Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Not surprisingly, fear and loathing edge out nuance and accuracy in the coverage of American "hate" groups

This comment in Delawareliberal's coverage of the DHS report of rightwing extremism intrigued me into following up the link:

And if you think I’m over-reacting, consider this: The Southern Poverty Law Center also reports that the “number of hate groups operating in the United States continued to rise in 2008 and has grown by 54 percent since 2000 - an increase fueled last year by immigration fears, a failing economy and the successful campaign of Barack Obama.

The link, I might add, doesn't take you directly to the Southern Poverty Law Center, but to a Reuters story:

MONTGOMERY, Ala., Feb. 26 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The number of hate groups operating in the United States continued to rise in 2008 and has grown by 54 percent since 2000 - an increase fueled last year by immigration fears, a failing economy and the successful campaign of Barack Obama, according to the "Year in Hate" issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report released today.

The SPLC identified 926 hate groups active in 2008, up more than 4 percent from the 888 groups in 2007 and far above the 602 groups documented in 2000. A list and interactive, state-by-state map of these groups can be viewed at www.splcenter.org.

As in recent years, hate groups were animated by fears of Latino immigration. This rise in hate groups has coincided with a 40 percent growth in hate crimes against Latinos between 2003 and 2007, according to FBI statistics.

Two new factors were introduced to the volatile hate movement in 2008: the faltering economy and the Obama campaign.

"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 investigative journal that monitors the radical right. "The idea of a black man in the White House, combined withthe deepening economic crisis and continuing high levels of Latino immigration, has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit."

OK, now let's visit SPLC and see what the guts of the report actually says.

From white power skinheads decrying "President Obongo" at a racist gathering in rural Missouri, to neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen hurling epithets at Latino immigrants from courthouse steps in Oklahoma, to anti-Semitic black separatists calling for death to Jews on bustling street corners in several East Coast cities, hate group activity in the U.S. was disturbing and widespread throughout 2008, as the number of hate groups operating in America continued to rise. Last year, 926 hate groups were active in the U.S., up more than 4% from 888 in 2007. That's more than a 50% increase since 2000, when there were 602 groups.

Wait a minute--where the hell did those anti-Semitic black separatists calling for death to Jews come from?

Further down the story, we find this section--which many of our friends seem to have overlooked:

Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn't just the usual suspects from the white supremacist underworld who sought to exploit the country's economic turmoil and political strife. A key 2008 hate group trend was the increasing militancy of the extremist fringe of the Hebrew Israelite movement, whose adherents believe that Jews are creatures of the devil and that whites deserve death or slavery.

These radical black supremacists have no love for Barack Obama, calling him a "house nigger" and a puppet of Israel. They preach to inner-city blacks that evil Jews are solely responsible for the recession.

Now, I'm going to tell you carefully--and in bold type--that the existence of extremist groups of African-Americans in no way minimizes nor exculpates anybody who advocates or participates in political violence.

But it does somewhat change the nature of the statistics, as per the SPLC report, which finds a much more nuanced picture than a bunch of gun nuts being egged on by talk radio.

Here are the major categories of groups SPLC covers in the story, and what it says (but go read the entire report before cassandra surfaces with her favorite charge of cherry-picking):

Reversing a generally declining trend since 2000, Klan groups in the U.S. increased significantly in 2008, from 155 chapters to 186...

A slight drop in the number of neo-Nazi chapters last year from 207 to 194 was attributable largely to the dissolution of National Vanguard after its leader, Kevin Alfred Strom, was convicted in January 2008 on child pornography charges...

The formerly dominant National Alliance continued its long decline, shrinking to 11 chapters in nine states. Similarly, Aryan Nations, another one-time powerhouse, withered to 11 chapters in 10 states. White Revolution gained no ground, ending the year as it began with a dozen chapters....

The total number of racist skinhead crews, driven by the addition of a couple of new organizations, rose from 90 in 2007 to 98 last year....

Visiting the list itself brings us this:

The SPLC identifies 113 distinct Black Separatist groups, or about 12.2% of the total.

Curiously, while SPLC mentioned these groups in 2008 (but did not include them in the 2007 statistics), there is absolutely no way to track the growth of this particular kind of extremism in their figures.

This is curious--as the explosion of these chapters within the past two years is statistically very close to the entire rise in the total number of hate groups tracked by SPLC. Parse the KKK, neo-nazi, and skinhead groups, and you will find that the ups and downs in the various chapter counts statistically almost cancel each other out.

The reality is that over the past three to five years, the SPLC's own statistics show that anti-immigration and black separatist groups are responsible for the major increase in hate groups across the country.

Did the election of Barack Obama and the economic downturn improve recruiting prospects for certain extremist groups?

Of course it did.

Did those two factors account for an explosive growth in such groups?

Not unless you consider a 4% growth in chapters explosive, when compared to an average of about 10% per year increase since 2002.

And not unless you have some way to quantify what constitutes a chapter beyond a web page or a single public speaking engagement.

Did anybody, you wonder, hold multiple memberships in the Klan, the skinheads, and the neo-nazis? Don't ask the SPLC, because they don't even purport to have that answer.

The face of domestic extremism in the US is a complicated issue, the understanding of which is hindered rather than supported by rhetoric like that found in a recent DHS report on Rightwing Extremism:

Debates over appropriate immigration levels and enforcement policy generally fall within the realm of protected political speech under the First Amendment, but in some cases, anti-immigration or strident pro-enforcement fervor has been directed against specific groups and has the potential to turn violent....

Open source reporting of wartime ammunition shortages has likely spurred rightwing extremists—as well as law-abiding Americans—to make bulk purchases of ammunition. These shortages have increased the cost of ammunition, further exacerbating rightwing extremist paranoia and leading to further stockpiling activity. Both rightwing extremists and law-abiding citizens share a belief that rising crime rates attributed to a slumping economy make the purchase of legitimate firearms a wise move at this time.

What happens--heading back to our original reference--is that people examine inconclusive statistical data and discover exactly what they expected to see in the first place:

Which is what we’ve been saying for months.

But don't actually examine the numbers or the fallacious reasoning behind all of this, or you will find yourself labeled as part of the problem:

Read the whole thing, and then brace yourself for the tiresome, endless whines of victim-hood from a group of people who couldn’t care less who was thrown into Gitmo. Just like they didn’t give a damn about spending when Bush was in office.

That's me: a guy who supported endless illegal incarceration at Gitmo and unlimited Bushco spending.

But it's pretty good false equivalency for the folks who invented the term: if you supported anything a previous administration ever did, you lack any right to critique the current one.