See that speck there?” retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin says, directing my gaze to the ceiling of the Family Research Council’s lobby in Washington. I spy a belly-button-size opening in the plaster. “That’s a bullet hole.”
The blemish has been preserved for six years. “See that?” he asks, now indicating a cratered fire alarm panel near the reception desk. “That’s a bullet hole. That’s the first round. The second went through the arm of the building manager. The third round hit the ceiling. … Fired on August 15th, 2012, by Floyd Lee Corkins.”
The hero of that day was the building manager, Leo Johnson, who tackled Corkins and was shot in the arm as they scuffled. Asked by an FBI agent how he came to single out the FRC, Corkins replied: “Southern Poverty Law lists anti-gay groups.” The gunman, who was found to be mentally ill, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“He came in here to kill as many of us as possible because he found us listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center website,” continues Boykin, FRC’s executive vice president, who is dressed today in a leather vest over a shirt and tie. “We and others like us who are on this ‘hate map’ believe that this is very reckless behavior. … The only thing that we have in common is that we are all conservative organizations. … You know, it would be okay if they just criticized us. … If they wrote op-eds about us and all that. But listing us as a hate group is just a step too far because they put us in the same category as the Ku Klux Klan. And who are they to have a hate-group list anyhow?”
Eight hundred miles south, the modernist, glass-and-concrete headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center etches the skyline of Montgomery, Ala., just up a hill from Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used to preach. On display in the SPLC’s lobby is a melted clock. It marks the time at 3:47 a.m., July 28, 1983, when Klansmen torched a previous SPLC headquarters. Over the years, according to the organization, more than two dozen extremists have been jailed for plots to kill its employees or damage its offices.
Richard Cohen, president of the SPLC, decries Corkins’s assault on the FRC when I ask him about it in his office, with its view of King’s church. But he says the SPLC’s hate list — which doesn’t include the FRC’s address or any call for violence — shouldn’t be held responsible. “Labeling people hate groups is an effort to hold them accountable for their rhetoric and the ideas they are pushing,” says Cohen, who is dressed in a polo shirt, khakis and running shoes.
“Obviously the hate label is a blunt one,” Cohen concedes when I ask whether advocates like the FRC, or proponents of less immigration like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or conservative legal stalwarts like the Alliance Defending Freedom, really have so much in common with neo-Nazis and the Klan that they belong in the same bucket of shame. “It’s one of the things that gives it power, and it’s one of the things that can make it controversial. Someone might say, ‘Oh, it’s without nuance.’ … But we’ve always thought that hate in the mainstream is much more dangerous than hate outside of it. The fact that a group like the FRC or a group like FAIR can have congressional allies and can testify before congressional committees, the fact that a group like ADF can get in front of the Supreme Court — to me that makes them more dangerous, not less so. … It’s the hate in the business suit that is a greater danger to our country than the hate in a Klan robe.”
The SPLC was founded in 1971 to take on legal cases related to racial injustice, poverty and the death penalty. Then, in the early 1980s, it launched Klanwatch, a project to monitor Klan groups, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. Their hate seemed self-evident. But eventually the SPLC began tracking — and labeling — a wider swath of extremism. And that’s when things became more complicated.
Today the SPLC’s list of 953 “Active Hate Groups” is an elaborate taxonomy of ill will. There are many of the usual suspects: Ku Klux Klan (72 groups), Neo-Nazi (121), White Nationalist (100), Racist Skinhead (71), Christian Identity (20), Neo-Confederate (31), Black Nationalist (233) and Holocaust Denial (10). There are also more exotic strains familiar only to connoisseurs: Neo-Volkisch (28; “spirituality premised on the survival of white Europeans”) and Radical Traditional Catholicism (11; groups that allegedly “routinely pillory Jews as ‘the perpetual enemy of Christ’ ”). Then there are the more controversial additions of the last decade-and-a-half or so: Anti-LGBT (51), Anti-Muslim (113), Anti-Immigrant (22), Hate Music (15), Male Supremacy (2). Finally, the tally is rounded out by a general category called Other (53) — “a hodge-podge of hate doctrines.”
For decades, the hate list was a golden seal of disapproval, considered nonpartisan enough to be heeded by government agencies, police departments, corporations and journalists. But in recent years, as the list has swept up an increasing number of conservative activists — mostly in the anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim categories — those conservatives have been fighting back. Boykin, of the FRC, recently sent a letter to about 100 media outlets (including The Washington Post) and corporate donors on behalf of four dozen groups and individuals “who have been targeted, defamed, or otherwise harmed” by the SPLC, warning that the hate list is no longer to be trusted. Mathew Staver, chairman of the Christian legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel, told me 60 organizations are interested in suing the SPLC.
There are signs the campaign is having an impact. Last year GuideStar, a widely consulted directory of charitable organizations, flagged 46 charities that were listed by the SPLC as hate groups. Within months, under pressure from critics, GuideStar announced it was removing the flags. The FBI has worked with the SPLC in the past on outreach programs, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled a very different attitude. At a meeting of the Alliance Defending Freedom in August, Sessions said, “You are not a hate group,” and condemned the SPLC for using the label “to bully and to intimidate groups like yours which fight for religious freedom.”
Along the way, the SPLC undermined its own credibility with a couple of blunders. In 2015, it apologized for listing Ben Carson as an extremist (though not on the hate list), saying the characterization was inaccurate. Then, this past June, the group paid $3.4 million to Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz and his Quilliam organization to settle a threatened lawsuit. The SPLC had listed them in a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists” (again, not on the main hate list). The SPLC apologized for misunderstanding Nawaz’s work to counter Islamist extremism.
Ironically, the assault on the SPLC comes at a time when, by other measures, it has reached a new peak of public regard. Last year the group raised a whopping $132 million through its famously relentless direct-mail appeals and other giving. (Disclosure: Last year my wife gave $25 to the SPLC, as I learned from her after I started working on this story.) That’s a 164 percent increase over the $50 million it took in a year before. The SPLC’s endowment is up to $433 million. SPLC leaders explain the jump as a reaction to the tone unleashed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and continued by the Trump administration.
What should we make of the SPLC at a moment when its influence is growing — and its detractors are louder than ever? I recently spent time shuttling between the SPLC and the people it is seeking to monitor. By getting specific about the SPLC’s particular charges against particular organizations, I thought I might be able to try to separate hate from hyperbole.
The SPLC’s definition of a hate group is “an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics,” including race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation. It’s a standard that is in line with the latest thinking among scholars of hate, and also one that intentionally parallels the FBI’s definition of a hate crime.
Does an alliance of lawyers with conservative Christian leanings that has won nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in the past seven years meet that criteria? According to Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project — which produces the hate list — the decision to put the Alliance Defending Freedom on the list for 2016 was a judgment call that went all the way up to top leadership at the SPLC.
The ADF’s Supreme Court victories have included the case of the Colorado baker who didn’t want to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, and the effort to block California from forcing antiabortion pregnancy centers to provide information about abortion providers. But those didn’t get the ADF placed on the hate list. Instead, a major strike against the group was its decision to file an amicus brief in the 2003 landmark Supreme Court case that struck down a Texas law criminalizing gay sex. The ADF wanted to uphold the state’s right to decide whether “it is reasonable to believe that same-sex sodomy is a distinct public health problem,” according to the ADF’s brief. “It clearly is.”
“It’s really bad that you want these people thrown in jail for consensual activity,” Beirich told me. “It’s literally barbaric in our opinion. And that was the thing that really pushed ADF over the top to us.” Beirich counts not just the Texas case, but also more recent assistance the ADF has given in cases that would have preserved criminal sanctions for sodomy in other countries.
When I met ADF senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco in a coffee shop on Capitol Hill, the alleged card-carrying hate-group member was wearing, yes, a mainstream business suit and tie. He said the criminalization cases cited by the SPLC amounted to less than 1 percent of the ADF’s work and raised issues of courts usurping the will of the people, a larger subject that animates the ADF. He also defended his group’s submission of a brief in a case involving birth certificates in France that, according to the SPLC, would have resulted in the forced sterilization of transgender people. Tedesco countered that the ADF is against the forced sterilization of anyone and that the case really was about the autonomy of nations in Europe and protecting traditional gender distinctions in the law — another principle that motivates the alliance. He added that France itself denied that forced sterilization was at stake. (Beirich told me later that the SPLC stands by its characterization of the case.)
The ADF has no plans to join more cases involving criminalization of same-sex activity either here or abroad, Tedesco told me. Since the Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage in 2015, he said, the alliance has intensified its focus on religious-liberty cases and free-speech cases to protect Christians like the cake maker who may feel beleaguered in the new gay-marriage world. That work is included in the SPLC’s hate dossier as context “about how they view the LGBT population,” Beirich said, “so our readers can understand where they’re coming from. But that’s not the thing that gets you on the hate list.”
Tedesco, like representatives of other organizations characterized as haters by the SPLC, said that since the ADF was added to the list, the group has been barred from raising money through AmazonSmile, a program set up by Amazon.com to help customers designate nonprofits to receive a portion of the price of purchases. According to an Amazon spokeswoman, Amazon relies on the SPLC alongside an arm of the U.S. Treasury Department to determine if a group is ineligible because it promotes intolerance, hate or criminal activity. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“It’s a stranglehold on conservative and religious groups that is just hovering over us and that can continue to constrict and limit our ability to simply voice our opinion,” Tedesco told me. “This hate label shuts down debate. … It creates enmity towards people that are just on the other side of an issue from you. That’s not something we need in our culture.”
Later, when I met with Cohen, he noted that far from being shut down, groups like the ADF have more power than ever, given the friendly remarks by top administration officials like Sessions. Cohen also showed me an anonymous letter he had received, marked “Re: ‘Alliance Defending Freedom’ ”: “I know who you are; what you look like; where you work; where you live, and what you drive. … So I think I’ll pay you a visit soon. What do you think will happen then?! Trust me — it will be the worst day in your life!” Cohen said, “I don’t hold the ADF responsible for that, but there are people who are angry at us.”
A feature of many SPLC dossiers on hate groups is an “In Its Own Words” section that presents extreme-sounding quotes by members of the group. In the ADF’s case, nearly half of the dozen quotes generally condemning the “homosexual agenda” are more than a decade old. In a follow-up conversation, I read to Tedesco this one attributed to another ADF lawyer in 2012: “Control of the educational system is central to those who want to advance the homosexual agenda. By its very nature, homosexual acts are incapable of bearing fruit — indeed, strictly speaking, they are not sexual, as they are incapable of being generative or procreative. Thus there is the need to desensitize and corrupt young minds, both to undermine resistance to the agenda and for recruitment among those that are at an emotionally vulnerable stage of development.”
“I’ve never seen that speech,” Tedesco told me. “None of our work is dealing with those issues right now. … It’s another cherry-picked quote that they’re going to try to build what is ultimately a house of cards on top of.”
In the middle of my tour of alleged hate groups, I made a trip to a Georgia satellite office of the SPLC, where much of the team that researches the hate list is based. On my way, I read the autobiography of SPLC co-founder Morris Dees. A born raconteur, Dees proved to be as good a marketer as a lawyer. He hit on the novel strategy of shutting down Klan groups by suing them, and he spun equally compelling tales of injustice to juries and to recipients of the fundraising appeals he used to finance the nonprofit law center. Now 81, Dees doesn’t come into the office regularly anymore, according to a spokeswoman, and I never got to meet him. He still was paid $358,000 last year, just ahead of Cohen, who earned $351,000.
The SPLC may be best known for its hate monitoring, but that work takes up a fraction of the total budget and staff — about $4.6 million out of $72 million, and 30 employees of a total of 330. The post-Trump fundraising boom has allowed anti-hate resources to double since 2015, to meet what the SPLC says is a rising need, while the overall budget is projected to reach $85 million with 400 employees by the end of next year. The bulk of the center’s work is legal advocacy. A team of 80 lawyers has dozens of cases in progress, on behalf of poor people, minorities, immigrants, disenfranchised citizens and children, mostly in the South. Sometimes the legal advocacy and the hate monitoring merge, as with a recent suit against the founder of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, for allegedly launching a harassment campaign against a Jewish real estate agent. In addition, the SPLC creates and distributes free “teaching tolerance” materials to tens of thousands of schools and periodically produces award-winning documentaries.
The center’s Intelligence Project is a quasi-journalistic unit within the SPLC that produces the hate list as well as a biannual magazine, online investigative stories on trends in extremism, and the daily Hatewatch blog. A fascinating report last year used Dylann Roof’s online manifesto to argue that his misperceptions about black-on-white crime — which fueled his massacre of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 — were in part based on quirks in the Google search algorithm that had led him to racist Web pages rather than to federal crime statistics. A report this year looked at 13 young men purportedly influenced by “alt-right” ideology before they allegedly killed or injured 110 people since 2014.
The Georgia office has about 10 researchers working on the hate list and other hate monitoring. They are paired with writers and editors working mostly out of Montgomery. My visit in September came as the researchers were preparing the list of hate groups for 2018, which will be published early next year. Clustered at desks according to their specialties — anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-government and so forth — they were trying to determine who still belongs and prospecting for new entries.
Most of the researchers can’t be quoted for security reasons, according to a spokeswoman, but in a small office I met Keegan Hankes, lead research analyst on the team devoted to white nationalist groups. He was scrolling through a year’s worth of articles on the website of Faith & Heritage — which describes itself as primarily a “webzine” — to see if the group still merited a place on the hate list. “We affirm that all men, of every race, ethnicity, and tribe, are created in the image of God,” the site reads. “However, this common humanity does not mean that all groups are equal in every respect.” The articles promote the ideal of a white Christian nation.
“So you get a lot of Christian nationalism but with a racialist bent,” Hankes said. “I’m basically trying to make sure that … they have remained as extreme as they were when they joined our list. See the first article here: ‘A Biblical Defense of Ethno-Nationalism.’ So that’s a red flag, obviously, when you’re deciding whether a group may have racist leanings.” (Faith & Heritage did not respond to messages I sent seeking comment.)
Hankes was also weighing whether to add a store in Georgia where the racist inventory includes music with vile anti-black lyrics, and he was considering dropping a couple of groups that seem to have become inactive. Once he has a recommendation, he will prepare a file, and it will be reviewed up the chain to Beirich and her deputy, and all the way to Cohen for the closest judgment calls.
He showed me how his computer’s customized software can create a graphic of the network of members of large groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens. Other tools capture social media posts, video and podcasts. “Last year I probably listened to a thousand hours of racist radio at least,” he said.
Hankes grew up in Auburn, Ala. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he started as an intern at the SPLC and has been working there for about five years. “Seriously, it does not make you a more optimistic person,” he said. “You’re just on average reading hundreds if not thousands of racial slurs or listening to them every single day. … But on the other side, it’s a real privilege and a rare position to be in to actually do something about it — to do our part to expose this.”
Back in Washington, I paid a visit to the Center for Security Policy, four blocks from the White House. Founder Frank Gaffney greeted me warmly. Coincidentally, the date was Sept. 11. “Perhaps it’s not accidental,” Gaffney said. The SPLC calls the former Reagan administration Pentagon official an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist, and even some conservatives in town want nothing to do with him. But the Center for Security Policy’s allies include Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the United States, who in a 2016 speech to Gaffney’s group said: “If you have enemies, Frank, it’s because you have stood up for something, many times in your life. … The SPLC and others who asked me not to come here tonight claim to support free and open debate. But in reality, they seem to want to stifle debate.”
Gaffney’s concern about Islam, he explained to me, is sharia, or Islam’s legal framework. Sharia is a “totalitarian ideology,” he said, and “sharia supremacists” including the Muslim Brotherhood want to make it the law of this land.
He listened patiently as I read to him from the SPLC’s five-page dossier on him and its seven-page dossier justifying his group’s listing as an anti-Muslim hate group. The SPLC claims this statement comes from a 10-part video course hosted by Gaffney: “America faces in addition to the threat of violent jihad another, even more toxic danger — a stealthy and pre-violent form of warfare aimed at destroying our constitutional form of democratic government and free society. The Muslim Brotherhood is the prime-mover behind this seditious campaign, which it calls ‘civilization jihad.’ ”
“Accurate quote,” Gaffney said. “But that has nothing to do with hatred. That has to do with intelligence analysis of the threat. It is a straightforward exploration based on the factual evidence of a peril to our country, as I say. And the only thing that I think you can conclude from the insistence [of SPLC] that nobody can say anything like that — and anybody who does say anything like that is not just a national security professional with whom they disagree, but is a racist and a bigot and a hater and an Islamophobe — is they’re trying maybe to get me killed. … I’m quite sure that if a jihadist decides to kill me, part of the inspiration will come from the hateful things they’ve said about me.”
Another quote, by a colleague of Gaffney’s at the center: “When people in other bona fide religions follow their doctrines they become better people — Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews. When Muslims follow their doctrine, they become jihadists.”
Gaffney nodded. Even peaceful forms of jihad can undermine the United States, he said, and not all are peaceful. “It’s not that we’re trying to offend Muslims by pointing this out. That, unfortunately, is the doctrine they follow.”
I left Gaffney’s office with a tote bag full of 14 books buttressing his worldview. A 15th came later in the mail. In thinking about my interview, I was struck by just how little he had disputed the SPLC’s claims about the frankly disquieting positions he has taken. To some extent, it was similar to my experience at the FRC and ADF. They simply saw those positions as admirable, or at the very least defensible, expressions of truth — whereas, to the SPLC, they were expressions of hate.
Next, I visited the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. The CIS supports reduced legal immigration and tougher border security. The lobby is decorated with executive director Mark Krikorian’s collection of kitsch renderings of the Statue of Liberty — Barbie, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, covers of the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post, Eddie Murphy in the movie poster for “Coming to America,” even a vintage Peace Corps recruiting poster that says: “Make America a better place. Leave the Country.”
The CIS has testified before Congress 100 times and publishes studies purporting to show the burden of immigration. The center supports a policy “that admits fewer people but does a better job of welcoming and incorporating those people,” Krikorian said. Among the factors that got CIS added to the SPLC’s hate list: the center’s habit of circulating links to articles from arguably noxious sources in its regular email roundup. Also, a series of harsh-sounding quotes about immigrants by Krikorian and some of his colleagues.
Krikorian indulged my desire to go deep into the SPLC’s 14-page hate dossier. The SPLC (with research help from the civil rights group Center for New Community) found that in 450 emails over 10 years, the CIS circulated 2,012 pieces from what the SPLC deems white nationalist websites. The total includes more than 1,700 from Vdare.com, an anti-immigration site that promotes white-identity politics. Popular article tags on Vdare include “minority occupation government,” “anti-white hate crimes,” “immigrant mass murder” and “white guy loses his job.”
“If they had just sent around one Vdare piece, for example, that wouldn’t matter at all,” Beirich had told me back in Georgia. “But we documented 2,000 hate-group things. … When you get into the thousands, it’s like, ‘How come you’re always on these hate sites and you’re sending it to your membership?’ You’re telling people to read hate material over and over and over again. At some point you have some responsibility for that relationship.”
The dossier leaves unclear how many of the 2,012 articles themselves were hateful, as opposed to having been published on platforms that the SPLC deems hateful. It offers only a handful of examples of the actual articles, and Krikorian maintains that most were legitimate immigration commentary. “The point is to cast a wide net,” he said. “There’s all kinds of stuff on Vdare that I have problems with. … But you know it is one of the main sources of commentary on immigration, and I’d be doing a disservice to readers not including immigration-related stuff that appears at Vdare.”
Beirich countered that readers who clicked on the links still found themselves on hateful websites, and the center’s aggregation helps legitimize those sites. Moreover, according to the SPLC, dozens of the pieces the CIS circulated were by authors whose work elsewhere is hateful.
“Providing links to immigration articles written by people who in other venues wrote things on other topics that are objectionable, and that I myself almost certainly would object to — so what?” Krikorian says. “You’ve got to admire the Inspector Javert-like obsession to go through hundreds of these links and find out who the author was and then Google the author and see what he — I mean it’s just, get a life, people!”
I read to Krikorian excerpts of pieces that the SPLC does cite. He owned up to some mistakes, such as linking to a piece attacking Jewish organizations for welcoming refugees, and also this piece in American Free Press (itself listed as a hate group): “So-called refugees are committing rape and other horrific crimes against European women and men in increasing numbers. … The native ethnic stock that founded and built Western Europe and the U.S. is systematically being replaced through massive Third World immigration, which is facilitated and encouraged by Western governments. … Western governments give up their lands without a fight in the name of ‘tolerance,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘humanitarianism.’ ”
“When you cast the net wide you’re going to catch some crap along with the fish,” Krikorian said. “I’m happy to disavow that article, but we don’t avow anything we’re distributing anyway.”
Turning to his group’s eyebrow-raising quotes the SPLC had culled, Krikorian knew which one I was going to mention first — because he’s been trying to explain it ever since: In 2010, after the Haitian earthquake that killed more than 200,000, he wrote in a six-paragraph blog post on another site: “My guess is that Haiti’s so screwed up because it wasn’t colonized long enough.”
“You’re demonizing the Haitian population,” Beirich had told me. “Maybe for some people it spreads out to all black people, or all immigrants. You’re saying these people aren’t as valuable as ‘us’ people.”
Krikorian told me his point was historical: “Haiti probably has had all the problems it’s had over the past couple hundred years precisely because it succeeded in breaking away from France almost too early. In other words if they had — obviously anybody who’s a slave has the right to rise up at any time you want — if they had failed, at this point France would be shoveling money at them just like they are to their other black slave sugar colonies in the Caribbean, Guadalupe and Martinique.” Still, I thought, Krikorian’s historical point, compressed as it was, ignored the reality of the generation of Haitians who would have remained slaves. Is that a data point of hate?
Next, from the dossier, Krikorian in 2015: “The diminution of sovereignty engineered by the EU is bad enough for some share of the population, but many more will object to extinguishing their national existence a la ‘Camp of the Saints.’ ” “The Camp of the Saints” is a French novel from the early 1970s that the SPLC and others call racist. In some circles, the title is shorthand for masses from poor regions overwhelming Europe or any more-prosperous place.
“Like the book or don’t like the book” — Krikorian said he could only get through a few pages — “the concept is real,” he told me. “When immigrants from poor countries come up and basically present a potential threat to the integrity of prosperous modern societies … it’s not just economic because that’s not what people are reacting to. They’re reacting to a kind of cultural assertion that the host societies are reluctant to push back against.”
One more: “We have to have security against both the dishwasher and the terrorist because you can’t distinguish between the two with regards to immigration control,” Krikorian said on none other than Frank Gaffney’s radio show in 2014. I asked him if such a statement casts a demonizing pall over all the Latino immigrants working in kitchens or anywhere, by suggesting they might be terrorists.
“I’m not even sure why they pulled that out,” Krikorian said. “That’s sort of a truism. The point is you can’t have immigration security that magically knows ahead of time who the terrorist is and who the dishwasher is. … There’s not that many terrorists among illegal aliens, but you can’t pick and choose who you’re going to try to enforce the law against.”
The dossier contains more of the same. Blunt quotes, documented associations — sometimes tenuous — with extreme corners of the anti-immigration movement, evidence of cozy proximity to White House immigration hard-liners. But the SPLC’s critique devotes less attention to the main daily research work of the CIS. The analyses the CIS cranks out are sharply and even gleefully skeptical of immigration, and they are challenged by pro-immigration advocates. Yet, arguably, that side of the CIS resembles the standard think tank jousting that goes on in Washington. Nevertheless, overall the SPLC had found enough data points to meet its standard of hate.
With the SPLC relying upon such a seemingly objective and widely accepted definition of hate, why do the vast majority of the groups on the hate list fall on the right side of the ideological spectrum? Cohen says there are just far fewer groups on the left that condemn categories of people for who they are.
Can that possibly be true? What about antifascists, or antifa, those black-clad anarchists who hate capitalists and even Democrats, and who love to run amok during events like Trump’s inauguration?
While often violent, the antifa movement doesn’t have an ideology against people for their immutable characteristics, Cohen says. The SPLC has condemned antifa’s violent tactics and has spotlighted acts of ecoterrorism and animal rights extremism. But to the SPLC and other hate watchdogs, not all violent groups are hate groups, and not all hate groups are violent.
What about Black Lives Matter? “We have heard nothing from the founders and leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement that is remotely comparable to the racism espoused by, for example, the leaders of the New Black Panther Party — and nothing at all to suggest that the bulk of the demonstrators hold supremacist or black separatist views,” the SPLC says in its online FAQ on hate.
Boykin of the FRC — the first group on my itinerary — scoffed at these distinctions. “At the same time we’re listed as a hate group … antifa, which advocates violence, is not,” he said. “Black Lives Matter, which advocates killing cops, is not.” (Boykin says he has heard cop-killing sentiments voiced in some chants captured in videos of BLM rallies.) “If there was anything other than a political motivation for doing this, or a financial motivation, you would think that these groups would be included.”
(The SPLC’s stated goal is to create an unbiased hate list, but forays into political activism by other parts of the organization could certainly hurt the list’s reputation. For the first time, the SPLC recently took a stand on a Supreme Court nomination, urging Alabama’s senators to vote against Brett M. Kavanaugh. It also just formed a political arm called the SPLC Action Fund that can lobby and support ballot measures. I asked Cohen if those advances onto political ground threaten to erode the SPLC’s credibility as a nonpartisan arbiter of hate. “We think it’s important to protect our integrity, the power of our brand, you might say,” Cohen said. “But we also think the issues that we’re advocating for are important.”)
By this time, Boykin and I were up in his office, having completed our tour of the bullet holes. He assured me that the FRC doesn’t hate gay people. I asked him what word he would use instead. Perhaps pity? Boykin thought for a moment. “Would it be possible to say ‘love’?” he said. “I love you enough to tell you the truth. Is that possible? See, that’s the way I look at it.”
Groups like the FRC that are listed as anti-LGBT make much of being persecuted supposedly for advancing policy informed by their biblical outlook on marriage, sexuality and religious liberty. Beirich says this is incorrect: “We have never, ever considered a position on gay marriage on the hate group listing.” Same with opposition to homosexuality for religious reasons. That alone is not hate, Beirich says. Nor is supporting exceptions to federal or state law for religious beliefs, or fighting the proposed law to bar employment discrimination against gays, or advocating against transgender students being able to use the bathrooms they choose, or opposing gays in the military.
But there are some bright lines that the SPLC absolutely considers hate. Along with advocating the criminalization of gay sex, a big one is linking homosexuality to pedophilia. “When you say that gay men are a bunch of pedophiles and molesters, for some people that’s an opportunity to victimize that person because they’re not a real person,” Beirich says. “Disparaging a population and calling them perverts is very different than saying, ‘I don’t think you should engage in this conduct because my theology says that it’s bad and it’s bad for you.’ ”
This issue has appeared in FRC publications and also in leaders’ comments, but the FRC insists it doesn’t think all gay men are molesters — just that it’s more likely, on average, that a gay man will be a molester than a straight one. But still, I wondered, doesn’t that mean that parents must be on the lookout for all gay men, because how can you tell?
Its view, the FRC says, is based on science. Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow and the FRC’s expert on sexuality, laid out the case on the phone after my visit to the council. It starts with the fact that nearly all child molesters are men — whether their targets are boys or girls. Then, the proportion of male abusers who attack boys is significantly greater than the estimated proportion of gays in the general population. “That in itself would seem to indicate that the relative rate of sexual abuse of minors by homosexual men is disproportionate to their representation in the overall population,” Sprigg said.
To advance its case, the FRC cites a number of studies, including one that Sprigg sent me from a series co-authored in the 1980s and 1990s by Kurt Freund of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto. However, while highlighting some of Freund’s data, the FRC discounts Freund’s own assessment that the charge that gays are more likely to molest children is a “myth.”
“We do reserve the right to draw our own conclusions from the data that’s presented in these articles and not necessarily to agree with the interpretations or the conclusions that are drawn by the author from the same data,” Sprigg told me. “They will not necessarily agree with our interpretation of their studies, but we think that we’ve quoted them correctly. … The fact that we disagree with others’ interpretations I don’t think is grounds for labeling us a hate group. The data is unclear enough or ambiguous enough that there are grounds for legitimate debate.”
In the end, it seemed to me that the four groups I visited contained unequal quantities of what even the SPLC calls hate. Yet by its nature, the hate list draws no distinctions, and the SPLC is unapologetic in its view that hate is hate: “I don’t see gradations with these organizations,” Beirich says.
Among hate scholars and watchdogs, the SPLC is unique in going so far as to publish a list of hate groups. Specialists I talked to said they appreciate that the SPLC has taken on the role of labeler, as labels do add a stark clarity to the discussion. But is there a downside to applying this admittedly blunt, either-or instrument?
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, told me he supports the SPLC’s approach; indeed, he used to work there in the 1990s. But he cautioned: “How much high-fructose corn syrup do you have to put into something until it’s not juice anymore? How much bigotry do you have to put into a mainstream policy organization before it becomes a hate group?”
“I think the Southern Poverty Law Center is a victim of its own success,” Levin continued. “The traditional violent hate groups that they’ve successfully sued have now yielded to a much more mottled landscape, where the defining line is more amorphous. We’re seeing a society that is changing with respect to” how it defines hate.
Meanwhile, both sides of the debate over the meaning of “hate” continue to make their cases to the public and, specifically, to donors — ensuring that the war will go on. “If you’re outraged about the path President Trump is taking, I urge you to join us in the fight against the mainstreaming of hate,” stated an SPLC direct-mail appeal sent last month over Dees’s signature. “Please join our fight today with a gift of $25, $35, or $100 to help us. Working together, we can push back against these bigots.”
Messages like that are what the FRC’s Boykin cited to me as proof that the SPLC invokes the specter of hate to promote and finance a left-wing agenda. I mentioned to Boykin that I had heard that the SPLC’s enemies, including the FRC, similarly raise money by invoking the boogeyman of the SPLC. He chortled in response. “Prove that one,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll find any evidence of us specifically using the SPLC to raise money. … We appeal to our people based on a more positive message.”
Later, four of the FRC’s 2018 fundraising appeals mentioning the SPLC came into my hands, including this from January, over the signature of FRC president Tony Perkins: “The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), originally chartered as a national ‘civil rights’ organization based in Alabama, is now working to marginalize and ultimately silence the voice of Christians all across America. … One look at the SPLC’s ‘hate map’ tells the story. … FRC’s goal is to raise $200,000 over the next 45 days to dedicate to this battle. … The SPLC must be stopped or we risk jeopardizing the security of everything good, true, and beautiful: our faith, our families, and our freedom.”
As these letters make painfully clear, hate, like so much in American life, has become highly ideological. In this climate, seeking widespread credibility for a hate list — with its inherently blunt methodology — seems at once quaint, noble and, possibly, futile.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.