The growth in hate groups and the use of their divisive and negative language in the mainstream political and media arena is cause for national alarm.
Already this year several horrendous hate crimes, possible hate crimes, and crimes committed by people with ties to hate groups have received national attention. In the first week of May a fifteen-month-old girl was shot and killed along with her mother, grandmother, and her mother’s boyfriend allegedly by Arizona White supremacist, border vigilante and longtime neo-Nazi J.T. Ready.
The murders were the apparent result of domestic violence but were tragically little surprise from a man the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok called “a violent thug who typifies the very worst element in the American nativist movement.” In Tulsa, Oklahoma, hate crime charges were filed in April against two White men who went on a Good Friday shooting spree in a Black neighborhood randomly targeting and killing three Black victims and injuring two more.
In Jackson, Mississippi, three White men pled guilty to federal hate crime charges in March after admitting to a pattern of harassing and assaulting Black people that ended with one of the men killing James C. Anderson in June 2011 by driving over him with a pickup truck. And in Sanford, Florida, federal investigators considered whether hate crime charges might apply to the February killing of unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin who was followed and killed by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.
For 40 years the Southern Poverty Law Center’s mission has been to fight hate and bigotry and seek justice for the most vulnerable members of society. In its latest Intelligence Report for Spring 2012, the news on hate groups in America was frightening. There were 1,018 hate groups in the United States in 2011 continuing a trend of significant growth that has lasted more than 10 years. The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that the “radical right grew explosively in 2011, the third such dramatic expansion in as many years. The growth was fueled by superheated fears generated by economic dislocation, a proliferation of demonizing conspiracy theories, the changing racial makeup of America, and the prospect of four more years under a Black president who many on the far right view as an enemy to their country.”
The report continues: “The truly stunning growth came in the antigovernment “Patriot” movement—conspiracy-minded groups that see the federal government as their primary enemy… Many Americans, infused with populist fury over bank and auto bailouts and a feeling that they had lost their country, joined Patriot groups. The swelling of the Patriot movement since that time has been astounding.”
The apparent killer in the Arizona murders is a prime example of how hate can cross over from the fringe into mainstream politics: J.T. Ready, the White supremacist and alleged shooter, was a vigilante border patroller, former Arizona Republican precinct committeeman and candidate for local office who was applauded, endorsed, and sponsored as an elder in the Mormon church by former state Senate president Russell Pearce, an architect and lead sponsor of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration law. Pearce was himself voted out of office after a recall election forced by a petition drive last November—the first such recall in Arizona history. Now he is Vice Chair of Arizona’s Republican party.
What does it mean for the country our children and grandchildren are inheriting when there is so much poisonous divisiveness in the political and media culture and the number of hate groups is on the rise? Another of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s signature initiatives is the Teaching Tolerance program which provides resources for educators to help create school environments that are welcoming and nurturing—“classrooms where equality and justice are not just taught, but lived.” Teaching Tolerance’s goal is to help teachers prepare the next generation to live in our already diverse world and nation. This is a goal we all need to share and pursue with urgency. Minority children become the majority in 2019—just seven years from now. Whether we’re prepared to celebrate our children or meet them with fear and hatred will shape their futures and America’s future.
As frightening as the rise in hate groups is, the truth is that there are still millions more Americans who don’t condone hatred or bigotry and never will. Their voices need to speak up and be heard—in our families, schools, faith congregations, communities, political and media life. We need to have candid conversations about race, confront racial profiling, and promote racial healing right now.
The Children’s Defense Fund will be doing just that and promoting the urgent need for racial healing at our national conference in Cincinnati, Ohio beginning July 22nd. In this political year our candidates need to be careful what they say. Divisive rhetoric to win office today could portend a much greater loss for all of us tomorrow. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s report is a reminder that we can’t be complacent, wink at or keep silent while hate groups and language take root and flourish around us. We must make ugly words designed to demean or disrespect any human being unacceptable in our presence and national life.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund