Hate in America is on the rise. There are currently nearly a thousand known hate groups in the United States—an increase of 4 percent just this past year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). At the cusp of this are white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, which have surged the most, according to the most recent data. Furthermore, there is evidence that hateful acts have proliferated since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign.
How can we make sense of this growth in hate across the country, as well as the cultural, political, and economic factors that underpin and influence hate groups?
A new paper published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers takes a deep dive into the geography of organized hate groups around the country. To do so, the paper’s authors—Richard Medina, Emily Nicolosi, Simon Brewer, and Andrew Linke, all of the University of Utah—use data on organized hate groups from the SPLC. In 2014, the year their study focuses on, the SPLC identified 784 organized hate groups. Previous studies, including my own, have tracked the geography of hate groups, but a key contribution of this research is that it tracks them across U.S. counties.
The geography of organized hate in America is at once significantly concentrated and considerably spread out. On the one hand, hate groups are found in slightly more than 10 percent of U.S. counties (340 of 3,142), according to the study. But on the other, hate groups span the entire country, and can be found in every single state. While the heartland—stretching from the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Nebraska to Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas—has among the highest levels of hate groups, the East and West Coasts have a high density of these groups as well, as the map below shows.
The study finds that, not surprisingly, the geography of organized hate is shaped by factors like race and ethnicity, education, poverty, religion, and political conservatism. Organized hate is concentrated in places that are poorer, less educated, less diverse, and whiter, more religious, and more conservative. But the precise extent to which these factors affect hate differs somewhat in different parts of the country. The maps below chart the connection between hate groups and these variables for the 340 counties that are home to hate groups.
Race plays a considerable role in the geography of hate. The map below shows the connection between hate groups and the white share of the population. As you can see, there is a stronger connection between race and hate in some areas of the country than others, with it being more pronounced in the heartland and on the West Coast than along the East Coast.
The association is stronger in areas where there are concentrations of white people, while non-white people are more spatially diffuse. This, the paper notes, can cause immigrants or minorities to be perceived as threats. On the map below, dark red represents areas where the influence of white populations on hate groups is the strongest, while lighter pink indicates weaker associations between the two.
Hate also tends to track with poverty. Here, the connection between poverty and hate is most pronounced in the center of the county and on the West Coast. On this map, dark red counties again show places where the correlation between hate groups and those living at or below the federal poverty level is strongest, while pink indicates places where the association is weaker.
Hate groups tend to crop up in areas with lower levels of education. But now we see a slightly different pattern: The connection between lower education and hate groups is strongest in the South, especially parts of Texas, as well as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. On the map below, the darker blue areas represent places where the lack of college-educated people over 25 years of age has a greater effect on hate groups—though this is a common trend throughout the U.S. Light blue indicates places where this connection is the weakest.
Although hate tends to be connected to religiosity, the connection between religion and hate groups varies around the country. (The study measures religiosity based on the number of people in religious congregations compared to the number of people living in a county.) A higher number of religious people is associated with more hate groups in parts of the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast. But there is a negative relationship between religion and hate in the West, from California and Oregon to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. On the map below, red and pink indicate places where religion is positively associated with hate, while shades from light to darker blue indicate places where the correlation is negative.
Hate groups track to politically conservative areas, but the effects of political conservatism are also mixed across regions, in ways that are similar to religion. (The study measures political conservatism as the estimated share of Republican voters.) In the map below, dark red shows places where hate is more closely correlated to political conservatism, while lighter pink indicates places where the correlation is weaker. Gray areas are ones in which political conservatism doesn’t have an effect.
Political conservatism and religion appear to reinforce one another when it comes to organized hate in America, according to the study. But this relationship fluctuates around the country: In the Midwest, Southeast, and parts of the Northeast, religion seems to have a greater impact on hate-group activity where there is a higher degree of political conservatism. In the West and Mountain regions, the two do not interact as much.
The study shows that while organized hate groups are concentrated in U.S. counties, no geographic region is immune to hate. Indeed, hate in America has a long, distressing history that cuts across America’s major geographic regions. The Midwest was a hotbed of white supremacy before the Civil War and is home to the Michigan Militia. The South and Southwest have long been centers for the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. The Northwest saw a striking rise in white-supremacist groups in the 1980s. And the Northeast has had its share of organized hate as well: In the ‘30s and ‘40s, a wave of anti-Semitic and racially motivated violence hit what we now think of progressive states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York.
In fact, the study argues that geography and place play a fundamental role in organized hate in America. Identity is strongly rooted to place, so hate can be understood as a reflex to defend a place from a perceived threat or “other.” Powerful local groups can mobilize around just such a defense when they feel “their” community and “their” values are under threat. In this way, hate is organized differently, and takes on different expressions, depending on the place. This sounds a lot like stories we’re hearing in the news from across America today.