internet and staying on top of militia activity. But most of these groups' exploits, like posting racist blogs or training in the woods in a para-military fashion, are protected under the Constitution. Potok says the recent arrest of nine members of the extremist Hutaree militia reflects an aggressive FBI strategy to combat hate crime.

"Look at the supporting material. From 2008 they were on top of this group's amazing set of plans. To me that's a good example."

But the Administration needs to back law enforcement. Last spring the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, under pressure from the conservatives, withdrew the department's report on right wing extremism which criticized veterans groups like the American Legion. Napolitano said the report should never have been released.

"A contentious 'Rightwing Extremism' report that warned of military veterans as possible recruits for terrorist attacks against the U.S. was not authorized, has been withdrawn and is being rewritten."

Potok calls the report's withdrawal an act of cowardice, noting recent events "show perfectly clearly how prescient the report was."

While the federal government can only investigate and in rare cases, prosecute hate crimes Potok says Americans should do their part to hold public officials, media organizations and advertisers accountable for inciting hatred.

"I can be on every TV show in America denouncing Michele Bachmann but it doesn't matter. It's quite a different story when people from her district start to call her office, that's an important thing that everyday citizens can do."