WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - The number of hate groups operating in the United States rose 7 percent to an all-time high in 2018, reflecting an increasingly divisive debate on immigration and demographic change, the Southern Poverty Law Center said on Wednesday.
The SPLC, which has tracked hate groups since 1971, found there were 1,020 operating in the United States last year, breaking the 1,018 record set in 2011. It marked the fourth consecutive year of growth.
The group’s annual report on hate activities blamed the rise in part on Republican President Donald Trump, whose administration has focused on reducing illegal and legal immigration into the United States.
“The numbers tell a striking story – that this president is not simply a polarizing figure but a radicalizing one,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, which released the new numbers. “Rather than trying to tamp down hate, as presidents of both parties have done, President Trump elevates it – with both his rhetoric and his policies.”
The SPLC defines hate groups as organizations with beliefs or practices that demonize a class of people.
The White House has repeatedly rejected charges of bias leveled at Trump, often citing the effects that a strong economy have had on minority communities. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report on Wednesday.
The non-profit said the growth of hate groups appeared to be prompting some who share their ideologies to take violent action. As an example, it cited Robert Bowers, who is accused of killing 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October while shouting “All Jews must die.”
The report also found that the number of black nationalist groups rose 13 percent to 264 in 2018, an increase the SPLC attributed to a backlash against Trump’s policies.
Some of the SPLC’s targets have criticized the Montgomery, Alabama-based organization’s findings, saying it has mislabeled legitimate organizations.
Earlier this month the founder of the Proud Boys, a self-described men-only club of “Western chauvinists,” sued the center for defamation over the hate group label. He contended the Proud Boys oppose racism, while the SPLC said it stood by its research.
(Reporting by Katharine Jackson; Editing by Scott Malone and