March 25, 2009 in Opinion

Leonard Pitts Jr.: In U.S., progress begets fear

Leonard Pitts Jr.
 

There are now 926 hate groups in this country.

Take a second and consider that number. It represents an increase of more than 50 percent since 2000. And by “hate groups,” I don’t mean guys in their bathrobes who go online and pretend their followers are legion. No, I mean actual Klan cells, Neo-Nazi sects, gay-bashing “churches,” cliques of black separatists, white nationalists, nativists, racist skinheads and other merchants of venom who meet, plot and recruit in all 48 contiguous states. (Alaska and Hawaii have no known hate groups.) Nine hundred twenty-six of them. The number is a record.

We learn all this from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which has, since its founding in 1971, become a leading authority on the business of hate. According to the latest issue of Intelligence Report, the law center’s quarterly magazine, that business is booming.

And maybe you wonder how this can be. How can hate enjoy such phenomenal growth in a nation where a Jew serves as senator from Connecticut, a Muslim serves as representative from Minnesota, a Hispanic man is governor of New Mexico and a black man is president? The answer is that we are a nation where a Jew serves as senator from Connecticut, a Muslim serves as representative from Minnesota, a Hispanic is governor of New Mexico and a black man is president. Because if those things strike you as signs of progress, well, they are signs of apocalypse to those who believe only white, male Christians are fit to lead.

But that’s not the only reason for the increase. The Southern Poverty Law Center also cites the debate over illegal immigration that has dominated much of this decade. Though former President George W. Bush offered thoughtful, moderate leadership on the issue, he was drowned out by demagogic extremists competing to see which could most effectively scapegoat undocumented workers. They, too, bear responsibility here.

Finally, there is the economy. When things get tough, people become more receptive to the idea that their miseries are all the fault of some alien other. So the stock market, too, is implicated. Hate rises when the Dow falls.

I imagine the law center’s findings land like cold water in the faces of those who took Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency as proof that the nation was finally cured of the sickness of hate. The truth, I’m afraid, is more nuanced than that.

Maybe it helps to think in terms of alcoholism, a disease that can, with treatment, be contained, controlled, put into remission – but never cured. Even when you’ve got years of sobriety under your belt, the germ of it lurks in your bloodstream. Which is why alcoholics do not call themselves cured. Rather, they say they are recovering.

Hate is something like that, a fact some of us have never quite understood. Such folks are convinced there is a goal line out there somewhere which, once crossed, will allow the nation to declare itself cured. And once cured, we’ll never have to grapple with hatred again.

But it doesn’t work that way.

In a nation so deeply riven by culture, race and religion, there is always a temptation to hate somebody, to blame some group of others for the job you lost, the crime committed against you, the fear and uncertainty you feel. There is a simplicity and a seductiveness to it that are all too easily mistaken for righteousness.

So there is no “cure” for a nation’s hate. There is only an ongoing process of getting better, not unlike the alcoholic who must daily earn his sobriety anew. This explosion of hate is a reminder of what happens when we forget that, when we are undeservedly sanguine about how enlightened we’ve become.

It is said that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Well, that’s the going rate for tolerance, too.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


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