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The Recession and the Klan

The total number of hate groups operating in the U.S. has increased by more than half since 2000, according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (S.P.L.C.).


The report, and subsequent news coverage of it, blames this distressing trend on the deteriorating economy and the election of Barack Obama.
But economic downturns don’t necessarily stoke racial tension or violence. In fact, most economic research finds no correlation at all between hate crimes and the economy.
A 1998 study of economic motivations for hate crimes examined crime statistics for New York between 1987 and 1995, and found no correlation between the city’s unemployment rate and prevalence of bigoted violence. That same study, by a team of researchers at Yale, also found no significant economic link to patterns of lynchings in the pre-Depression American South.
Another study, by Swarthmore economists Philip Jefferson and Frederic Pryor, studied S.P.L.C. data on hate groups in 3,100 U.S. counties, only to find, again, no correlation between economic conditions and the presence or absence of operational hate groups.
Princeton economist Alan Krueger marshaled these studies and others in his analysis of poverty as a driver of terrorism. Finding that economic hardship was not a strong predictor of terrorist activity, Krueger finds terrorism, like hate crimes, to be “more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economics.”
Then there’s the fact that most of the growth in hate groups noted in the S.P.L.C. study occurred not during the recession of 2001, or the crash of recent months, but in the boom times of the middle 2000’s.
If it’s unlikely that the recession has been fueling hate-group growth, then what about political considerations? The S.P.L.C. study notes a significant uptick in the number of Ku Klux Klan chapters through 2008, during then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign. But over all, 2008 doesn’t seem to have been a particularly strong growth year for hate groups in America, according to S.P.L.C.’s data. Regardless, since Obama wasn’t even inaugurated until after the time period included in this study, it seems a little soon to measure the impact of his election on the white supremacist movement.
So if the bear market isn’t driving people to start up hate groups, and since these growth trends far predate Obama’s campaign for and election to the presidency, what explains this expansion of hate?