In SPLC’s crisis, a broader lesson for how to combat hate?

Why We Wrote This

Amid turmoil at a civil rights group, our reporter looks at a deeper question: When does a hate-watch effort help expose and diminish hate, and when might it instead harden America's stiff divides?

Joe Ellis/The Clarion-Ledger/AP/File
Morris Dees with the Southern Poverty Law Center (r.) listens during a news conference at the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, Sept. 6, 2011. The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a nationally known nonprofit that monitors hate organizations, said March 14 it had fired Mr. Dees, who once won a lawsuit that bankrupted a leading Ku Klux Klan group.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group known for combating white supremacy, has recently seen criticism turn inward. Several of its leaders have departed under allegations of racist or misogynist behavior in the workplace. Beyond that, concerns have risen that its efforts to root out extremism are, in some part, based on “selling the idea of Southern intolerance to a do-gooder Yankee donor base,” as a former SPLC staffer wrote.

Critics say that, as the group watches the “gray areas” between free speech and violence-inspiring hatred, it has sometimes skated onto thin ice in labeling individuals as extremists. The organization understands that “there is a danger labeling groups as hate groups when we’re in such a fragmented, polarized, and nuanced sociopolitical climate,” says Brian Levin, a former SPLC worker.

“If [the SPLC] needs to clean house, good, because their work is absolutely essential,” says extremism expert Catherine McNicol Stock. “But this is also a reminder that people on the left have to be careful not to equate the ideas of conservatism [with extremism].”

Once a Democrat living in rural Kansas, Evan Mulch sought to wrench wisdom out of his daily life by reading and debating a full array of moral philosophies.

But one day, he stopped looking. “You can only go down so many rabbit holes,” he says.

He found his philosophical home at the archconservative John Birch Society, which is undergoing a renaissance in the Trump era.

To many progressives in the United States, Mr. Mulch is less a believer in small government than a patriot-movement extremist.

That view has been spread via the Southern Poverty Law Center and its influential Hatewatch project. In 2013, the SPLC’s Hatewatch blog called the Society a group of “conspiracy theory-loving, U.N.-hating, federal government-despising, Ron Paul-supporting, environmentalist-bashing ... true believers.” 

That elicits barely a shrug from Mr. Mulch.

“Nearly everyone I run into says that the SPLC is a hate group itself,” he says. “So when a hate group is calling other groups hate groups, it may have lost all credibility.”

Even as the SPLC, based in Montgomery, Alabama, has become a heavy-hitting counterweight against rising white nationalism in the U.S., it is in the midst of its own reckoning.

In the past month, three key leaders have either been fired or resigned amid allegations of racism and misogyny in the workplace – an irony for an organization founded to fight those impulses.

But for a lot of Americans, the scandal is much bigger than a tale of workplace hypocrisy. It is about how to police debate in an era when tribalism and name-calling seems to dominate the public square.

“If [the SPLC] needs to clean house, good, because their work is absolutely essential,” says Catherine McNicol Stock, author of “Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain.” “But this is also a reminder that people on the left have to be careful not to equate the ideas of conservatism [with extremism].”

Hints of a moral crisis in an organization founded to uphold civil rights may extend beyond the office. Critics have raised concerns that its efforts to root out extremism are, in some part, based on “selling the idea of Southern intolerance to a do-gooder Yankee donor base” that supports a $741 million trust fund, as a former SPLC staffer wrote in The New Yorker magazine.

Out of a modernist six-story edifice set against Montgomery’s modest skyline, the SPLC manages a platoon of lawyers to litigate civil rights complaints. A smaller group is its outward face: the Intelligence Project, widely quoted publisher of Hatewatch, which tracks extremism throughout the U.S. 

SPLC’s bankrupting of the Ku Klux Klan has been widely reported, and the group gained still more prominence as it tracked racists and bigots from the Clinton through Obama eras. 

But with the Trump election, it took on fresh stature. Last year, it helped force several conservative commentators – including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who is currently being sued by parents of slain Sandy Hook children for spreading conspiracy theories that their children’s murders were all a hoax – off mainstream social media platforms. It routinely assists law enforcement, including the FBI, in tracking hate groups, and has been ringing alarm bells about a rising tide of white nationalist violence. In its most recent report, the Intelligence Project also noted a rise in violent black nationalism. 

The broader profile has come with bigger stumbles.

In recent years, the Intelligence Project has apologized to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson for listing him on an extremist watch. It also paid out millions in a libel settlement to a man it misidentified as an anti-Muslim extremist.

And critics have blamed the SPLC’s labeling as extremists mainstream figures like author Charles Murray – who posited in the “Bell Curve” the widely debunked theory that there may be genetic differences between the races – as contributing to hostility toward free speech on college campuses.

And then two weeks ago, a bombshell: The center suddenly announced the firing of co-founder Morris Dees. Late last month, president Richard Cohen and several other principals resigned. The center has been relatively mum about the details, but the shake-up came after a prominent black female attorney resigned, causing employees to write a letter saying that “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”

Last week, the center hired Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, to help overhaul its workplace culture. On Wednesday, it announced that an SPLC board member, former juvenile court judge Karen Baynes-Dunning, is taking over as interim CEO.

“It’s clear that our mission and our work combating hate and extremism are as needed as ever, so the vital work of the Intelligence Project goes on,” an SPLC spokesperson writes in an email. “Like all parts of the SPLC, we’re eager to see Tina Tchen’s review process continue and look forward to making any changes needed to ensure we have a workplace that reflects our highest values.”

The news led to eye-opening shellackings from news organizations that routinely use the SPLC’s findings to fuel stories. The Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker were among those that published tough critiques.

But a gentler charge, says Professor Stock, who teaches American studies at Connecticut College in New London, is that the SPLC applies what moral philosophers call a “hero standard” to group membership – the idea, for example, that those not actively trying to rescue Jews during the Holocaust were bad people. That high bar of virtue means that the SPLC’s brush sometimes splatters non-extremist Americans. 

The organization understands that “there is a danger labeling groups as hate groups when we’re in such a fragmented, polarized, and nuanced sociopolitical climate,” said Brian Levin, former associate director for legal affairs of the SPLC’s Klanwatch/Militia Task Force, in a conversation before the shake-up.

But it’s the “gray areas” between free speech and violence-inspiring hatred where extremism can flourish – and where hate-watch groups can skate onto thin ice, says extremism expert J.M. Berger.

Last year, the Intelligence Project listed a man named Vince Buckles as a leader of the secessionist and increasingly militant League of the South in Louisiana. Mr. Buckles was at one point a cast member on the “Sons of Guns” reality TV show.

At the time, Hatewatch editor Heidi Beirich told the Monitor’s Christa Case Bryant that it stood by its reporting. She said Mr. Buckles “downplayed his role” because “this guy had a lot to lose by the disclosure of this. I know he was at some league events.” 

Reached last year by the Monitor at his gun shop in Louisiana, Mr. Buckles acknowledged that he had been at a league event in New Orleans. But he says all he did was pay a membership fee to the League of the South.

He denies being a racist, claiming his gun shop is one of only a few in his parts of Louisiana that actively caters to a black clientele. For Mr. Buckles, at least, it’s like he woke up one day to find his reputation at stake for simply holding what he sees as traditional American views.

“The growing rise of left-wing politics means that stuff that used to be center of the road is now right-wing,” says Mr. Buckles. “Bill Clinton’s policies are not that different from Trump, but Trump is a Nazi and Clinton was a Democrat hero. It’s a very, very left shift. We thought this was healed, but now we have seen that it is not healed.”

Painting Americans like Mr. Buckles and Mr. Mulch as nationalist revolutionaries underscores the lack of a hard definition of extremism, complicated by the difficulty of a majority-white nation to address a surge of white nationalism, argues Mr. Berger, author of “Jihad Joe,” in an email.

In many ways, he says, the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography – “I know it when I see it” – has become the mainstream standard for extremism. “And it’s not a healthy one.” In his view, the extremism label should only be applied to groups that base their existence on the promotion of hostile action against another group.

“If ‘extremist’ is just a label for someone you disagree with, then it’s a pretty useless label,” says Mr. Berger.

“The Founders feared tyranny of the majority – that over time certain views would become so prevalent that [Americans] would exclude from discussion ... ideas that some people considered beyond the pale of acceptability,” says Gene Policinski, president of the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington. “The very reason [for the First Amendment] is for the protection of extreme ideas. Justice Jackson said that sometimes we need to hear that which is vile and repugnant only if to be better prepared to argue against it.”

Perhaps more fundamentally, both Mr. Buckles and Mr. Mulch say they have been undeterred by the SPLC’s negative attention. “Heck,” said Mr. Buckles. “it’s a badge of honor.” 

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