According to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, 2015 may have been the most volatile year the United States has seen since 1968.
"Last year was an incredibly dramatic year, marked by very high levels of political violence, genuine growth of hate groups and a level of hate speech in mainstream politics that we have not seen in decades," Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Yahoo News Wednesday ahead of the release of the SPLC's latest report on hate and extremism in the U.S.
According to the new report, the number of hate groups in the U.S. jumped 14 percent last year, from 784 in 2014 to 892 in 2015. (PDF)
The Alabama-based civ
il rights nonprofit tracks hate groups and extremists in the U.S., updating its tally of these organizations annually. Potok, who authored the latest report, told Yahoo News that the SPLC defines hate groups as organizations “that demonize and malign entire groups of human beings based on their class characteristics.”
“All white people are blue-eyed devils, all black people are criminals, that kind of thing,” he said.
Potok explained that the SPLC’s classification of hate groups is “not based on criminality or violence,” but on platform statements, usually displayed on a group’s website, or articulated in speeches or writings by a group’s leaders.
SPLC staffers spend the year checking up on existing groups and investigating new ones. Beyond meeting the qualifications of a hate group, an organization must also be deemed active in order to be included on the list.
"It has to have some activity beyond merely existing as a Web page," Potok said. "That can be criminal activity, holding a rally, selling materials."
While neo-Nazis, white nationalists, skinheads and other factions of the white supremacy movement actually saw a slight decline last year, the SPLC found that anti-government "patriot" groups, black separatist organizations and Ku Klux Klan chapters all multiplied in conjunction with some of the years biggest news stories.
Between 2014 and 2015, the number of active Klan chapters in the U.S. grew from 72 to 190, a movement that, Potok writes in the report, was “invigorated by the 364 pro-Confederate battle flag rallies that took place after South Carolina took down the battle flag from its Capitol grounds following the June massacre of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist flag enthusiast in Charleston, S.C.”
Anti-government “patriot” groups also grew over the last year, from 874 to 998. Potok credits the 2014 armed standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch, in which federal agents were sent to seize Bundy’s cattle over his failure to pay grazing fees, and were met by an armed militia of Bundy supporters before retreating at gunpoint.
“So emboldened were activists by the failure of the federal government to arrest anyone following their ‘victory’ at the Bundy ranch that armed men, led by Bundy’s son, began occupying a wildlife refuge in Oregon in January 2016 as a protest against federal land ownership in the West.”
Nearly a month into the occupation in eastern Oregon, Bundy's two sons, Ryan and Ammon, were arrested along with three other senior members of their self-described militia after a confrontation with federal officers that left one dead.
These numbers likely underestimate the actual number of people in the U.S. who identify with the radical right, as participation in these movements largely takes place online. “The major hate forum Stormfront now has more than 300,000 members, and the site has been adding about 25,000 registered users annually for several years — the size of a small city.”
Potok points to Dylann Roof — the 21-year-old charged with the fatal shooting of nine people at a church in South Carolina last June — as “the perfect example” of how the Internet has become a breeding ground for “lone wolves.”
Roof’s radicalization, Potok writes, began with “absorbing propaganda about black-on-white crime from the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a hate group that enjoyed the attention of Republican lawmakers in the 1990s, and ended with the June massacre in Charleston. Like increasing numbers in white supremacist circles, Roof was convinced after drinking radical-right Kool-Aid on the Internet claiming that white people worldwide were the targets of genocide.”
Last year was also marked by a significant rise in the number of black separatist hate groups, from 113 in 2014 to 180 in 2015.
Potok is careful to clarify that these groups — such as the Black Hebrew Israelites, the New Black Panther Party and the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ — are “very definitely not Black Lives Matter or the old Black Panther Party.”
While the growth of these groups “was fueled largely by the explosion of anger fostered by highly publicized incidents of police shootings of black men,” Potok elaborates in the report, “unlike activists for racial justice such as those in the Black Lives Matter movement, the black separatist groups did not stop at demands for police reforms and an end to structural racism. Instead, they typically demonized all whites, gays, and, in particular, Jews.”
Not only was 2015 a banner year for "patriots" and hate groups, according to the SPLC report, the U.S. also experienced a significant amount of “domestic political violence from both the American radical right and American jihadists."
“According to a year-end report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), ‘domestic extremist killers’ slew more people in 2015 than in any year since 1995, when the Oklahoma City bombing left 168 men, women and children dead,” reads the SPLC report. “Counting both political and other violence from extremists, the ADL said ‘a minimum of 52 people in the United States were killed by adherents of domestic extremist movement[s] in the past 12 months.’”
Another statistic, from the New American Foundation — which does not include nonpolitical violence — “found that by year’s end, 45 people in America had been killed in ‘violent jihadist attacks’ since the Al Qaeda massacre of Sept. 11, 2001, just short of the 48 people killed in the same 14-year period in ‘far right wing attacks.’"
The report concludes that hate, violence and fear are clearly on the rise and tries to explain why, exactly, Americans are so angry.
“The bulk of that anger is coming from beleaguered working-class and, to a lesser extent, middle-class white people, especially the less educated — the very same groups that most vociferously support Trump,” Potok writes. “They are angry over the coming loss of a white majority (predicted for 2043 by the Census Bureau), the falling fortunes of the white working class, worsening income inequality, the rise of left-wing movements like Black Lives Matter, major advances for LGBT people, growing numbers of refugees and undocumented workers, terrorism, and more.”
“Their anger, above all, is directed at the government,” he adds, referencing a November poll by the Pew Research Center, which found that public trust in the federal government has plummeted since the late 1950s, when 77 percent of Americans said they almost always trusted the government. By contrast, 17 percent of Americans reported that level of trust in the November poll.
A number of the Republican presidential candidates have further fanned the flames of this frustration.
“Trump, of course, has attacked Muslims, Mexicans and black people (he retweeted a neo-Nazi’s statistics falsely claiming that blacks are overwhelmingly responsible for the murder of whites)” — but he’s not the only one.
“Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and others have made inflammatory comments about Muslims, Carly Fiorina has told false stories that demonize abortion providers, and Ben Carson and others have attacked LGBT activists and the Supreme Court over legalizing same-sex marriage,” Potok writes. “The U.S. House of Representatives took up a bill to end the resettlement of refugees, riding a wave of fear after the San Bernardino attacks.”
Potok warned that such boiling frustrations and distrust are not to be taken lightly, especially as the next 30 years marks the period in which Americans are poised to lose their majority for the first time in U.S. history.
“We’re going through a transition that is really unparalleled in world history,” Potok said. “We face a very real and serious problem of increasing social distrust that accompanies increasing diversity.”
Still, there is hope. In the report, Potok references Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, who argues that while a rise in diversity is accompanied by a decrease in trust between ethnic groups, “that does not mean that multiculturalism is a failure but rather that inter-communal bridge building is important as diversity increases.”
“In other words,” Potok explains, “the road ahead will not be an easy one, and Americans of all races and creeds will need to work to rebuild a true national community.”