The Good News

03.26.15 9:15 AM ET

It’s Hard Out There for a Hate Group

Hate-group membership spiked when Obama first became president, but now it’s decreasing. Maybe things actually are getting a tad better.

While political watchers will spend decades debating whether or not President Obama’s election was good for America from a policy standpoint, one issue is not up for debate: The Obama presidency has been great for hate. According to experts, President Obama has been one of the greatest recruitment tools hate groups have seen in decades. But a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center indicates that the hate parade may be finally coming to an end.

Mark Potok, a Southern Poverty Law Center expert, previously reported that there was a 40 percent increase in the number of hate groups from 2000 to 2009. But to put into context just how much hate flourished in the Obama era: On the day after President Obama’s election, 2,000 new members made their way to Stormfront, a popular white supremacist message board.

In the last five years its membership base has increased 60 percent. Stormfront’s slogan is, “We are the voice of the new, embattled white minority!” Rants tend to focus on topics like the horrors of mixed-race families, and the particular dangers of a mixed-race president. There have been other high-profile incidents that seemed to indicate that the Obama era was not only not post-racial, but perhaps pretty racist. One of the most disturbing perhaps took place in Virginia, when Easter eggs filled with racist messages were left during a children’s Easter egg hunt last year.

But while racist rhetoric may be unnerving, there have been more troubling and direct racially charged threats. Shortly after Obama secured the Democratic nomination, a group of skinheads was arrested for plotting to assassinate him. In the midst of this hate-fueled cottage industry there were other incidents that seemed to highlight America’s racial divide in other equally unfortunate ways. There was the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the Michael Brown shooting and its aftermath, and most recently the racist lynching song courtesy of a few University of Oklahoma students. All of these stories considered collectively would seem to indicate that far from bringing us together, the Obama era has helped tear Americans further apart. And yet according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the numbers finally seem to indicate otherwise.

According to the SPLC, the number of hate groups operating in America declined 17 percent in just one year, from 939 in 2013 to 784 in 2014. This marks the fewest hate groups operating in America in a decade. So what gives?

Well, as I have previously written, though the racial rhetoric that has dominated much of the Obama era has been frustrating, heartbreaking, and exhausting at times, we should actually be inspired by it, not discouraged by it. The reason? Because historically race relations in our country have been at their worst when we are on the brink of significant progress. For instance, America’s premier hate group, the Ku Klux Klan, was founded upon slavery’s end. 

While Reconstruction’s golden years produced America’s first black senators (and featured the first empowered black electorate in the South), the era also triggered the Jim Crow backlash, including institutionalized segregation, widespread racial violence, and the rise in power of the Klan. But while it may have taken a long time, we overcame all that, too.

Similarly, the eventual triumph in Selma that was recently commemorated 50 years later was preceded by unspeakable violence and cruelty. Today some of Selma’s original marchers got to make the same walk, accompanied by the country’s first black president—more specifically a black president who is the product of a relationship between a white woman and a black man—something that would have been a crime in Selma all those years ago.

So none of us should have been surprised by the reaction the first black president triggered from hate groups. Of course his election made them angry—at him and at our country, which is no longer the America they recognize. It is an America that is getting browner, not whiter, as a white separatist leader I interviewed after Obama’s election lamented to me (Yes, it was a phone interview, i.e. he couldn’t see me.) And it is an America in which mixed-race families are the fastest-growing demographic in this country.

Hate groups tried to stage their last hurrah in the years immediately following the President’s election. But in the end the same thing has happened that always does: Progress has prevailed. That doesn’t mean things will be perfect any time soon. But it means things will keep getting better and that one day we’ll look back on this time in our nation’s history the same way we look back on others: with a mixture of shock, embarrassment, awe—and relief that we’ve evolved into a better America.