Born in 1955 and raised in Plainfield, Vermont, Mark Potok attended the University of Chicago from 1974-78. Thereafter, he spent nearly two decades as a reporter for such publications as USA Today, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Miami Herald.
Today Potok is a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). He serves as editor-in-chief of the Center’s quarterly journal (Intelligence Report) and its blog (“HateWatch”), the latter of which carries the caption, “Keeping an Eye on the Radical Right.” Both publications are committed to SPLC’s mission of “tracking and exposing” the activities of “hate groups and racial extremists throughout the United States.” Potok has made it plain that “our aim in life is to destroy these groups, to completely destroy them.” Further, he has acknowledged that his organization’s blacklists have “nothing to do with criminality or violence or any kind of guess we’re making about ‘this group could be dangerous.’ It’s strictly ideological.”
Potok holds conservatives in very low regard—asserting, for instance, that the Tea Party “and similar groups” are “shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism.” Moreover, Potok maintains that the “biggest domestic terror threat” in the U.S. today “pretty clearly comes from the radical right.” With these views, Potok sets the tone for SPLC’s depiction of the United States as a country “seething” with “racial violence” and “intolerance against those who are different”; a nation where “hate” is “a dreadful, daily constant,” and where violent crimes against members of minority groups “are not isolated incidents,” but rather, “eruptions of a nation’s intolerance.”
As of 2012, SPLC had identified 1,018 active “hate groups” in the U.S.—an all-time high. Asserting that the vast majority of such organizations can be classified as “right wing,” the Center says they include “neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads … border vigilantes and others”—along with a tiny smattering of black separatists and Hispanics. It should be noted that SPLC and Potok view racism by nonwhites more forgivingly than they view white racism. As Potok himself puts it, “[M]ost, if not all, black racism essentially proceeds from a history of white racism.”
Similarly, Potok and SPLC give a free pass to left-wing groups that advocate on behalf of illegal immigrants and open borders, no matter how hateful or race-obsessed those groups’ agendas may be. One such entity is MEChA—a “Chicano Students” organization that calls for the people of Mexico to annex the American Southwest, and vows to repel the “brutal ‘gringo’ invasion of our territories.” Not even MEChA’s slogan—which translates to “For the race, everything; Outside of the race, nothing”—draws the ire of Potok, who says: “[W]e have found no evidence to support charges that [MEChA] is racist or anti-Semitic.”
In 2007, when a news reporter in Rutland, Vermont could find no evidence of a Klan chapter that SPLC claimed was actively operating in that town, the Rutland Herald quoted Mark Potok as stating, “When a group claims chapters in a given place, we list them unless we have a reason to believe it is false.” Added Potok: “Very frequently, authorities in a given community are surprised to find a hate group operating in their town or operating a mailbox, especially if it turns out to be a drop box. Especially in a state like Vermont, where the Klan is not very popular, you won’t see your local Klan in public. Just because local police and local anti-racism groups don’t know about it, does not make it not true.”
According to Laird Wilcox, a researcher specializing in the study of political fringe movements: “In private [Potok] concedes that there’s no overwhelming threat from the far right, and in public [he] says something altogether different.” This, says Wilcox, is because “professionally [Potok] is just a shill. It’s his job. That’s what he’s paid for.” In 2010, Wilcox reported that after having reviewed a list of 800-plus “hate groups” published by Potok and SPLC, he had “determined that over half of them were either non-existent, existed in name only, or were inactive.”
Potok claims that “anti-Muslim groups” have proliferated dramatically in the U.S. in recent years. The Summer 2012 issue of his Intelligence Report featured a major piece titled “30 New Activists Heading Up the Radical Right,” lamenting that “explosive growth in several sectors of the radical right” had caused “an anti-Muslim movement, almost entirely ginned up by political opportunists and hard-line Islamophobes,” to “gro[w] enormously since taking off in 2010, when reported anti-Muslim hate crimes went up by 50%.” Potok ascribed this “astounding” increase to “the vicious rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists.” The “30 New Activists” report added that during the same two-year time frame, “a number of religious-right anti-gay groups, enraged and on the defensive as swelling majorities of Americans drop their opposition to same-sex marriage and other LGBT rights, have grown extraordinarily vicious in their propaganda.” Further, said the report, “so-called ‘Patriot’ groups” that “see the federal government as their primary enemy” had “grown explosively.”
Potok and SPLC routinely conflate racist extremists on the one hand, with respectable conservative scholars, researchers, and journalists on the other. For example, the Intelligence Report‘s “30 New Activists” article featured numerous profiles of Klansmen, skinheads, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis. Co-mingled with these profiles was one devoted to Frank Gaffney, Jr., founder and president of the Center for Security Policy. Though Gaffney is a scholar devoted to meticulous research and a lucid, reasoned presentation of verifiable facts, the Intelligence Report derided him as “the anti-Muslim movement’s most paranoid propagandist.”1
Just as Potok and SPLC conflate individual hatemongers with respectable conservatives, so do they lump hatemongering groups together with legitimate organizations that happen to hold conservative political views. In late 2007, for instance, SPLC labeled the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)—whose mission is to “improve border security” and “stop illegal immigration”—as a “hate group.” “What we are hoping very much to accomplish is to marginalize FAIR,” Potok candidly confirmed at the time. “We don’t think they should be a part of the mainstream media.”
SPLC likewise began listing the conservative Family Research Council (FRC) as a hate group in 2010 because, Potok explained: “it has knowingly spread false and denigrating propaganda about LGBT people … [and has made] demonizing claims that gay people are child molesters and worse—claims that are provably false.”
In a May 4, 2015 interview with CNN, Potok was asked to comment on an Islamic terror event that had taken place the day before. In that incident, two men had opened fire outside the Garland, Texas location where Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative was holding a contest for cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. Said Potok: “The First Amendment should be defended. Free speech is a good thing. It’s integral to democracy. But Pam Geller and her organization is a hate group today just as they were day before yesterday. I think that is important to remember. She really does specialize in this kind of events. It seems to me it’s rather similar to the Reverend Terry Jones burning Korans in Florida. These are provocations that are aimed at stirring the pot, and it doesn’t seem terribly surprising that, in fact, they get the response that, in a sense, they’re seeking.”
For additional information on Mark Potok, click here.
1 Potok’s publication likewise impugned blogger/author Pamela Geller as “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead,” accusing her of having exploited the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy as her “ticket to anti-Muslim superstardom” when she led “an effort to depict the [Mosque] project’s planners as radical extremists.” Absent from the Intelligence Report’s analysis was any substantive refutation of the suggestion that those planners—particularly the project’s leader, Faisal Abdul Rauf—were in fact extremists.