Measuring Hate in the United States

Today I followed an intellectual rabbit hole into a rather interesting project while in the middle of looking at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website. A few of us grad students and a couple faculty at UT are looking to start a local chapter of SPLC on Campus as an official organization, and I volunteered (no UTK pun intended) to look into the specifications needed to establish an officially recognized campus organization.

After getting distracted by the wealth of information available on its website, I found a map of the number of hate groups that the SPLC has counted in each state in the U.S.¹ I was quickly startled to find out that Tennessee has an astonishing 37 recognized hate groups. Almost as quickly, I happened to notice that California has 77. I then started to recall some of the lessons of Geography 415 (Quantitative Methods in Geography), namely the one about statistics being able to “lie” (that is, misrepresent reality) and the lesson about being careful with what one considers a measure of validity (especially when it comes to a count of a particular phenomenon vs. a rate at which the phenomenon occurs. Dr. Tran should be proud of me.) So I quickly decided the best way to “get to the bottom” of understanding the true-ish (scary?) reality of Tennessee’s number of hate groups had to be making an Excel spreadsheet of the SPLC’s data and normalizing that data using population data for each state from the U.S. Census Bureau.

If anyone is interested in playing around with this data, you can download my spreadsheet here: Hate Per Capita.

For those who just want the summary, here you go:

Hate By State: SPLC-recognized hate groups per 100,000 people by state, 2013
Hate By State: SPLC-recognized hate groups per 100,000 people by state, 2013

My first thought about how to normalize the number of hate groups was just to divide the number of groups by the states’ populations (based on the most recent 2013 Census population projections). Clearly, I am not a quantitative geographer! While accurately one way to normalize the data into rates, it was only after I started plugging in the population values and realizing that Excel kept spitting out VERY tiny numbers (like 8.1E-6) that it occurred to me that this number wasn’t super useful at the per capita level, so I readjusted and made it hate groups per 100,000 people. From there, I did a couple of sorts to assign rankings based first on the absolute number of hate groups in a state and second on the normalized groups/100,000. The results, posted above, show that Tennessee is ranked 8th highest for the number of hate groups and 6th highest in hate groups per 100,000 people. Once again, pretty disturbing results.

Several other interesting observations can be made using the data and rankings, so I’m going to list a few here that initially popped out to me. Feel free to add more observations in the comments.

  • Washington, D.C., is quite an interesting case. With only 15 hate groups, it ranks 24th in the absolute rankings, but No. 1 in terms of hate groups per 100,000. My colleague (and former D.C.-resident) Tyler, who happened to be in the office with me when I was generating the spreadsheet, wondered if the relatively high number of groups in D.C. could be explained by national hate groups having headquarters in Washington for lobbying or other purposes. He was also surprised at the results because D.C. seems to be known for being relatively left-leaning politically. The small population of the city relative to the other states (except poor Wyoming and Vermont, the only states to have smaller populations than D.C.!) probably contributes to this being an outlier, but I’m not statistically savvy enough to do much more to test this. I probably should remember how to do that from GEOG 415, but Spring 2011 was too long ago and I’m not taking the time to go look for my notes…
  • Hawaii is the only state to have no SPLC-recognized hate groups. No time to hate when you’re on island time perhaps? Fascinating!
  • California has the highest total number of hate groups out of all the states at 77, with Florida and Texas not too far behind with 58 and 57, respectively. This was the major tipping point that clued me in to the need to normalize the data, and when population is added in, the rankings per 100,000 show Florida at 28th, Texas 35th, and California 38th.
  • Geographic clustering does not appear to be all that strong, but the presence of Southern states closer to the top of the per 100,000 rank order is not all that surprising to me. That Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana all crack the Top 15 indicates to me that organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center are as needed as ever in the South.

To conclude, I had a few other ideas for what I was going to write in this post originally, and they seem to have escaped me now that I finally have a chance to write it. Instead, I will just leave you with the SPLC’s mission statement:

The Southern Poverty Law Center is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.  Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the Center works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.

Make it so.

–––––––––––––––Footnotes–––––––––––––––
1) The SPLC defines a hate group as having “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics,” whose “activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing.” The SPLC identified 939 active hate groups in 2013, though that count does not include websites that appear to solely be the work of individuals. The hate group map also notes, “Listing here does not imply a group advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity.”
Southern Poverty Law Center. 2013. Hate Map. Available at http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-map (accessed 20 November 2014).

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