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The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked, designated and litigated hate and civil rights in America for decades, from suing the KKK on behalf of its victims in the 1980s to defending the victim of a neo-Nazi harassment campaign in 2017. But in the last few years, as hate crept from the fringes into the mainstream, the Alabama-based nonprofit has become a flashpoint in the Trump-era culture wars.
Over the weekend, the Republican National Committee, ahead of their convention in Charlotte, introduced a resolution “refuting the legitimacy” of the SPLC — which they call “a radical organization.” The resolution is largely symbolic, but the message is clear: the RNC doesn’t think the SPLC should be seen as the authority on hate in the U.S.
Conservatives have repeatedly accused the SPLC of liberal bias, and weaponizing its designation tool against individuals, organizations or ideas that it doesn’t agree with.
But the SPLC has also faced a huge challenge: what happens when the groups they’ve been monitoring for years are now the very same ones driving federal policy?
One example would be the so-called “Tanton Network,” a web of interrelated anti-immigration think-tanks and nonprofits which can be traced back to the vision of John Tanton, an ophthalmologist who pushed the idea that immigration posed a threat to white Americans. Tanton’s “nativist” ideas, and his groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), were once an anathema to the Republican party. But by 2017, several individuals with ties to the FAIR and other Tanton affiliates, were landing key spots in Trump’s cabinet or securing key roles to oversee immigration policy.
Individuals with ties to FAIR included its former executive director Julie Kirchner, who went on to become the Department of Homeland Security “citizenship and immigration ombudsman.” Another with ties to FAIR is senior Trump advisor Stephen Miller, the architect of the administration’s hardline immigration policies — whom the SPLC has designated an extremist.
In November, the SPLC exposed Miller’s record of sharing white nationalist reading material with staffers at right-wing media company Breitbart, in an effort to influence their editorial decisions and slant.
In their resolution, the RNC accused the SPLC of encouraging violence against conservative organizations. “The actions of the SPLC have served to mobilize persons to act in hate and violence towards those on its “hate group” list,” the resolution claims.
In particular, their resolution mentioned the Family Research Council, a Christian group which the SPLC designated as a hate group in 2010 on account of its “false claims about the LGBTQ communirtty based on discredited research and junk science.”
Two years later, a man showed up to the Family Research Council’s headquarters with a gun and threatened to open fire, citing the SPLC’s hate group designation. The SPLC condemned the incident, but the wheels were already turning in right-wing media, which accused the organization of operating smear campaigns under the veneer of civil rights.
The SPLC has had to backtrack on a few occasions. For example, in 2014 they labelled Housing Secretary Ben Carson an extremist due to his affiliation to anti-LGBTQ groups. The following year they revoked their designation and apologized to Carson.
In its resolution, the RNC accused the Obama administration of “legitimizing” the SPLC by allegedly relying on their guidance for new hate group designations.
The SPLC released a statement saying the RNC’s resolution was a ploy to “excuse the Trump administration's history of working with individuals and organizations that malign entire groups of people — such as Black Lives Matter advocates, immigrants, Muslims and the LGBTQ community — with dehumanizing rhetoric.”
In their statement, SPLC also noted that the RNC’s actions come as more far-right groups and individuals secure footholds in mainstream politics. For example, last week, far-right troll and self-described “Proud Islamophobe” Laura Loomer won the Republican primary for the 21st Congressional district in Florida, and received a de facto endorsement from Trump via Twitter. And so far 20 candidates who have either promoted or endorsed the bizarre, pro-Trump conspiracy QAnon have landed spots on the ballot for November’s generation election, according to watchdog Media Matters for America.
“While the Republican Party approved this resolution, notably, it did not denounce organizations that promote antisemitism, Islamophobia, neo-Nazis, anti-LGBT sentiment or racism,” SPLC wrote. “It only criticized the SPLC for challenging hate groups that have found a place in the Republican Party.”
Cover: Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other alt-right factions scuffled with counter-demonstrators near Emancipation Park (Formerly "Lee Park") in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, 8/12/2017. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press) (Sipa via AP Images)