The SPLC: how hate-monitoring became big business

The SPLC: how hate-monitoring became big business

The Southern Poverty Law Center and its hysteria about ‘hate’ are finally unravelling.

Bradley Betters

Topics Politics USA

America’s chief ‘hate-watch’ organisation, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), is facing an existential crisis.

Based in Alabama, the SPLC is similar in age and form to the UK’s Searchlight, only still relevant, and a lot, lot bigger. About half-a-billion-dollars-in-assets bigger, according to its latest donation reports.

Although long accepted by America’s institutional media as the national arbiter of what constitutes hate and hate groups, the SPLC’s uncanny ability to raise money (including million-dollar cheques from such recent notables as George and Amal Clooney and Apple’s Tim Cook), and its equally uncanny inability to spend it, has long drawn criticism, especially from the left (for example, see here and here).

Such scepticism was validated recently when, following the sacking of founder Morris Dees for failing to meet the SPLC’s own standards of behaviour, the New Yorker published claims from insider Bob Moser that the SPLC has intentionally inflated the threat of hate groups for years. Among other claims (which include #MeToo-esque allegations against Dees), former SPLC staffer Moser wrote that he and colleagues long privately ridiculed the group’s ‘hyperbolic fundraising appeals’, which, as he puts it, were aimed solely at scaring ‘gullible Northern liberals’ into believing ‘hate was always on the rise.’ As Current Affairs recently described the claims, the SPLC’s model really was, and continues to be, all about ‘finding as much “hate” as possible in order to make as much money as possible’.

Following the bombshell revelations, Twitter removed SPLC as one of its hate-monitoring ‘safety partners’; a Republican senator called for an Internal Revenue Service investigation into its nonprofit status; and the wider media have seemingly stopped using the SPLC for comment as frequently as they once did.

The SPLC’s history is worth recounting. It started in the 1970s, predominantly as a nonprofit law firm that focused on fighting the Ku Klux Klan. While Dees’ motivations have always been questionable (early partners have maligned him as a ‘televangelist’, and it is alleged he kept funds intended for black hate-crime victims), he did win numerous court battles against the Klan, which ultimately resulted in its bankruptcy.

This presented a problem, however. Without a Klan to fight, there was no fight to fund, so Dees was constantly in search of new bogeymen – the renaming of its original monthly magazine from Klanwatch to the more general-sounding Hatewatch reflected this shift. Along with its pivot away from the Klan (although it still manages to feature prominently in SPLC literature), it also dropped its expensive and time-consuming legal advocacy work and began focusing on putting out ‘investigative’ reports on other ‘hate and extremist groups’ across the US. Initially, the SPLC pushed resources toward exposing the country’s racist skinhead ‘scourge’ of the late 1980s and early 1990s. And when that started to wane, it moved on to exposing militia and survivalist groups in America’s South and Midwest.

But with the probability of being killed by a right-wing extremist being lower than getting struck by lightning, the fearmongering narrative cannot hold without constant nourishment. So, today, the SPLC has expanded its crusade against hate to encompass everything from so-called neo-confederates and anti-LGBT groups, to pick-up artists and manosphere bloggers, and even a few token non-white organisations.

Chief among the SPLC’s initiatives is its annual hate map: a gimmicky interactive map allowing people to see the latest quantum of hate in their state and beyond. The latest tally puts the number of American hate groups at a whopping 1,020. Reliably, news of the rise in hate (and it is always rising) receives wide national and regional coverage.

A minute’s analysis of the map’s methodology, however, reveals numerous problems, most obviously: the inclusion of one-man outfits; organisations with mere PO box addresses; individual chapters of single groups; and organisations that are either defunct, moribund, or clearly no cause for concern – that is, tiny outfits with names like the Folkgard of Holda & Odin. In other words, much of the annual hate-group tally is composed of, as commentator Mark Steyn puts it, ‘irrelevant penniless shaven-headed nobodies’, rather than genuine causes for alarm.

In Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson writes that to focus almost solely on small fringe (and almost always poor) groups and individuals is to engage in activism ‘without sacrifice’ and the ‘politics of spectacle’. According to Alexander Cockburn, in a 2009 piece for Counterpunch, this has always been ‘the Dees way’, ‘fighting theatrically’ rather than actually working to empower poor minorities, as many of its lower-level, predominantly black staff had urged the SPLC to do.

So keen was the SPLC to up its hate-group numbers in the 2000s that it began targeting more mainstream organisations, including ‘nativist’ advocates for tougher immigration enforcement and ‘homophobic’ Christian groups advocating a traditional definition of marriage. But because such groups are neither hateful nor extremist – Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supported the traditional definition of marriage until 2013 – the SPLC’s attempts to expose them as such were particularly desperate affairs, composed, in the main, of context-free quotes from current and past presidents or from people merely ‘associated’ with said groups.

Sadly, many take this fearmongering coverage all too seriously. The ‘anti-LGBT’ Family Research Council, based in Washington DC, as well as several Republican congressmen, were attacked by gunmen inspired by SPLC literature. Perhaps Charles Murray, a conservative intellectual labelled by the SPLC as a ‘white nationalist’, was lucky to get away with just a roughing-up.

Going beyond mere fringe targets arguably hasn’t helped the SPLC. While their previous targets were too poor to fight back legally, these more mainstream groups and individuals are not. After the SPLC labelled British Muslim radio presenter Maajid Nawaz an ‘anti-Muslim extremist’, it was forced to pay an out-of-court settlement of $3.4million. Others have also filed lawsuits against the SPLC, the results of which will be determined over the coming months.

Putting aside the inherent problem of having a business model dependent on finding hate (it will always be found, and it will always be surging), there are fundamental questions as to how and why groups and individuals are being defined as ‘hatemongering’, ‘racist’, and so on. When should racist speech, for instance, be distinguished from merely objectionable speech? Moreover, given the weight such a charge carries in Western societies today, how can we ensure its use is not politically motivated?

For example, Canada has had a hate-speech law in place for decades, and it too has suffered from its partial, politicised use. In 1975, Toronto police cited the hate-speech law as a pretext for removing anti-Vietnam War protesters who were handing out pamphlets titled ‘Yankee Go Home’.

Canadian human-rights lawyer and former justice minister, Irwin Cotler, was right to characterise ‘hate speech’ as an ‘attempt to win the debate by labelling’ and ‘a cowardly approach to the discussion and the argument’. This is certainly the tactic employed by large, powerful groups like the SPLC. In the US, to be labelled racist is to be considered so morally repugnant that even necrophiliac and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who largely killed black men, wanted it to be known he was not a racist.

One way to ensure groups like the SPLC adopt a less fearmongering approach to racism is to encourage them to engage with groups and individuals, in private conversation or public debate, before branding them ‘hateful’. After all, the SPLC ostensibly believes in the contact theory of healing multicultural divisions.

Further, there should be an expectation that journalists reporting on the SPLC’s hate-group designations at least confirm that an attempt at contact has taken place. The same goes for the SPLC’s controversial reports. Before journalists accept their findings, they should vet the reports’ research and methodology, ensuring that there is some rigour to the SPLC’s analyses.

As Robinson writes, simply labelling and maligning groups and individuals as racist ‘is the type of anti-racism advocacy [that is] endemic to a certain kind of “elite liberalism”’. This approach, he writes, gives the public ‘a totally skewed idea of how racism works and how to begin solving it’.

After all, if the SPLC is neither showing how racism works nor attempting to solve it, then what precisely is its point?

Bradley Betters is an attorney and writer based in the US.

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Hana Jinks

3rd July 2019 at 1:22 am

Like Tommy Robinson, Gavin McInnes is NOT far-right.

And like how this site neglected to cover the politically-motivated riots in Oldham where 300 muslim defence-league members attacked a crowd attending a political rally; ..

Splc is being sued by McInnes for defamation, among other things, and l wouldve thought that any story about this far-left load of fascists and nutjobs would’ve at least mentioned that.

If you are so far left that you think that Robinson and McInnes are racists, nazi’s, homophobes and “reprehensible”….lol, then doesn’t that kind of de-legitimise any argument that you might think you have?

Credibility, dudes. Credibility.

Steve Roberts

2nd July 2019 at 5:59 pm

An informative and interesting article. The scale of funds available to the SPLC may seem vast compared to similar organisations in the U.K. for example but there surely needs, despite the numbers, to be some proportionality here.
This does not distract from the misuse of funds etc but the population of the USA and more importantly the very sizeable proportion of it that are wealthy liberals needs accounting for, it would be interesting , apart from the million dollar single donations what demographic the SPLC derives its income from, i suspect it is the same wealthy east/west coast liberal wealthy sets that have also been engaged for decades in the culture wars and identity politics that is absolutely a perfect fit for this victimhood perpetuated with the tag line “hate crimes”
So it is quite possible there is a perfect storm of a regressive and increasingly reactionary class absorbing the victimhood, further perpetuating it, and the financial and political beneficiary is the likes of the SPLC and its donors.
Once this is set in motion, even from genuine roots against the racist KKK, it eventually becomes self fulfilling, feeding itself inwards and outwards, almost taking on a momentum of of its own, this does not excuse the deliberate agency/activity of the SPLC and its never ending searches – much like intersectionality and identitarianism – but the irrationality and banality begins to show its ridiculousness.
In these circumstances the call for the SPLC to “engage” or for journalist to be more objective misses the point, the raison d’etre of these organisations existence, these are political outfits with a distinct message, not some misguided pressure group.
They are not interested in debate to define what racism is or any other alleged oppression, they are only interested in their self fulfilling subjectivity based on their self righteous judgements.
The irony being , they consider themselves and plea for others to be non judgemental, because they have already made the judgements for the rest of us, we are apparently hateful.

Christopher Tyson

2nd July 2019 at 5:59 pm

I do sometimes talk about the ‘black ideology’, what is this exactly? Well it sort of like black consciousness. But what is black consciousness? Black consciousness is the consciousness of black people, sufficiently all in compassing and unspecific. The ‘black ideology’ as embodied by black radicals, politicians, and media types, links together black people of America, Africa, The Caribbean and the UK, and to some extent other post-colonial European countries. For the ‘black’ ideologue ‘blackness’ overrides all of these differences and nuances, the most significant thing about a ‘black person’ is their skin colour (or possibly their blackness, not necessarily the same thing), a bit like racism really. The tenet of the ‘black ideology’ today is anti-racism. Without anti-racism, the reporting, cataloguing, and collating of incidents of racism, the ‘black ideology’ collapses. The ‘black ideology’ has no transcending or progressive vision, it is trapped in the eternal present. Without racism, there is no anti-racism, without anti-racism there is no ‘black ideology’ , the end of the ‘black ideology’ is an existential threat to black people who define themselves predominantly in terms of their race (or blackness). Yes there is a dialectical relationship between racism and anti-racism, I would not even dispute that ‘the racist started it’. Nonetheless certainly in the UK we have seen a real demise in racism, the state, the police and media have all become anti-racist, most of the British public have also become more racially tolerant and yet the ideology of ‘anti-racism’ becomes more potent. There is a sado/masochistic relationship between black ideologues and white liberals, complaint and guilt and compensation.
The question is, if racism is so omnipotent, who are black ideologues complaining too, surely all black people are already aware of it, and by the logic of the black ideologues, white people don’t care anyway. Some of us used to dream of a world without racism, maybe anti-racist consider themselves realist, I’m more inclined to think of them as intellectually lazy, complacent and lacking in imagination.

George Rojas

3rd July 2019 at 3:11 pm

To paraphrase de Tocqueville: ‘The anger increases to the extent true equality never materializes (and it never will).’

Marvin Jones

6th July 2019 at 4:42 pm

True equality will be achieved when a rickshaw waller from Calcutta is in residence in Buck Palace.

George Rojas

2nd July 2019 at 2:10 pm

Without hate speech laws, the American far-Left must use public shaming to restrict political discourse. While Dees’s prime motivation was definitely dollars, his donors (his “northern liberal” donors) absolutely want political speech restricted around their terms.

But in any case, you indigenous Limeys should start using whatever hate speech laws you have at your disposal. It’d be a good bit of jujitsu and at least a good laugh.

gershwin gentile

2nd July 2019 at 12:06 pm

Do you reckon in the next couple of days S****d will have an interview with Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steel? Probably not

gershwin gentile

2nd July 2019 at 12:07 pm

Right so I’ve started to mad comments with the name of the publication in them?

Hana Jinks

3rd July 2019 at 6:47 am

The only word I’ve had any trouble with so far is “imbecille”, interestingly enough. I’ve worked out that I’m safe if l spell it that way.

gershwin gentile

2nd July 2019 at 12:06 pm

Do you reckon in the next couple of days Spiked will have an interview with Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steel? Probably not.

Thomas Smith

2nd July 2019 at 11:51 am

Good article. The wsws article emphasized what this article didn’t–that, like the ISO, these #Metoo advocates are getting hoisted by their own petard.
It’s sad that the genie of condemnation of advocates “reparative” (reorientation, conversion, whatever) therapy is now out of the bottle. Several states have banned it, which is a clear violation of our rights as therapists and clients to practice the therapy and seek the results of our own choice, as long as such therapy has not been proven toxic or dangerous. And no such proof has been made. But that didn’t stop the money hungry, trendy, elitist liberals at the top of the SPLC from joining in the effort by the LGBTQ lobby to ban it. And now that animus has become part of the “liberal” Zeitgeist.

George Rojas

2nd July 2019 at 7:53 pm

Reminds me of this summary of the psychological literature on hate speech’s effects (or lack thereof) from a high profile hate speech trial in Canada a few years back:

“… the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (4th ed., 2000) limited the definition of trauma to incidents that are physical in nature, such as serious injury, rape, and assault, but excludes verbal abuse, emotional abuse and social alienation, such as nonphysical racist incidents. [AB, v. I, pp. 220-241]
102. The [Bryant-David] study made several important comments about how people respond to racist incidents:
“While not all persons who experience racist incidents will be traumatized, some persons develop posttrauma symptoms in response to racist incidents.” [AB, v. I, p. 220]
“No universal, so-called cut and dried responses to psychological traumas exist. Even acknowledged traumas such as child sexual abuse may produce sequelae of varying toxicity in survivors.” [p. 221]
“Individual differences in personality, resilience, coping style, unique personal experiences, strength of ethnic self-identification, family closeness, etc. may buffer or mediate responses to psychologically toxic events.” [p. 222] “We have observed that some survivors of racism report feeling empowered by their experiences.” [p. 222]
103. The Bryant-Davis paper shows that the response of people to what is termed “hate” will be highly individualized. Dr. Mock agreed that individual differences in personality and coping styles had the effect of mediating responses to psychologically toxic events.”

Hana Jinks

3rd July 2019 at 10:53 am

Thanks for posting that George.


2nd July 2019 at 11:49 am

>>Jeffrey Dahmer, who largely killed black men, wanted it to be known he was not a racist.

To be fair, probably to make it less likely that he be shivved in the prison showers by a member of the race that makes up the bulk of its population. Smart, nothing-to-lose move.

Gerard Barry

2nd July 2019 at 9:11 am

I’ve always found it ridiculous how groups like the SPLC (and their equivalents around the globe) as well as the political class (including here in Germany, where I live) attempt to quantify “hate”, as if that were even possible. Such labelling seems ridiculous and juvenile to me.

George Rojas

2nd July 2019 at 7:42 pm

Exactly. It’s nebulousness makes it wide open for politicizing. The Left in the US at least were the bigger proponents of free speech. After they sealed complete control over every public and private institution in the land, they switched.

Hana Jinks

3rd July 2019 at 6:49 am


Gerard Barry

3rd July 2019 at 11:06 am

And it’s always assumed that it’s only “the right” (a nebulous term in itself if you ask me) who can hateful, although I see plenty of it on the left too.

Orla South

6th July 2019 at 12:05 am

‘Hate’ these days means disagreeing with any liberal \right on talking point.It really is grim that straightforward factual statements get labelled as hate and you can be called every kind of phobe under the sun.

mister wallace

2nd July 2019 at 5:05 am

The SPLC has still not explained why it has so much money hidden offshore.

George Rojas

2nd July 2019 at 7:38 pm

Are you implying the US media isn’t doing it’s job? Hopefully, the IRS will consider investigating this issue, along with their naked politicking i.e. targeting of (Republican) political figures; an unlawful act for nonprofits.

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