People with a White Lives Matter sign demonstrate in front of the NAACP office in Houston. (Darla Guillen/Houston Chronicle via AP)

In the 1980s, the Southern Poverty Law Center — an organization born of the civil rights movement — began tracking extremist organizations they deemed “hate groups” in the United States.

At the time, most were white supremacist organizations finding renewed footing after a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

They called it Klanwatch, then eventually the Intelligence Project.

In the nearly 40 years since, hundreds of groups that ascribe to varying brands of inflammatory ideology — Neo-Nazi, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, Holocaust-denying or black separatist groups — have been lumped into the list. There is even a “general hate” category.

The center’s definition of hate groups — “those that vilify entire groups of people based on immutable characteristics such as race or ethnicity” — mirrors the one used by the federal government when prosecuting hate crimes.

Although the news media routinely cites SPLC hate group designations as if they were definitive, some categorizations have in fact been controversial.

The law center is left-leaning, a nugget conservatives and even moderates have used to deem some SPLC distinctions illegitimate — especially when it labeled the Family Research Council, a conservative organization, a hate group for its stance on people’s being gay.

But the center’s most recent critique came this summer from some conservatives after ambush shootings killed eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, days after Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country to denounce the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of law enforcement.

Thousands signed Change.org petitions, the center received direct requests and conservative commentators joined the chorus of critics demanding a hate group designation for Black Lives Matter, claiming its rhetoric was inflammatory.

The SPLC refused.

This month, the organization announced the latest additions to its Hate Map tracker.

Black Lives Matter is not on the list.

White Lives Matter is.

Separated in name by just one word, the organizations are rooted in far different ideologies and end goals, according to the SPLC, which is why the center claims one is founded in hateful principles and the other is not.

Neither group has a singular, concentrated leadership structure. Most commonly, the phrases that define them are used in a symbolic way, to represent a school of thought, not all that different from the catchphrases of the antiwar protests decades ago.

“Make love, not war,” meant something to those who said it, but it didn’t necessarily have an attached organization, unlike, for example, the political slogans of presidential nominees. “Make America Great Again” is linked to a political ideology but also to a specific politician.

These movements are more diffuse and at times amorphous.

In mid-July, SPLC President Richard Cohen wrote a blog post titled “Black Lives Matter is Not a Hate Group” with a nuanced explanation for that declaration.

“We have heard nothing remotely comparable to the NBPP’s bigotry from the founders and most prominent leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement and nothing at all to suggest that the bulk of the demonstrators hold supremacist or black separatist views,” Cohen wrote, referencing the New Black Panther Party. “Thousands of white people across America — indeed, people of all races — have marched in solidarity with African Americans during BLM marches, as is clear from the group’s website. The movement’s leaders also have condemned violence.

“There’s no doubt,” he added, “that some protesters who claim the mantle of Black Lives Matter have said offensive things, like the chant ‘pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon’ that was heard at one rally. But before we condemn the entire movement for the words of a few, we should ask ourselves whether we would also condemn the entire Republican Party for the racist words of its presumptive nominee — or for the racist rhetoric of many other politicians in the party over the course of years.”

The phrase Black Lives Matter first received national attention in summer 2014 and, since then, has become part of conversations on race in America. Here's how the phrase became a movement. (Claritza Jimenez,Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

Black Lives Matter was born in 2014 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. It first surfaced as a trending social media hashtag, then grew to a nationwide political movement. Its leaders have called for increased scrutiny of police brutality against racial and ethnic minorities, an end to mass incarceration in the United States and a heightened awareness of institutional racism.

Black Lives Matter, the organization, has more than 20 chapters across the United States and Canada, but the broader movement is not limited by those structured groups. The phrase itself has been used by protesters and online activists across the country who feel solidarity with the movement but may not be specifically tied to the organization in a traditional, membership-based sense.

While variations of the “Lives Matter” concept has been used by a variety of individuals and activists, SPLC sees White Lives Matter as a definitively dangerous iteration, calling it “a radical counter-movement” with “racist activists working hard to spread its claims.”

“Its main activists, to put it plainly, are unvarnished white supremacists,” Sarah Viets wrote in a blog post.

It’s a hate group, SPLC argues, because the message has been co-opted by a handful of proven white supremacists. Two such groups, the Aryan Strikeforce, a skinhead group, and the National Socialist Movement, America’s largest neo-Nazi group, largely inspired the designation, Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project, told the Boston Globe.

The law center identified Tennessean Rebecca Barnette, a leader in both groups, as one of White Lives Matter’s “key leaders, if not the leader.”

“Barnette, who describes herself as a ‘revolutionist’ who is working to ‘create a new world’ for white people, appears to run both the WLM website and the movement’s Facebook page,” Viets wrote on the law center’s blog.

The group’s website promotes the idea that a “white genocide” is sweeping the United States, caused by “mass third world immigration, integration by force and 24/7 race mixing propaganda.”

“It supports breeding practices that improve fitness, opposes dysgenic immigration,” the website continues, “and takes a libertarian stance on other right wing gripes that don’t directly turn the population non-White.”

White Lives Matter is not a white supremacist or anti-Semitic group, the website claims, but it believes “ethnic Europeans are worth preserving” and that, though “Jews are generally likeable,” it opposes “Jewish aggression.”

The Texas-based Aryan Renaissance Society, another group of which SPLC alleges Barnette is a member, claims to be “the leading force behind the WLM Movement,” according to the law center. And researchers linked the ARS to a protest that was held outside the Houston headquarters of the NAACP last week.

Men and women waved Confederate flags, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and called the NAACP “one of the most racist groups in America.”

One sign read “14 words,” a reference to the white supremacist motto: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

In reaction to the SPLC hate group declaration, a YouTube channel labeled White Lives Matter posted a video this week of a white man outside a BP gas station inserting so-called “Black on White crime” fliers into the free coupon box.

“While groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center say we are terrorists and we are a hate group, at the grass-roots, small-town America, just normal, casual USA, everybody knows the truth,” the man says. “White Lives Matters. Black Lives Matters is the largest terrorist organization in America, right now, today. They riot, they loot, they pillage.”

On Wednesday, NBC News published a statement it said came from White Lives Matter, albeit without saying specifically which group or person issued it:

White Lives Matter is really about recognizing the contributions that people of European descent have made to civilization, and that we as a people and culture are worth preserving. We reject the notion that it is morally wrong for people of European descent to love and support their own race. We value Western civilization and believe that at the very least, immigrants should not make us dumber or poorer.

White Lives Matter is not the only “lives matter” counter-movement. As law enforcement began receiving increased scrutiny from the public over officer-involved shootings and a lack of accountability for them, police supporters used the phrase Blue Lives Matter. Another iteration, All Lives Matter, was created by those who think focusing on only the black and brown victims of police brutality is divisive and distracts from the larger issue.

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