Ken Silverstein is an unlikely ally for those trying to get control of the nation’s borders. A liberal journalist, he finds the Minutemen “crackpots” and Arizona’s immigration-hawk Sheriff Joe Arpaio a “kook” whose activities are “reprehensible.” Silverstein’s wife is Dominican, and he freely admits he does not know whether she originally came to America legally. Yet there he was at the National Press Club on a panel sponsored by the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).
“I have different immigration views than the center,” Silverstein said in his presentation. “But I don’t believe I have a monopoly on wisdom.” What he does believe is that free speech is too important to be shouted down by ersatz civil-rights organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The SPLC squelches free speech and free debate,” Silverstein argued. And, he would add, they raise an awful lot of money from unsuspecting liberals in the process.
Silverstein was there to mark the release of a powerful CIS report entitled “Immigration and the SPLC: How the Southern Poverty Law Center Invented a Smear, Served La Raza, Manipulated the Press, and Duped its Donors.” On that last point, Silverstein is something of an expert: he wrote “The Church of Morris Dees” story for Harper’s a decade ago documenting how Dees, the SPLC’s founder, had enriched himself by posing as a defender of racial equality against a rising tide of hate.
What calling could be nobler than working against the cross-burning knuckle-draggers of the Ku Klux Klan? But the country that elected Barack Obama president is not the America of “Mississippi Burning.” Organizations like the Klan have been thoroughly marginalized, their racist ideologies soundly rejected by Americans of all colors and creeds. To raise money as if they constitute anything more than an unpleasant reminder of our Jim Crow past is to perpetuate a fraud.
That’s why Dees and his merry band of politically correct enforcers have had to branch out, endlessly expanding the list of “hate groups” to include perfectly mainstream organizations with which they disagree. Advocates of reduced immigration levels and stronger border security are high on the SPLC’s list of targets because of the obvious racial component of the immigration issue.
Locating cranks who have made ill-tempered remarks about immigrants is not terribly difficult work for highly trained members of the thought police. But Morris Dees’s marauders have not been content to stop there. In late 2007, the SPLC labeled the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) a hate group. This troubling designation by extension tarred organizations like CIS and Roy Beck’s NumbersUSAand quickly achieved its intended chilling effect on the immigration debate.
The SPLC’s smear became the centerpiece of the National Council of La Raza’s “Stop the Hate” campaign. “Hate” was loosely defined as any position that differed from La Raza’s advocacy of loose borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants. La Raza used the SPLC’s “findings” to try to silence its critics, and the mainstream media, always eager to portray conservatives as racists, cheerfully repeated the slur in its woefully biased coverage of the amnesty debate. Stop the Hate claimed its biggest scalp when Lou Dobbs stepped away from his microphone at CNNby most accounts, a voluntary move, but one hastened by the network’s growing discomfort with the controversy surrounding Dobbs’s outspoken views on immigration.
FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA are far from hate groups. They are wonky, white-paper-generating organizations committed to nothing more controversial than cutting back immigration from its post-1965 high of 1 million new immigrants a year to the more traditional level of 300,000. They shy away from the more racially charged aspects of the debate, which reflects their roots in the wing of the immigration-restrictionist movement animated primarily by environmental and economic concerns rather than blood and soil.
But such facts cannot be allowed to get in the way of a good fundraising mailingor a malicious attempt to drum certain viewpoints out of polite society. In its fevered writings about immigration reformers, the SPLC has concocted conspiracies so elaborate they would raise eyebrows within the John Birch Society. While the Birchers have David Rockefeller, the SPLC has Michigan environmental activist John Tanton: the “puppeteer” supposedly pulling the strings whenever leading immigration reformers Mark Kirkorian and Roy Beck speak, the all-purpose explanation for why seemingly colorblind arguments against mass immigration can be readily dismissed as thinly disguised racism.
Krikorian’s CIS decided to strike back. Senior fellow Jerry Kammer, a respected journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for helping to uncover the Congressman Duke Cunningham bribery scandal, wrote their report slashing much of the SPLC’s work to ribbons. “The SPLC’s decision to smear FAIR was the work of a kangaroo court, one convened to reach a pre-determined verdict by inventing or distorting evidence,” Kammer wrote. “The ‘Stop the Hate’ campaign would more accurately be labeled as a campaign to ‘Stop the Debate.’” The tactic is so effective that liberals have begun deploying it in debates on issues with no obvious racial connotationshealthcare reform, deficit spending, and Tea Party protests.
Without denying either the SPLC’s good early work on civil rights or the existence of bad actors in the immigration-reform movement, Kammer shows that Dees is no nonpartisan, dispassionate observer of the immigration debate, which may explain why the SPLC only detects hate on one side of the issue despite ample evidence of racist remarks by La Raza radicals. Kammer also skillfully debunks the SPLC’s immigration conspiracy theory, conceding that Tanton has occasionally been reckless in his statements and associations but documenting that the SPLC has inflated both the charges against the early immigration reformer and his influence on the contemporary movement.
Kammer’s report also focuses on an aspect of the SPLC long denounced by liberal magazines and newspapersthe excessive fundraising that has won Morris Dees a place in the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame but no comparable honor in the civil-rights movement. The SPLC took in over $32 million in contributions in 2008, an average of $88,755 per day. At the end of the 2008 fiscal year, the SPLC had more than $174 million in the bank even after its investments lost over $48 million in the financial crisis.
The CIS report claims Dees promised to stop his profligate fundraising after the SPLC’s endowment exceeded $50 million, but continued shaking the money tree after it reached $200 million. The group’s lavish headquarters, nicknamed the “Poverty Pentagon,” have made it a laughingstock among erstwhile allies on the Left. The Nation called Dees “a millionaire huckster”; left-wing journalist Alexander Coburn dubbed him the “arch-salesman of hatemongering.” “Morris Dees does not need your financial support,” Silverstein wrote in Harper’s. “The SPLC is already the wealthiest civil rights group in America. … The American Institute of Philanthropy gives the SPLC one of the worst ratings of any group it monitors.”
“Hate sells; poor people don’t, which is why readers who go to the SPLC’s website will find only a handful of cases on such non-lucrative causes as fair housing, worker safety, or healthcare, many of those from the 1970s and 1980s,” JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in The Nation in 2001. “Why the organization continues to keep ‘Poverty’ (or even ‘Law’) in its name can be ascribed only to nostalgia or a cynical understanding of the marketing possibilities in class guilt.” At the CIS event, Silverstein quoted a civil-rights attorney as calling Dees’s operation “the Jim and Tammy Faye Baker of the civil-rights movement. And I don’t mean to demean Jim and Tammy Faye.”
Even some of the SPLC’s legitimate civil-rights work was exploited for profit. In 1987, Dees won a $7 million verdict against a Klan group that had brutally murdered a young black man. The Montgomery Advertiser reported that the SPLC “used nationwide fund-raising letters to create the image of a mighty Klan that actually had $7 million” to pay the victim’s mother. In fact, the woman only received about $52,000, most of which she had to pay back to the SPLC, which had given her an interest-free loan. Meanwhile, the SPLC raised $9 million in two years from mailings highlighting her case.
The SPLC’s antics, ranging from the above outrage to the merely absurdDees signing fundraising letters to Jewish potential donors as “Morris Seligman Dees”harm more than guilty liberals’ wallets. To the extent that our current immigration policy is not in the national interest, the SPLC stands in the way of a solution. And it may ultimately foster the racism it claims to oppose.
Consider the case of Carol Swain, an African-American law professor at Vanderbilt who has been sounding the alarm about “the new white nationalism.” Because she approaches the subject from a scholarly rather than a fundraising perspective, she has raised the SPLC’s hackles. “When my face was smeared across the papers in my state with accusations that I was an apologist for white supremacy, I thought it was time to get involved,” Swain said at the CIS press conference. Driving the immigration debate underground, she argued, will silence legitimate restrictionists and empower genuine racists.
Swain concluded, “If we are concerned about extremists, the best thing we can do is include their voices in the dialogue. … [The SPLC] is actually making more converts to extremist organizations than they would if they let them talk about their concerns.” For years, Morris Dees has been expanding the number of hate groups on his fundraising lists. It would be a tragic result if his tactics helped them proliferate in real life.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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