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On Aug. 12, 2017, white nationalists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, with torches, firearms and racists slogans to protest the removal of confederate leader Robert E. Lee’s statue. The violent clash with counter-protesters, including the anti-fascist group, Antifa, resulted in a murder and dozens of injuries. The incident sparked a national conversation about the state of hate in America.
Although hate has always existed, 2016 was a near-high in the number of hate groups in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) an organization that tracks domestic hate groups and extremists. The majority of the 917 active hate groups are right-wing radicals who promote hostility toward marginalized groups.
Richard Medina, assistant professor in the Department of Geography, and doctoral student Emily Nicolosi are studying the patterns of hate groups in every U.S. county and their socioeconomic and ideological drivers. The researchers believe that the first step to alleviate hate is to understand the factors that fuel it. Medina and Nicolosi discuss their research and the current climate of hate below.
As geographers, how do you approach understanding hate in America?
RICHARD MEDINA: Hate is a geographic problem. The ways people hate and the drivers of that hate, are based on the cultures, histories, ethnicities and many other factors dependent on U.S. regions. So, the factors that affect hate differ in different places.
EMILY NICOLOSI: When thinking about hate and place, it really boils down to thinking about identity, and how people want to protect a particular place. People who identify with a place have an idea about who belongs, and who doesn’t. When they see people coming in that they think don’t belong, their very identify feels threatened. There is also some research suggesting that hate might be a reaction to perceived threats to socio-economic security. So, people in places experiencing economic strain might blame their financial problems on “outsiders” to relieve some of their own anxieties.
What’s new about the way you are studying hate?
EN: Our study is one of the first to quantify hate groups and the factors driving hate on a county level. In psychology and other disciplines, there have been lots of studies that try to figure out why people hate and whether hate groups are linked to hate crimes. We identified a gap in the research literature; hate hadn’t been tied to a specific place. A lot of these previous studies just lump everybody together.
RM: A lot of people approach hate with surveys, and that’s important to know how and why people feel a certain way. But without mapping, you miss out on understanding the drivers of hate over space. Take for example hate toward immigrants; the negative sentiment or bias against immigrants is going to be different in different places depending on the proximity to immigrant streams.
What is a hate group?
EN: A hate group is an organized group or ideology that hates a person based on their identity. So, whether it’s their race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever it is, they’re hating based on some group identity.
There’s been a lot of discussion about hate groups recently because of what happened in Charlottesville, but this stuff has been brewing for a long time. There are many different hate groups including the KKK, the Aryan Nations, Christian identity movements, racist skinheads, and black separatists movements. Most of these groups are asserting a white, Christian, heterosexual power, but there’s a couple that don’t fall into that category.
RM: We have the freedom to hate whoever or whatever we want. You just hope it doesn’t turn violent. I think the right-wing extremists right now are much more violent than the left-wing extremists in the U.S., but that wasn’t always the case. If you think about the 1960s and 1970s, more left-wing groups were violent — the Weathermen were blowing stuff up, for example. Even today, the anti-fascist group Antifa has been destructive, and we hope it does not increase its violent behavior.
What is the big takeaway from your upcoming publication?
EN: People hate for different reasons. U.S. regions have different histories. For example, the northeast is a place of power that may be seen as elitist. Maybe people are more highly educated there. Is there still hate? Yes. Some of the reasons people hate there are different than in the south, where there’s a totally different history of the confederacy, a longer history of slavery, etc.
According to the SPLC, the number of hate groups is at a near-historic high. What factors are fueling the spread of hate?
EN: We cited an article in the paper that talked about the political economy of hate. It showed that politicians may feed off of hate and blame our country’s problems on outsiders to gain political power. After the election of Trump, there was an uptick in hate crimes and violent activity, especially in schools, which slowed down after a few months.
RM: Ultimately, I think it’s fear. There is a lot of uncertainty in the country today, and a lot of change. People cannot adapt fast enough. For those involved in hate group activities, they see their actions as a way to secure their future, and the future of their people. They are struggling to maintain their identities. Unfortunately, that fear turns to hate, and in the worst case, violence.
Hate groups have been able to use social media to recruit really effectively. They were one of the first users of online forums and blogs, even before broadband and high-speed internet.
Part of their recruitment potential lies in their message. The other part is building a unified front from fear against somebody or something that’s changing. We saw a continued growth of hate groups during Obama’s first term as president, which started dropping in his second term. Now, we again have a rise in the number of hate groups, but for different reasons. Propaganda and conspiracy theories can be very powerful, especially when coming from the government itself.
EN: There’s a lot of questions that still remain, like how linked are hate groups to hate crimes.
RM: We need to look at the different types of hate. In this paper, we’re looking at hate as this big general thing. We still don’t understand the dynamics of hate. Hate can be a very complex thing and we’re trying to build this research area up.
The SPLC is getting closer, but we have a long way to go before we understand hate in general in this country.