The University of Texas at Austin
  • Expert looks at causes of hate crimes in U.S.

    By Nancy Neff
    Nancy Neff
    Published: Nov. 24, 2008

    A rise in minority power, women’s rights, gay rights and the use of the immigration debate by radical-right ideologues has created a “skin-head Mecca” in the United States, says a national hate-crimes expert.

    Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project, said the center has documented 888 hate groups operating in the United States, a number that has grown by a “staggering” 48 percent since 2000.

    Potok was the featured speaker at the Dean Jack Otis Social Problem and Social Policy Lecture Series in October sponsored by the School of Social Work. His talk was on “Hate in America: What Can Be Done?”

    He discussed the development of organized hatred in the U.S., the use of immigration by the radical right, including nationally know television commentators and some members of the Congress, and the increase of race-motivated violence.

    Hate groups take advantage of economic pain and conspiracy theories like “Mexico is secretly trying to take over parts of the Southwest” fuel the hate, Potok said.

    “Many people who are pulled into these hate groups are living in neighborhoods that are going downhill economically at the very same time demographics in the country are rapidly changing,” Potok said. “They feel like ‘this is not the country I grew up in’ – which is not unlike what happened in Germany in the late 1920s and ’30s. They start to look for scapegoats.”

    Research shows that young people who come from dysfunctional families. They are lonely and have low self-esteem and feelings of rage are turning to hate groups to create an alternative family.

    “In addition, more and more juveniles are being tried as adults and end up in an adult prison system – where white supremacy flourishes,” Potok said. “By the time they come out of prison, they are committed white supremacists.”

    A small number enter the neo-Nazi groups because they “hate Jews, gays and black people,” he said.

    Potok called for better parental guidance and more adult supervised after-school programs. And – because hate crimes are so under-reported in the U.S. – there must be better ways for people to report the violence, he said. Eighty-two percent of hate crimes in the U.S. are violent, and young white males commit most hate crimes.

    The SPLC, based in based in Montgomery, Ala., was founded in 1971 as a small civil rights law firm. It is internationally known for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists and its tracking of hate groups. Potok monitors hate groups and tracks extremist activity in the U.S. He provides comprehensive updates to law enforcement, the media and the public through the center’s quarterly magazine, Intelligence Report.

    Before joining the center, Potok spent 20 years as an award-winning reporter at newspapers, including USA Today and the Miami Herald. While at USA Today, he covered the 1993 siege in Waco, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the trial of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

    The lecture’s sponsor, Dr. Jack Otis, is a former dean and faculty member of the School of Social Work. Potok’s lecture was co-sponsored by the College of Communication, the School of Law and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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