Editorial: Fertile time for hate

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In a dreary counterpoint to the election of the nation’s first black president, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports the number of hate groups operating in the United States has surged by more than 50 percent in the past few years.
The SPLC identified 926 hate groups active in 2008, up more than 4 percent from 888 in 2007 and a sharp increase from the 602 groups documented in 2000. That includes at least 30 groups in North Carolina, according to the center’s annual report. The hate-mongers fall under a diverse mix of labels and narrow-minded missions, from KKK-affiliated groups such as the Imperial Klans of America to skinheads, neo-nazis, neo-Confederates and black separatists. What they have in common is the need to malign a group of people who are different from themselves and blame them for society’s ills.
Until recently, much of the nativist angst was aimed at illegal immigrants. The rise in hate groups has coincided with a 40 percent growth in hate crimes against Latinos between 2003 and 2007, according to FBI statistics. More recently, the election of President Obama and the faltering economy have helped fuel membership.
“Barack Obama’s election has inflamed racist extremists who see it as another sign that their country is under siege by non-whites,” said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, a quarterly journal that monitors the radical right. “The idea of a black man in the White House, combined with the deepening economic crisis and continuing high levels of Latino immigration, has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit.”
It’s tempting to dismiss these as fringe groups who are more a throwback to an ugly past than a threat to progressive attempts to create a more harmonious nation. But they represent a real threat, with the ability to do real damage. One government study suggests about 210,000 people a year are victimized by hate crimes, the majority of them motivated by race or ethnicity. Hate crimes against Latinos have jumped 40 percent since 2003.
In an era of viral videos and e-mail broadcasts, malicious verbal assaults may do more damage than a cross on a lawn or graffiti scrawled on a house. Hate groups have a potent weapon in the Internet, and unwitting allies in mainstream media outlets that fail to fact-check egregious distortions. One example: The allegation that “illegal aliens” hold 5 million bad mortgages ó and hence bear a large measure of responsibility for the subprime banking disaster. The 5 million figure supposedly came from HUD. Yet, even though HUD swiftly debunked the baseless factoid, it was circulated by the Drudge Report and then broadcast via CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” show. Today, nearly three months after the election, blogs and e-mails continue to spew the absurdity that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
Even as we make progress in some areas of race relations, the grim national mood and the need to create scapegoats create a fertile environment for hate groups. Unfortunately, such groups feed on fear ó and these days there’s plenty of that to feed their rank numbers.