Through the first six months of 2012 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has recorded 247 hate crime incidents reported by news media in the United States.* If that rate holds steady for the rest of the year it will represent a 56% increase over the 316 incidents that it cataloged in
2012 2011. Of course, 2012 is a presidential election year, and we would thus anticipate a substantial uptick in such events (throughout the world elections are positively associated with increased violence; e.g., see Richards & Gelleny; Rapoport & Weinberg; and Chenoweth). In 2008 the SPLC recorded 501 incidents, so 2012 is shaping up to look almost precisely like the last year in which we had a presidential election in the US.
The map above depicts the number of known active hate groups in each state in the US. Clicking on it will take you to the SPLC website where you can drill down to the specific locations of various groups. While the map does not depict change over time, it turns out that there has been a considerable increase in the number of hate groups in the US. In their March, 2012 report “As Election Season Heats Up, Hate Groups at Record Levels” the SPLC writes:
The American radical right grew explosively in 2011, a third consecutive year of extraordinary growth that has swelled the ranks of extremist groups to record levels… “The dramatic expansion of the radical right is the result of our country’s changing racial demographics, the increased pace of globalization, and our economic woes”
We observe similar trends in Europe (e.g., see p. 432 of the May 8, 2009 issue of CQ Researcher, which is of general interest).
In an unpublished 2009 study Richard Fording and John Cotter examine the increase in white supremacy groups by studying both individual and county level data. They conclude that:
The election of blacks has likely fueled an increase in group consciousness among the most prejudiced whites, thus contributing to a proliferation of hate groups across the country.
In sociology the idea that an increase in power and status among subordinate groups generates a backlash among some members of privileged groups is known as the threat hypothesis. A “defensive mobilization” (aka conservative mobilization) literature has grown up around the threat hypothesis, and the Fording & Cotter finding is but one of many that support the theory that as the superordinate power/privilege/status of white Americans continues to decline toward equality a small percentage, but large number, of whites will band together and form groups that attempt to defend the status quo (or, more properly, a romanticized ideal of a status quo ante). More specifically, those at greatest risk to defensive mobilization are those whose earning potential is eroded by the reduction of discrimination in labor markets. Economic recession compounds mechanization processes that replace unskilled laborers with machines, and there is a well documented tendency for threatened groups of white unskilled laborers to respond with violence against minority groups (e.g., Olzak; McVeigh). So the rise in both hate groups and incidents that the SPLC documents is not surprising, and academic research strongly supports the explanation they provided in their March report.
What might we expect over the coming decades? Because “the non-Hispanic white share of the U.S. total population will likely fall below 50 percent by 2050,” in 2011 the Kennan Institute identified the browning of America as the second of its six most disruptive demographic trends. I, for one, have been surprised at the limited violent challenges to the American political system by white supremacy groups. For over a decade I have held the opinion that as its privilege declines white America has one last mobilization/rebellion cycle in it before ceding its numeric advantage. Economic recession, shrinking unskilled jobs, and an election year substantially increase the likelihood of this occuring, but thus far activities have been limited to small groups that engage in actions with low levels of violence. We’ll see what the rest of the summer and fall bring.
* The SPLC provides the following note about their hate crime incident data: “Incidents of apparent hate crimes and hate group activities listed here are drawn primarily from media sources. These incidents include only a fraction of the approximately 191,000 reported and unreported hate crimes that a 2005 government report estimated occur annually.”