I've seen that phrase "hate group" tossed around a bit, and I got curious about the precise meaning. It seems like one of those terms that most people have a gut reaction too, but surely there must be an actual definition somewhere? After all, the Whitehouse.gov petition to get Westboro Baptis Church labeled a hate group has almost 350,000 signatures....surely it must mean something?
Well, as far as I can tell, not really*....or at least not one that carries much action.
While "hate crime" has an extremely specific definition and is of interest to the FBI, the FBI clarifies that they do not prosecute groups, only people. When asked if they track hate groups, the FBI's website says this:
Does the FBI investigate hate groups in the United States?
The FBI investigates domestic hate groups within guidelines established by the attorney general. Investigations are conducted only when a threat or advocacy of force is made; when the group has the apparent ability to carry out the proclaimed act; and when the act would constitute a potential violation of federal law.So the US government doesn't really declare anything a hate group, but it will investigate threats by groups. I'm not really sure what the petition was about then, as it seems to me Westboro Baptist has always managed to stay on the right (if awful) side of the law (unsurprisingly, the leader's a lawyer). There seems to be some impression that getting declared a hate group would force them to lose their tax exempt status...but that seems unlikely given that there's no legal definition.
So if the government doesn't track these things, what about the Southern Poverty Law Center? What standards do they use? From their website:
All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.
Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing. Websites appearing to be merely the work of a single individual, rather than the publication of a group, are not included in this list. Listing here does not imply a group advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity.
Also interesting was their list of 15 different ideologies that they classify hate groups with: Anti-Gay, Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Muslim, Black Separatist, Christian Identity (an anti-Semitic group), Holocaust Denial, Ku, Klux Klan, Neo-Confederate, Neo-Nazi, Patriot Movement, Racist Music, Racist Skinheads, Radical Traditional Catholicism (rejected by the Vatican), Sovereign Citizens Movement, and White Nationalist.
Interestingly, they actually release their rationale for adding individual groups to their list in their newsletters. For example, what it takes to be considered an anti-gay hate group vs a group that believes being gay is wrong:
Generally, the SPLC’s listings of these groups is based on their propagation of known falsehoods — claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities — and repeated, groundless name-calling. Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups.Interestingly, it appears Massachusetts has 8 listed hate groups, only 4 of whom I'd heard of. I also kind of had to wonder if any Sovereign Citizens were included on the map, or if they all got listed under their own countries. Sorry, couldn't resist that one.
*In one of those weird issues that drives me nuts, every source I found that cited the "FBI definition of a hate group" pointed to the same document....one that never once gave the quoted definition. This totally weirds me out when it happens. My guess is it started with the Wikipedia article. ALWAYS READ THE SOURCE DOCUMENTS.