“The threat is very real,” said Linfield’s guest lecturer about the rise of hate groups and extremism in the United States. Mark Potok spent the day touring classes and concluded by delivering his lecture to a full auditorium Feb. 27.
Potok discussed what he refers to as a major backlash to the quickly changing racial demographics of this country and others. There has been an 800 percent growth in hate groups since the reelection of President Obama.
“The world is changing, and countries are becoming less white. Globalism has meant large immigration flows into America and Europe,” Potok said. “These are responses to the social changes happening.”
From the extremist perspective, many problems are blamed on the government. Patriot groups and citizen militias, those whose main enemy is the federal government, first began in the mid ‘90s. In the fall of 2008, those numbers came rushing back. According to Potok, there were 149 patriot groups after Obama was elected for the first time in 2008, and by 2010, the number rose to 824. In 2011, there were 1,274 total patriot groups in the nation.
“Many hate groups and patriot groups think the federal government is involved in a conspiracy to impose martial law, take away weapons and force the country into a socialist government,” Potok said.
He said that according to a national poll, 56 percent of Americans saw the government as an imminent threat.
While some extremist groups blame the government, others blame minority groups for the diminishment of “White America.” It’s always the same story, Potok said. With every wave of civil rights or social change, extremists or supremacists have what he calls a “those people” mentality. Anti-black, anti-gay and anti-immigrant attitudes are among the highest in these groups.
“Some hate groups think the Jews are the problem, that they’re here to suck the welfare out of our system, to steal our women and destroy our culture,” Potok said.
The groups aren’t unified, although, there are a few major groups. Potok explained that violent acts by these organizations are rare, as the individuals who act out usually act out alone, such as Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing.
“These [extreme individuals] didn’t think the groups they saw were doing enough,” Potok said.
Potok defined right-wing extremists as groups and individuals who are outside what most of us think as the normal realm of political discourse.
“It’s quite beyond the American conservative. It’s getting into wild conspiracy theories and threatened hatred toward minority groups,” Potok said.
Potok was a journalist until 1997, when he went to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC is an organization that names hate groups throughout the U.S. in its quarterly publication, “The Intelligence Report.” The SPLC started in 1971 in Alabama as a civil rights law firm focused mainly on The KKK and white supremacists.
With a staff of investigative reporters, the center makes the lists strictly based on groups’ ideologies, not criminal activity, Potok emphasized. They look for organizations that malign entire groups of people who are minorities.
“[‘The Intelligence Report’] is a new type of investigative journalism… that bridges the space between traditional journalism and pure public relations,” said Brad Thompson, associate professor of mass communication, when introducing Potok and his work.
The SPLC and Potok have received a large amount of criticism for “casually labeling organizations as hate groups,” Potok said. Some argue that The SPLC shuts down and stifles free speech.
“We are not opposed to free speech… We have never suggested and will never suggest that speech be suppressed,” Potok said.
The event was sponsored by the Department of Mass Communication and the Office of Multicultural Programs.
Kelsey Sutton/Managing Editor
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