Marek Peters / www.marek-peters.com
The suspected gunman in the recent El Paso mass shooting is reported to have written in an online manifesto that his action was a response to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
And research suggests the alleged shooter, who resided in a Dallas suburb, isn’t the only Texan holding extreme and potentially violent views on race and ethnicity.
The number of hate groups in the Lone Star State reached 73 last year, more than double the total just four years earlier, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist organizations.
Virtually all of Texas’ major cities are home to at least one hate group, and 14 operate statewide, according to SPLC’s online “hate map.” The groups on the list range from those with anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ views to white nationalists and Holocaust deniers.
At least two of those groups are headquartered in San Antonio, according to SPLC, and others have chapters here. Extremist organizations also operate in nearby communities such as Pleasanton, Boerne and Kerrville.
The growth of hate groups in the Lone Star State mirrors a nationwide trend — and one that tracks with Donald Trump’s appearance as a presidential candidate, SPLC officials said.
“These extremist ideas aren’t new, but Trump gives credence to them,” said Heidi Beirich, who heads the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “When people who hold these views hear the president repeating them, they feel like they’re in the right.”
As a candidate, Trump used derogatory language to describe Mexicans and threatened to ban Muslims from entering the United States. As president, he’s frequently used terms such as “invasion” and “infestation” to describe the arrival of immigrants, emboldening Americans with extremist views, SPLC officials say.
In 2018, the number of hate groups SPLC is tracking countrywide rose for the fourth consecutive year — a cumulative 30% increase that coincides with the start of the last presidential campaign. Hate crimes also have risen by roughly the same amount during that period, reversing three years of declines, according to the group.
However, the emergence of Trump and other far-right figures in mainstream politics aren’t the sole reasons for the rise, Beirich said.
The spread of extremist messages on the internet has also coincided with law enforcement’s post-9/11 shift away from focusing on domestic terrorism. In perhaps the clearest sign of that trend, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security in April shut down its Right-Wing Intelligence Unit, which investigates homegrown terror groups.
Texas rates as one of the states with the largest number of hate groups. Its count of hate groups exceeds that of its neighbors, including Louisiana, which has 21 such groups, and New Mexico, which has none. Even so, Beirich cautions not to read too much into those numbers.
Texas isn’t among the states with the most groups per capita. Sparsely populated Idaho, Montana and South Dakota, for example, have a higher concentration. And the proliferation of hate on the internet has given people access to hate groups no matter where they live.
“Whether or not there’s a hate group in your community, they’re littered all over the web,” she said.
Indeed, the internet has allowed hate groups to appear larger than they actually are, said Aaron Delwiche, a Trinity University professor who’s studied propaganda in the digital age. He points to the groups’ use of online tools like bots and fake Twitter accounts to make themselves appear ubiquitous.
After the deadly right-wing demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago, tech companies took steps to rein in extremist content, a move applauded by SPLC and other groups. However, hate speech still lives on in places such as Gab and 8chan.
What’s more, as last week’s attempted mosque shooting in Norway illustrates, white supremacist violence isn’t limited to the United States. According to Delwiche, the global nature of the right-wing hate movement gives U.S. extremists access to propaganda that need not originate in their community, much less in their country.
“We’re looking at a resurgent, racist white internationalist movement that’s active throughout the world,” Delwiche said. “It’s terrifying because it transcends national boundaries.”
Ultimately, the only way to counter hate groups’ spread is to develop counternarratives that steer disaffected young people away from their messages, Delwiche said. Schools, cities and community groups also must do a better job of teaching media literacy to young people.
The El Paso incident, coupled with recent mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a New Zealand mosque point out the urgency for prioritizing both efforts, Delwiche said.
“There may have been a time when someone could argue that these violent incidents were disconnected,” he said. “But, in 2019, after these massacres in Texas, Pittsburgh and New Zealand, we’ve passed that moment. That argument is no longer persuasive.”
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