Is Oklahoma a haven for hate? Has the highly publicized movement to control illegal immigration spawned a climate that welcomes, even coddles extremist groups, providing opportunities to push their agendas?
Oklahoma long has been a "hotspot" for extremist activism, according to a national watchdog, and the latest data on the rise of such groups throughout the U.S. and in Oklahoma continue to be worrisome.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks trends in hate movements, has found that the number of documented hate groups operating in the U.S. has grown 48 percent since 2000, up to 888 last year.
The increase is attributed to illegal immigration issues and is most notable in three border states: California, Arizona and Texas.
What's more, the 888 total for the most part does not include an estimated 300 anti-immigration groups classified by SPLC as "nativist extremist," formed in the last three years to harass and intimidate immigrants.
Oklahoma has seen a rise, too, from only five so-called hate groups in 2000 to 13 last year. That figure is down slightly from the 14 counted
in Oklahoma in 2005, and the 16 detected in 2006.
Mark Potok, a Tulsa native who is director of the SPLC Intelligence Project, said the center attempts to ensure the hate groups it documents are true organizations, even if small. "We make an effort not to list a man, his dog and his computer," said Potok.
Extremist groups documented as active in Oklahoma in 2007 included;
* Six Ku Klux Klan groups, five of which are associated with the largest national group, the Brotherhood of Klans, and one associated with the much smaller Bayou Knights; the Klan groups operated out of Atoka, Cement, Coalgate, Hinton, Moyers and Shawnee (the Bayou chapter);
* Four neo-Nazi groups: the once-influential but now struggling Aryan Nations, based in Bixby; the National Socialist Movement, the nation's largest neo-Nazi organization, with chapters in Oklahoma City and Tulsa; and the American National Socialist Workers Party, based in Tulsa.
* The League of the South, a neo-Confederate, neo-secessionist group based in Bixby;
* An Eastern Oklahoma multi-media outlet that provides, among other offerings, Christian Identity literature;
* The European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a white nationalist group based in Tulsa.
The Klan seems to have a secure foothold in Oklahoma. Nationally, there are 29 Brotherhood of Klans chapters in operation; five of them are in Oklahoma. Missouri and Kansas have no Klan chapters, while Texas has 20.
While the total membership of such groups is "tiny relative to the rest of society, these groups really do have an outsized influence," said Potok.
"In particular, they have played a really vile role in the immigration debate. A lot of the false, defamatory propaganda we hear in this debate first originated in hate groups," he said.
"Illegal immigration," Potok added, "has become almost the sole focus of these groups -- you don't hear them talking about gays or blacks any more. It's all brown people."
The oft-repeated story that Mexico intends to invade and reconquer the Southwest United States originated in hate groups, "and now you hear it propounded on Lou Dobbs on CNN, and even politicians are talking about it."
Hate groups also were the source of the myth about the alleged secret plan to merge the U.S., Canada and Mexico, as well as other wild and false assertions: that a third of all U.S. prison cells are filled by illegal aliens; that illegals murder 12 Americans a day.
Such misinformation entering the broader debate ongoing throughout the U.S. tends to skew positions and poison the atmosphere, making rational, informed debate difficult if not impossible.
Membership in Oklahoma hate groups waxes and wanes, as elsewhere, but the state has a long history of virulent extremism. "The reality is that some parts of Oklahoma have a real history of radical-right activism that goes back decades," said Potok.
Oklahoma, in fact, is one of three national "hotspots" of such activism. Eastern Oklahoma, Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas form one of the hotspots; sections of western North Carolina and South Carolina another; and the third finds home in the Idaho panhandle and parts of Washington and Oregon.
A historical analysis of the rise and fall of hate groups shows that immigration is usually behind the trend. "Really, the worst outbreaks of intolerance in this country have been driven by immigration," said Potok. The Klan reached its highest membership levels ever, claiming millions of members, in the 1920s. "That growth was driven almost entirely by Catholic immigration. This was the 'No-Irish-Need-Apply' period, when people were literally burning convents."
One of the many ironic and false messages fueled by hate groups is that Latinos are more crime-prone than Americans, noted Potok. FBI statistics gathered from the states show hate crimes against Latinos rose 35 percent from 2003 to 2006. California, which has one of the most efficient reporting systems, put the rise at 54 percent during that time frame.
"Studies show that immigrants are substantially less criminal than Americans; they become more criminal over three generations," said Potok. "In other words, the more American you become, the more criminal you become."