Like many educated blacks of my age, I grew up thinking of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as an ally. I saw the valuable work they did in rooting out white supremacist organizations and exposing those organizations to the world. When I came of age, it had started to become more unfashionable to be labeled a racist or bigot. So the efforts by SPLC to identity groups that truly had a supremacist ideology but were trying to hide that fact from the public provided a valuable service.
But a few years ago, I begin to see the excesses of the SPLC approach and the way they used their emerging hate list. What I saw troubled me so much that I wrote up an analysis of this organization critiquing the way they were labeling hate groups. In short, I argued that they were not producing a viable list of hate groups since they lacked a consistent criteria for selecting such groups. Thus they were unable, or unwilling, to identify groups that acted in hateful ways if those groups served the goals of white progressives.
My article is one of many that has criticized the SPLC. But to the best of my ability none of them outlined the issues brought to light due to the firing of Morris Dees, the co-founder of the SPLC and the subsequent resignation of the current president, Richard Cohen. When I first heard of the firing, it was accompanied by rumors of sexual and racial harassment. Those rumors have grown, and at this point it seems likely that this was the source of Dees’s undoing. I have felt that there were emerging problems at the SPLC but did not suspect these types of problems. I suspect that in the future it will be difficult for them to have the perceived legitimacy to call out racism in other organizations
To be honest, I am not surprised that Dees himself ran into problems with racist or sexist actions. Given my propensity to accept the reality of human depravity, it is easy for me to accept that individuals do not always live up to their stated ideals. The fact that someone who was seen as being above reproach turns about to not be the moral person we thought him to be no longer surprises me. What did surprise me was the claim that the SPLC had a hostile environment to African-Americans. Evidently there were few blacks who were hired into the management levels of the organization. Consequently, African-Americans felt that they had little voice in the organization. There were other assertions about racist comments and such, but those do not seem to be as well sourced as the assertions about lack of black leadership. But that lack of leadership is troubling enough regardless of whether the assertion about the racist comments is true.
It seems that the SPLC has hired an expert to help them deal with their unwelcoming racial atmosphere. It really should not have come down to this. I have been working with churches for years to help them create a better atmosphere for people of color. If such a church told me that few people of color were in leadership, then that would have been one of the first issues I would have addressed. How could the advocates at SPLC not see what those of us who deal with issues of diversity all the time see? If people of color do not feel represented in leadership then they will not feel comfortable in an organization. Everyone dedicated to fighting racism should know that.
This problem in combination with my earlier observation about the inability of the SPLC to envision example of hate among white progressives leads me to the crux of the problem at SPLC. The problem, as I see it, is that the SPLC is a white progressive organization that does not have as its ultimate purpose to stop hate but to serve white progressives. White progressives have an ideology that encourages them to fight overt forms of racism and certain other types of hate. So I am not arguing that the members of the SPLC do not want to see the end of certain types of hatred. But they also have as their purpose a desire to make white progressives look good which is why they do not place any white progressive groups on their hate list and why their leadership is almost completely made up of white progressives. This has created a lack of diversity of thought that blinded them to the unwelcoming atmosphere in their organization as well as the existence of hate among white progressives.
It is understandable that white progressives would create an organization that promoted their interest. But we must recognize it as such. Failure to do so creates a blindness that imperils the stated mission of an organization. The SPLC did perform a valuable service at one time in our history. But now they are reduced to generating enemies lists that suit the needs of white progressives.
A short aside here. Remember when Floyd Corkins used information from the SPLC to plan his attempt to assassinate members of the Family Research Council? Was he inspired by the SPLC or did he merely use information from them to carry out his evil plans? I am not sure. I am certain that if someone used information at the Family Research Council to try to kill sexual minorities, then it would clearly be interpreted as them being inspired by the Family Research Council. To the best of my knowledge, there was no attempt at SPLC to see what they could do differently so that such a tragedy would not take place again. Their inability to consider the role they played in this event is reflective of an attitude that they could not have done wrong. Is this confidence due to their thinking that white progressives cannot act in ways that encourage hate?
This implies that white progressives have the answers without having to consult people of color. That is the sort of attitude which leads white progressives to believe that they can serve communities of color without having people of color in leadership to any significant degree. An organization looking to pull people together for a larger cause would have recognized the need for leadership of color quite some time ago. Many of the churches I have worked with did recognize this need which is why they hired me to help them create the changes necessary for a social atmosphere that accepted members of different races. This awareness of the need to create an atmosphere that does more than serve the interests of white progressives seems to be missing from the leadership at SPLC.
Note that I have not argued, as others have, that the real purpose of the SPLC is to raise gobs of cash. Indeed they have done quite well with their fundraising. Why not? White progressives are one of the wealthiest groups in the United States, and a group that caters to them should be able to raise money. But I would rather give the SPLC the benefit of the doubt and see their troubles as created by blindness rather than by greed.
But that blindness is what we should expect when we do not realize just how easily we can be seduced into thinking that our group is always right. I believe this is where the SPLC went wrong. They could only see that accomplished within the white progressive framework that they lived in. They could not accept the reality that white progressives could engage in hate. Nor could they accept that even though they are attempting to serve people of color that they needed people of color to have a significant influence in their leadership. Not being willing to escape their white progressive bubble is the source of a lot of the problems at the SPLC.
What is the future of this organization? After my failed prediction that Clinton would clobber Trump in 2016, I am out of the prediction business. I do know that it is going to be harder for people to hold them up as the gold standard arbiters of hate in our society. With the problems that have been exposed in the SPLC, it will be hard to accept that they are in a position to condemn others. But perhaps that can lead to a thorough humbling of the group which would allow them the type of introspective analysis which will improve the organization. But ultimately I doubt that such an introspection, takes place. If the shooting up of the Family Research Council did not provoke such introspection then would this new scrutiny on the racial climate force them to engage in it? Like I said, I have my doubts. I hope I am proven wrong.
Update: When it rains, it pours. Check out this latest in the Washington Post. I agree. We do need an outside investigation to see what is going on there. And we need to stop looking at them as if they are still an honorable civil rights organization until such an investigation has taken place. They are what I stated that they are – a white progressive special interest group.