The Geography of Hate

America's racist groups concentrate in certain regions -- and their presence correlates with religion, McCain votes, and poverty


Reuters/Jeff Green

With the death of Osama bin Laden, many believe that Al Quaeda was dealt a mortal blow. Time will tell, but as we learned from the Oklahoma City bombing and Nidal Malik Hasan's rampage at Fort Hood, we have much to fear from our own home grown extremists. And not just from "lone nuts" acting on their own.

Since 2000, the number of organized hate groups -- from white nationalists, neo-Nazis and racist skinheads to border vigilantes and black separatist organizations -- has climbed by more than 50 percent, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Their rise has been fueled by growing anxiety over jobs, immigration, racial and ethnic diversity, the election of Barack Obama as America's first black president, and the lingering economic crisis. Most of them merely espouse violent theories; some of them are stock-piling weapons and actively planning attacks.

But not all people and places hate equally; some regions of the United States -- at least within some sectors of their populations -- are virtual hate hatcheries. What is the geography of hate groups and organizations? Why are some regions more susceptible to them?

The SPLC maintains a detailed database on hate groups, culled from websites and publications, citizen and law enforcement reports, field sources and news reports. It defines hate groups as organizations and associations that "have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics," and which participate in "criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing."  As of 2010, the SPLC documents 1,002 such hate groups across the United States.

The map below, by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute, graphically presents the geography of hatred in America today. Based on the number of hate groups per one million people across the U.S. states, it reveals a distinctive pattern.


Hate groups are most highly concentrated in the old South and the northern Plains states. Two states have by far the largest concentration of hate groups -- Montana with 13.8 groups per million people, and Mississippi with 13.7 per million.  Arkansas (10.3), Wyoming (9.7), and Idaho (8.9) come in a distant third, fourth, and fifth.

Hate groups are much less concentrated in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and the West Coast.  Minnesota has the smallest concentration of hate groups, with 1.3 groups per million people, nearly ten times less than the leading state, followed by Wisconsin (1.4), New Mexico (1.5), Massachusetts (1.6), and New York (1.6). Connecticut (1.7), California (1.9), Rhode Island (1.9) all have less than two hate groups per million people.

But beyond their locations, what other factors are associated with hate groups? With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, I looked at the social, political, cultural, economic and demographic factors that might be associated with the geography of hate groups. We considered a number of key factors that shape America's geographic divide: Red state/Blue state politics; income and poverty; religion, and economic class.  It is important to note that correlation does not imply causation --we are simply looking at associations between variables. It's also worth pointing out that Montana and Mississippi are fairly extreme outliers which may skew the results somewhat. Nonetheless, the patterns we discerned were robust and distinctive enough to warrant reporting.

First of all, the geography of hate reflects the Red state/Blue state sorting of American politics.

Hate groups were positively associated with McCain votes (with a correlation of .52).

Conversely, hate groups were negatively associated with Obama votes (with a correlation of -.54).


Hate groups also cleave along religious lines. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, higher concentrations of hate groups are positively associated with states where individuals report that religion plays an important role in their everyday lives (a correlation of .35).


The geography of hate also reflects the sorting of Americans by education and human capital level. Hate groups were negatively associated with the percentage of adults holding a college degree (-.41).


The geography of hate also sorts across economic lines. Hate groups are more concentrated in states with higher poverty rates (.39) and those with larger blue-collar working class workforces (.41).


Higher income states with greater concentrations of creative class workers (creative class occupations span science and technology; business and management; education, law, and medicine; and arts, culture, and entertainment) provide a less fertile medium for hate.  Hate groups were negatively correlated with state income levels (-.36), and the percentage of workers in creative class occupations (-.48).

Hate groups also reflect the underlying openness, tolerance and diversity of an area.  Hate groups are negatively correlated with concentrations of gay and lesbian households (-.37) and even more so where there are larger concentrations of immigrants (-.53).


Hate groups also reflect the underlying openness, tolerance, and diversity of an area.  Hate groups are negatively correlated with concentrations of gay and lesbian households (-.37) and even more so where there are larger concentrations of immigrants (-.53).

The geography of hate groups follows the more general sorting of America by politics and ideology, religion, education, income levels, and class.  But the presence of hate groups does not necessarily lead to hate crimes.  A 2010 study of "Hate Groups and Hate Crimes" by economists Matt Ryan and Peter Leeson found no empirical connection between the two. Tracing the association between hate groups and hate crimes between 2002 and 2006, they found that while the number of hate groups grew substantially, the number of hate crimes did not -- in fact such crimes actually decreased slightly.  But they found a strong connection between hate crimes and adverse economic conditions, particularly unemployment and to a lesser extent poverty.  They suggest that hate crimes follow the pattern outlined long ago in the classic frustration-aggression thesis which, as its name implies, links aggression to high levels of frustration.  "[W]hen people endure economic hardship they get frustrated," write Ryan and Leeson. "They take their frustration out on vulnerable social groups, such as ethnic, sexual and religious minorities."

Even if hate groups are not directly connected to hate crimes, they arise from the same underlying economic factors that are dividing Americans by class, ideology and politics. Hate groups, like hate crimes, are strongly associated with want.  The geography of hate in America reflects and reinforces its deepening geography of class.