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HATE HITS HOME
Montana Human Rights Network’s co-director talks about local efforts to combat white supremacist groups
Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute represent only a small part of a growing number of hate groups across the nation and in Montana. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups nationwide has increased by 67 percent since 2000, and at least 12 groups call the Treasure State home.
We asked Rachel Carroll Rivas, the co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, to elaborate on this trend, the reasons behind it and what groups like hers are doing to raise awareness.
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 12 hate groups operating in Montana, with five concentrated in the Flathead Valley. Why do you think these types of groups are drawn to this part of our state?
Rachel Carroll Rivas: These radical right groups are attracted to Montana because of the predominately white demographics and the opportunity it offers them to attempt to create a “white homeland.” In addition, white supremacist groups can also capitalize on the anti-government sentiment that has been prevalent in this region and use it to further mobilize fear and resentment about the changing racial makeup of the country. The rural Old West and capital “I” independent bent of the region and conservative political nature of areas like the Flathead are also a draw for these groups. Individual activists use politics as a way to mainstream their message and line up behind candidates to gain credibility, but in reality they are often interested in trying to create communities that look the way they want—all white.
Like the economic hard times of the 1980s with the farm crisis, the current economic woes—again, especially in areas like the Flathead—create conditions that white supremacists feed on. They scapegoat minorities, like immigrants and people of color, for the bad times people are experiencing.
The reality is that Montana does attract these groups, but the pushback that they have received is far greater. White supremacists like April Gaede haven’t been accepted in the Flathead in the way she’d like to sell it and that is because of groups like MHRN and our local affiliate in the Flathead, Love Lives Here.
Richard Spencer has garnered attention for presenting white supremacist ideology in a more “intellectual” or “academic” forum. How does that change the discussion, if at all, about hate groups in the U.S.?
RCR: The idea of “intellectual” or “academic” racism is, quite frankly, an oxymoron. All the label means is a better-dressed and slightly more polished version of the same hateful belief system.
The Anti-Defamation League articulates it by saying “academic racists use pseudoscientific studies, statistics and arguments to prove the cultural superiority of whites. They generally avoid crude bigotry in favor of intellectual terminology to justify their racism.” MHRN has long focused on the full spectrum of right-wing movements because extremist ideas at the margins definitely influence the political mainstream.
The National Policy Institute is an example of re-packaging extremist hard-right ideology in an attempt to make it more palatable to mainstream audiences. It’s important to point out the danger of groups like NPI and activists like Spencer so that Montanans aren’t fooled into letting their guard down. By all means the headline-grabbing violence and public displays of racism are concerning, but so are the long-term impacts of letting radical racist ideas creep into mainstream thinking.