At a glance, numbers suggest the U.S. is becoming more progressive as a nation—high amounts of legislation promote equal rights, diversity and economic stability—yet an undercurrent of prejudice still remains.
According to a New York Times article, the number of hate groups has grown consistently over the past four years and reached a record high in 2018, with over 1,000 active groups on record in America.
Professor of Anthropology Dr. Murl Dirksen said he is unsurprised, as he believes there will always be prejudice found in any society.
“We always thought we came so far [as a country], but I think that was a false narrative,” Dirksen said. “We wanted to see that, because of laws and legislation, because we’re a multicultural society…that somehow we’re improving relations between minority groups.”
According to Dirksen, hate groups that were previously confined to rural areas and secret meetings now are making their presence known on a national level.
“We’ve always had these groups; they’ve just been very covert and isolated,” Dirksen said. “But I think, in the present political climate, they feel more visible and present.”
The New York Times article defines a hate group as “an organization whose leaders, activities or statement of principles attacks an entire class of people.”
Most of the groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, stem from white supremacy sentimentality.
Cedes Harris, vice president of the Peacemakers club on campus, believes that the violence sometimes carried out by these hate groups will continue to occur unless action is taken.
“After watching the rise of hate crimes over the past few years, it’s hard to separate the crime and the hate groups,” Harris said. “If we continue to ignore the fact that hate groups are growing, we’re going to see more innocent lives taken.”
According to the New York Times article, the main forces behind the growth of these groups are political polarization, anti-immigration positions and use of technology.
Director of the Intelligence Project at Southern Poverty Law Center Heidi Beirich explained that through these factors, hate groups are able to spread their propaganda to a wider audience than before.
“There are more hate groups, more hate crimes and more domestic terrorism in that same vein. It is a troubling set of circumstances,” Beirich said. “The ability to propagate hate in the online space is key.”
Dirksen also explained that modern technology has transformed how hate groups can communicate to their own members as well as outside people. The immediate, permanent nature of social media allows for anyone with internet access to have a voice.
“Because of social media, they are more able to connect with each other,” Dirksen said. “They don’t have to be underground anymore.”
However, the rampant use of technology does have a benefit, Dirksen said. Law enforcement is able to monitor hate speech on social media, such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and keep it on their radar.
According to Dirksen, the Lee bubble is not immune to acts of prejudice and the consequences of social media.
In 2013, two Lee students attended a party in blackface and posted a photo on Twitter. The photo was seen by school administration, and the story made national news.
Harris also witnessed the effects of local prejudice when Rick Tyler, who ran for Congress in 2016, put up a billboard in Polk County that read, “Make America White Again.”
“I saw [Tyler's slogan] everywhere. There were people agreeing with Tyler, defending his words and actions, acting as if it was okay,” Harris said. “Then I saw the pushback. People from different backgrounds came together the next day to send a different message about Cleveland and how we love our neighbors.”
Political climate, as Dirksen explains, is another driving force in the rise of hate groups. President Trump has put issues like immigration and race relations at the forefront of his campaign, fostering dialogue between these groups.
“It’s changed some. Trump has made these [issues] a very big part of his presidency,” Dirksen said.
Hate groups often defend their rhetoric with their First Amendment rights, but as Harris said people also feel protection in numbers.
“When you give someone a platform to share their hateful ideology, it encourages others to share theirs,” Harris said. “It gives them a sense of security in knowing that they aren’t alone in their prejudice.”
For Lee students, Dirksen advises first taking a look within our own community to recognize any prejudice that lingers.
“We need to check each other, not in hate, but in the community of Christ,” Dirksen said. “We need to value color, diversity and cultures, and when we misstep, we need to call each other out on that.”
Harris echoed Dirksen's sentiment and said Christians should be at the front lines of opposing these hate groups, both on the local and national level.
“Christians should be enraged that there are people going around claiming the name of Christ and speaking hate in the same sentence,” Harris said. “We need reform. We need people to speak up about injustice. We need change.”