The rallying of white supremacist extremism in the US has caused fear and confusion for much of the general public. It’s clear that the ascension of Donald Trump and the mass mobilization of white supremacist movements are inextricably linked, and so, over the past year, the desire to “understand” white supremacist groups has been a pinned topic in the mainstream media. In a scramble to understand the now-emboldened (though by no means new) evils, many people are searching for resources. Centrist cable networks and news media sources have sought out nonprofits, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), among others, to explain organizations that have been designated as “hate groups.”
Unfortunately, the nonprofits that the media are turning to for answers are not without ideological complexities of their own. For example, the ADL in particular, positions itself as “liberal,” but is in many ways virulently right-wing, allying itself with powerful conservative forces in the US and Israel. The ACLU and SPLC, meanwhile, are largely dominated by white liberal politics, which often leads them to make misleading claims under the guise of faux humane objectivity.
“Racism,” “prejudice,” “bigotry” and “hate” are all different words with distinct meanings and connotations. “Racism” sticks out among these words because of the regularity of its use as a word that often enrages and creates conflict. How we interact with the concept of racism and words that relate to forms of discrimination societally is often driven by the dominant media and mainstream discussions of these words’ implications in realms like entertainment, politics and education. One thing we know about racism, perhaps better than the definition of the word itself, is that there has been a great tug of war over who gets to lay claim to its effects.
It’s clear that mainstream media outlets have been (and still are) complicit in entertaining many of the tropes produced by the debate over who gets to say they experience racism. Discussions of “reverse racism” or “reverse discrimination” have made their way into mainstream conversations as if they are legitimate items of discussion. Ironically, their very phrasing — the use of “reverse” as a qualifier, usually spouted from white mouths — shows a subconscious, if not conscious awareness of who owns the infliction and dissemination of racism in white supremacist societies. (If something has a “reverse,” it must have a “regular” or “normal” mode — in this case, meaning the oppression of those who are not white.) These illogical terms contain, in themselves, an admission of their fundamental mistruth, but the disaster of liberal accommodationism has pushed these myths even further forward.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s website states: “All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” The Anti-Defamation League defines a hate group as “an organization whose goals and activities are primarily or substantially based on a shared antipathy towards people of one or more other different races, religions, ethnicities/nationalities/national origins, genders, and/or sexual identities. The mere presence of bigoted members in a group or organization is typically not enough to qualify it as a hate group; the group itself must have some hate-based orientation/purpose.”
These descriptions seem simple enough until we take a closer look at their application in today’s world. How groups like the SPLC and ADL balance hate itself and flatten discrimination in their work dismisses much of what we know about the foundations of white supremacy and ideological whiteness in the US.
Maybe the foremost example of this lies in the SPLC’s and ADL’s listing of “Black separatist” groups alongside the likes of KKK groups, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and so on. CNN reports via the SPLC that “Black separatists, anti-white groups who support separate institutions for blacks, make up one in five hate groups in the United States.” CNN goes on to state, “The number of neo-Confederate groups inched up to 43 — the highest figure since early in Obama’s presidency but still far from its 21st century high of 124 groups in 2001. Meanwhile, the number of black separatists has rocketed from 81 groups a decade ago to 193 groups now — the largest subgroup of hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
The ADL’s and SPLC’s focus on Black nationalist groups is quite troubling when we take history into account. For example, as of 2016, SPLC labels “Black Separatists” as hate groups, saying:
Although the Southern Poverty Law Center recognizes that much black racism in America is, at least in part, a response to centuries of white racism, it believes racism must be exposed in all its forms. White groups espousing beliefs similar to black separatists would be considered clearly racist. The same criterion should be applied to all groups regardless of their color.
It may seem absurd to describe any Black group as “racist” in a white supremacist society, and extraordinarily absurd to label anything Black people were doing in response to Jim Crow (prior to its end) as such. Black nationalism and the history of Black calls for separate institutions has an extensive history that gets oversimplified for the sake of dangerous centrist amalgamations. This lines up with the dusty sordid meme during segregation, when white people accused the likes of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and many of his influences and contemporaries of being the “real racists” for wanting Black autonomy through their nationalist philosophies.
It’s irresponsible to portray groups formed in response to any type of subjection as equivalent in their oppressive capacity to the subjugator.
Meanwhile, the ADL’s website describes the Nation of Islam thusly: “The Nation of Islam (NOI), the oldest Black nationalist organization in the U.S., has maintained a consistent record of anti-Semitism and racism since its founding in the 1930s. Under the guidance of Louis Farrakhan, who has espoused anti-Semitism and racism for over 30 years as NOI leader, the organization has used its programs, institutions, and media to disseminate its message of hate.” Without a doubt, anti-Jewish sentiments (as well as other very troubling views) have certainly been expressed within the leadership and the ranks of the Nation of Islam, as well as other groups labeled “separatists.” Still, to lump all of these groups together while neglecting class, race and power across the spectrum of oppression in the US is sociologically irresponsible.
Listing Black groups of this nature alongside white extremist groups undermines any educated understanding of white supremacy, racism and oppression. It should be taken about as seriously as the term “reverse racist” itself. Power dynamics matter and are not separate from these discussions. All over the world, dissenters, militants and insurrectionaries are often equated with their oppressors under the guise of deplorable views. No matter how problematic, hateful and prejudiced one may be in their response to oppressiveness, we cannot conflate their behavior with that of the institutions, militaries and governments that oppress them. Furthermore, it’s irresponsible to portray groups formed in response to any type of subjection as equivalent in their oppressive capacity to the subjugator and those the subjugators enable.
White supremacy is a tenet upon which the United States was founded, though the ways in which the state has chosen to inflict it have adjusted with time. Presidencies, judgeships, the military, police forces and countless other roles that are theoretically supposed to serve the public are (and have always been) infiltrated (and, often, were founded) by the likes of the white supremacist hate groups we know today. White supremacist hate groups’ philosophies are enshrined in the founding documents of the US and the beginnings of nearly every institution we have come to know as “American.”
So how can anyone in good conscience list responses to white supremacy by Black, Native or any people of color as “hate” alongside white supremacists? This isn’t just an irresponsible mishap, this is a manifestation of white supremacy itself.
Hatred will certainly thrive if those who deem themselves experts on its inner workings can’t muster a minimal understanding of power dynamics and history. One of the latest examples of this centrist-style false equivalency is the ADL’s initial call for police to investigate Antifa (anti-fascist) protesters. While liberal pundits, media outlets and politicians joined white supremacists in condemning Antifa as “violent,” the ADL recommended that the police infiltrate Antifa. The group then retracted this call; however, its website still states: “Antifa, who have many anti-police anarchists in their ranks, can also target law enforcement with both verbal and physical assaults because they believe the police are providing cover for white supremacists. They will sometimes chant against fascism and against law enforcement in the same breath.” Furthermore, the ADL is not just a liberal police apologist group; it’s actively aligned with the police while claiming the right to define hatred. As it states on its website, “ADL is the nation’s top non-governmental law enforcement training organization.”
Policing in the US was founded upon white supremacy and still is infiltrated by white supremacists, but instead of acknowledging this, accommodationist politics are more concerned with maintaining the status quo cloaked in an imagined relative peace. This is a concession to the right under the guise that all those who oppose their dominant, often state-sponsored, forms of violence supposedly have just as much work to do to end oppression. Addressing this topic, Zoe Samudzi wrote: “The clearly defined liberal preference for order over justice will facilitate fascistic governance and punish the ‘violent’ left, thus necessarily strengthening existing punishments of non-white communities, and maintain a tenuous peace for state-mediated hegemonic whiteness.”
Much like the ACLU, which repeatedly insists on defending white supremacists, “anti-hate” groups like the ADL and SPLC are undermining the very causes they purport to help. With the millions of dollars they amass and which should be helping the most affected, they produce messages that mislead people in the name of freedom. If these groups want to live up to their potential, they must first acknowledge that not all “hate” is created equal.