The Southern Poverty Law Center reports there are currently 784 hate groups nationwide. Those groups can be anything from Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis to black separatists and anti-LGBT groups. All of them are listed in the SPLC's The Year In Hate and Extremism report.
But if that sounds like a large number, it's actually smaller than the year before. Actually, for the second straight year the number of such hate groups is on the decline. Despite this trend, Florida is home to 50 hate groups and comes second to California as the state with the most hate groups.
Mark Potok is the editor-in-chief of the SPLC's quarterly journal, the Intelligence Report. He says the report, along with its hate group map, is meant as an educational tool for communities and community leaders.
Read an edited version of our interview below.
When we say the Law Center’s tracking more than 700 hate groups, what’s the criteria for a group to be considered a hate group that makes the Center’s list?
Well, essentially if a group says that an entire group of human beings, by virtue of their class characteristics, are somehow less than other people, that’s it. So if a group says: all white people are blue-eyed devils; all black people are criminals; all the Jews are whatever it may be. It’s those kinds of statements.
How many of the groups on the list are considered dangerous or known for committing crimes?
Very few, really. Our listing of these groups as hate groups has nothing to do with criminality or violence or any kind of estimate we’re making as to the possibility of those things happening in the future. It’s strictly about ideology. I would say as a general matter, political violence doesn’t originate in the groups themselves. That certainly used to happen if you think back to the days of the Civil Rights Movement. Men in smoky rooms, literally, were planning in groups various terrorist attacks and so on.
That’s just not true anymore. Almost invariably the people who carry out some kind of an attack essentially are bored and disgusted with the group. They often talk about the “meet, eat and retreat” crowd. And finally, one day, that person walks out their door and decides it’s time to start shooting.
When we look at the map, Florida is second only to California -- 50 hate groups are listed in Florida. You look at the clusters, you tend to find them in Central Florida, South Florida, around the Tampa area. What can you tell us about the hate groups in Florida, what kind of generates here in the region?
I think, first of all, Florida has a lot of groups in part simply because it’s a large state with a very large population. Florida also is, in a sense, two states: central and northern Florida are really still part of the Deep South. And that is absolutely not true of South Florida. So there’s, I think, a real conflict between people in Florida who see it as a kind of good ol’ boys state and then what they see happening to the south [of Florida], which looks to some people like a foreign country. It’s very Latino, it’s very Jewish and so on. So you get those kinds of culture clashes that, I think, feed into the creation of these groups.
And then a piece of it is simply, you know, skinheads like to go to Florida for the reasons other people like to go to Florida: It’s warm, there are nice beaches and so on. So that also is a piece of it.
Have you seen any change in that number, has it gotten worse? Are there more hate groups than before in Florida?
I think there are somewhat fewer, actually. I don’t have the historical numbers in front of me, but the reality is that the number of these groups has been diminishing now for a couple of years -- by about 20 percent in the last year. And that seems to have happened in pretty much every state. It’s been right across the board. What we think is happening is that more and more of individuals who used to be associated with these groups are leaving the groups and, essentially, being active almost entirely on the Internet. The cost of being outed as a member of these groups, which happens increasingly often these days, is very high. People lose their jobs, their spouses, their families and so on. So I think that, for many people, the more secretive approach is more and more appealing.