“Good causes attract bad advocates,” literary critic Irving Howe once wrote. In 2017, one such advocate is the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.” The SPLC, considered the authority on American hate crimes and the bigots who encourage them, has come under scrutiny in recent days for labeling AEI scholar Charles Murray a white supremacist, and for a troubling response to reports that many of the recent bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers—which the SPLC had tried to blame on the far-Right—were in fact perpetrated by a left-wing former journalist. Anyone who has read Murray’s books can tell that calling him a “white supremacist” amounts to slander. Moreover, if Murray were really a white supremacist, why would Professor Cornel West list Coming Apart as required reading for his 2017 Spring Semester course on American democracy at Harvard? If Murray were really a white supremacist, why did the left-wing black sociology professor William Julius Wilson appear on a panel with him at AEI in 2015?
Alas, this is typical for the SPLC, which has successfully turned tracking hate in America into a money-making bonanza that requires regularly exaggerating threats in order to drive donations. In 2017, the SPLC said that Christian opposition to same-sex marriage (a view shared by the majority of Americans and virtually all major politicians just five years ago) is extremist hate speech. This means that organizations that oppose same-sex marriage can now be included on its ever-growing list of hate groups. The SPLC labels Islamist-turned-critic-of-Islamism Maajid Nawaz and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali as Islamophobic bigots. This year, it identified a three-fold increase in anti-Muslim hate groups by changing its accounting rules. Act for America, a 500,000-strong legislative advocacy organization whose classification as a hate group was already questionable, was suddenly counted 45 times, once each for 45 of its 1,000 local chapters. Given such shoddy work, it’s no wonder that FBI hate crime investigators officially stopped relying on the SPLC’s analysis in 2014.
Nevertheless, SPLC’s reports are considered definitive by the credulous mainstream press and by millions of concerned citizens. In last week’s AP report on Middlebury College students’ silencing of Charles Murray, the headline described Murray as a “branded white supremacist.” Many of the students and professors at Middlebury who admitted to never having read Murray’s books justified their opinion of him by pointing to the SPLC website.
It’s time for the MSM to stop trusting the SPLC as an authority, to stop boosting the organization’s profile, and to start investigating whether the organization follows best scholarly practices. There is, at this point, plenty of evidence to suggest it doesn’t. With numerous credible sources finding evidence of growing hatred and bigotry in the United States and around the world, it is especially urgent that journalists and concerned citizens stop uncritically repeating the SPLC’s claims. When an organization like the SPLC and the media outlets who trust it abuse their prestige by exaggerating and spinning, it harms not just discourse in America but also the worthy goal of exposing true threats to liberal democracy.
Around the country, Americans at all levels and of all political stripes are questioning timeworn institutions and bedrock principles. Perhaps it’s time to turn our attention to the work and aims of the Southern Poverty Law Center.