News emerged this week that Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) gave a speech in 2002 to a group of white supremacists. Scalise confirmed Monday that he appeared before a convention of the group, but said that he did not know about its affiliation with racists and neo-Nazi activists. (He also issued a statement Tuesday apologizing for this “mistake.”)

Most of the attention surrounding this story has focused on Scalise, the third-highest ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. But this story has also brought new attention to the white supremacist movement in the United States, which remains out of most mainstream news coverage and is an unknown, amorphous quantity to many readers. So with such groups in the news again, we called up Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center for a guide to how things stand as 2014 winds down.

How many white supremacist groups are there right now?

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The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the United States, estimates that there are a little more than 930 such groups in the country right now. Most of these are white supremacist groups or white nationalist groups, according to Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC.

Is that more groups than there were recently? Fewer groups? Give me some context. 

That number is up from 602 hate groups in 2000, according to the SPLC. That is “steady, significant growth,” Potok said Tuesday, but it pales in comparison to the growth among other groups the SPLC tracks. Anti-government “patriot” or “militia” groups have seen “spectacular, quite unprecedented growth” in recent years, Potok says. There were 194 such groups in 2000, a number that dropped to 149 by 2008, but after President Obama’s election, the number jumped to more than 1,000 by last year. (Experts have told us that while many of these groups do spout hatred, most of them never turn to violence.)

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Why has there been so much more growth among these militia or patriot groups and not among the hate groups?

This boils down to the message they are preaching, Potok says. “The patriot groups draw from a much wider social base than the white supremacist groups,” he said. “There’s a limit to how many people you’re going to be able to enlist or recruit by saying we need to kill the Jews and then everything will be fine.”

How have these white supremacist groups changed since 2000?

If anything, the groups “were much better organized” in 2000, when there were several major groups, Potok said. Even as their numbers have grown, these groups are “constantly at each other’s throats,” which means they are not tremendously well-organized, he added.

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What is the group that Scalise addressed?

It is called the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO. It was founded in 2000 (under a different name) by David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. This group is best known for being Duke’s “latest vehicle,” Potok says, and has not been particularly active in recent years.

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Do politicians speak to these types of groups that often? 

Not really, Potok says. We are a bit removed from the 1998 episode that saw Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi and the Senate majority leader at the time, renouncing a white supremacist group he had appeared before six years earlier.

“This kind of interaction, this kind of direct interaction between politicians and the radical right, we don’t see that any more,” Potok said. Local politicians might, but the cost is too high for someone with national political aspirations, he said. But that doesn’t mean they have no influence, he added: “Propaganda and conspiracy theories” that originate with some of these groups are making their way into the political mainstream, he said.

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Is it possible Scalise did not know about the group’s sentiments when he spoke to them? 

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That is what Scalise and a longtime Duke adviser said, but Potok doesn’t buy it, calling these claims “not believable” on Tuesday.

“This was a group led by the best known white supremacist in America and comprised some of the best known activists in its leadership as well,” he said. “So this was no secret.”

What is the future of these groups? 

Potok said they would continue to “make hay while the sun shines,” and said that could last for decades. He pointed to the Census forecast that non-Hispanic whites would become a minority of the U.S. population by 2042 as a period during which communities will see more and more anger from some over the demographic changes taking place across the country. “This is a long and difficult transition we’re going through,” he said.

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