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Tue., April 6, 2010

George Curry: Hate groups, their profile growing

A plot to kill police officers in Michigan, along with racist and homophobic attacks on members of Congress, are among the painful recent reminders that hatred is still far too prevalent in America.

Law enforcement officials carried out raids recently in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio that resulted in the arrest of nine members of Hutaree, a so-called Christian militia based in Michigan. According to an indictment, the members discussed luring a police officer to his death by making a false 911 call, killing an officer after a traffic stop, or attacking the family of an officer. The group hoped to kill more law enforcement officers by setting off bombs at an officer’s funeral.

News of the failed plot came on the heels of a tea party protest on Capitol Hill in which some demonstrators called several African-American congressmen the N-word, spat on one, and shouted another slur at Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is openly gay.

Meanwhile, a Philadelphia man was arrested for threatening to kill House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.

The hatred on display in Washington, D.C., and the Midwest should be seen within the context of growing right-wing extremism. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently issued a report, “Rage on the Right,” that documents the growth of hate groups.

“The number of hate groups in America has been going up for years, rising 54 percent between 2000 and 2008 and driven by an angry backlash against nonwhite immigration and, starting in the last years of that period, the economic meltdown and the climb to power of an African-American president,” the report says.

According to the law center, which monitors extremist groups, “These groups rose again slightly in 2009 – from 926 in 2008 to 932 last year – despite the demise of a key neo-Nazi group. …

“At the same time, the number of what the SPLC designates as ‘nativist extremist’ groups – organizations that go beyond mere advocacy of restrictive immigration policy to actually confront or harass suspected immigrants – jumped from 173 groups in 2008 to 309 last year.”

Even more disturbing has been the increase in militias, a paramilitary wing of the patriot movement. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 363 new patriot groups appeared in 2009, bringing the total to 512 (127 of them militias) – a 244 percent increase.

As troubling as the increased number of hate groups is the increased respect being accorded to their far-fetched ideas. Mark Potok, director of the law center’s Intelligence Project, said extremist ideas that were usually dismissed in the past are now being popularized by some elected officials and media figures.

In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Potok said, “Glenn Beck of Fox News, of course, spent three shows speculating on whether or not … FEMA had constructed a whole set of secret concentration camps. Ultimately, in the fourth show, … Beck decided it was not true and, quote-unquote, debunked it, but the real point was that, for three entire shows, he hawked this idea.”

Potok also noted that after a Texas man flew a plane into an IRS building in Austin, Republican Iowa Rep. Steve King “basically excused the attack, saying, ‘Well, you know, the IRS is a terrible thing. If it had been gotten rid of, as I thought it should be, years ago, this never would have happened,’ which to me sounds an awful lot like saying, ‘You know, if that person wasn’t standing in front of the murderer’s gun, they never would have died.’ ”

Rather than take on the difficult task of confronting bigots, some public figures have chosen to minimize the problems of racism, sexism and homophobia.

For example, former Education Secretary Bill Bennett endorsed the view of a letter to National Review that dismissed the incidents on Capitol Hill and at a South Jersey Walmart, where a teenage customer made a racist announcement over the public-address system. “That these events are even remotely newsworthy leads me to one conclusion: Racism in America is dead. We had slavery, then we had Jim Crow – and now we have the occasional public utterance of a bad word.”

On his syndicated radio program, Bennett said: “Is there occasional racism? Of course. But this country’s been transformed on the issue of race.”

Not exactly. The Justice Department reports that a hate crime is committed in this country nearly every hour. If the hate groups have their way, that number will only go up.

George E. Curry is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His e-mail address is

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