Hate has regional roots in poverty and lack of education, say University of Utah researchers


Across the United States, hate groups are most active in areas with lower levels of education and ethnic diversity and a higher prevalence of poverty and conservative politics, according to a new study by geographers at the University of Utah.

But a closer analysis of individual U.S. counties reveals varied and unique regional patterns to what drives hate-group activity, the U. researchers found.

“There is no one specific cause of hate, though generally speaking, it typically stems from fear,” says their study, published Friday in Annals of the American Association of Geographers. “… Fear of change, fear of marginalization, fear of resource loss. These fears are different based on place.”

Hateful activity drops off, for example, as religious participation increases in areas along the West Coast and in the Intermountain West, the study found. Yet in the central and southeastern U.S. and along the East Coast, higher levels of religious faith correlate with more hate.

Those differences, the study said, may reflect diverse ethnic and cultural histories from region to region, with organized hate motivated by a desire to protect against perceived threats that “outsiders” might pose to regional identity, status and economic security.

“We ended up seeing these distinct regions coming out,” said Emily Nicolosi, a U. doctoral candidate in geography and study co-author. “There’s a lot more work to do in geography as a discipline, looking at hate and how it’s different in different places.”

Mapping hatred

In their research, Nicolosi and U. assistant professor Richard Medina compared U.S. census and other demographic data with the activities of hate groups as tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit based in Alabama.

The center’s list included 784 groups, ranging from white nationalist organizations such as American Vanguard to the Nation of Islam and Sicarii Black Hebrew Israelites.

“I think they have the most comprehensive list,” Medina said. “It’s still missing a bunch, I’m sure.”

A “hate map” on the Southern Poverty Law Center website shows two active groups in Utah: American Vanguard and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a break-away Mormon sect based in the twin municipalities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona.

(AP file photo) Warren Jeffs, former leader of the Utah- and Arizona-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. A new study from University of Utah geographers has found unique regional differences in what drives hate-group activity.

Nicolosi said a geographical approach to studying hate in America highlights the distinct community roots that fuel those tensions. And because factors that contribute to hate are local, she said, so too are the potential ways of combating crimes that are driven by hatred and bias.

“People have ideas, perhaps, about who belongs in a particular place and who doesn’t,” Nicolosi said. “It’s possible that outsiders are maybe perceived as a threat to socioeconomic security, or even to people’s very identity when people construct their identity out of a place.”

Regional answers

The study suggests that while some common factors fuel hate groups across the country, there is no single solution for addressing hate nationwide.

“Hate in the United States cannot just be remedied with increase quality or quantity of education, or by raising the minimum wage,” the report states. “Fixing the problem requires a much more complete understanding of regional cultures, individual biases, and political responses to social and economic change.”

Medina said his interest in the subject stemmed from earlier studies on global terrorism. Researching the threat of foreign actors, he said, turned his attention to domestic dangers.

“I started to be more concerned about violence here in the states,” Medina said. “When I think about my family and my kids and what they’re going to be most at risk from — it’s people here.”

Medina said his next project deals with hate crimes, which have spiked since the 2016 election. He said it’s important that politicians and government understand their regions and factors that correlate with hate group activity.

“If you’re talking to policymakers, they need to know their region,” Medina said. “They need to know their constituents.”

The study suggests that additional research is needed to more closely identify factors that relate to hate group activity, its authors said.

In highlighting religion — which the U. study shows having both a positive and negative correlation with hate groups depending on the region — they noted the potential to research the effects of specific faith denominations on hate, as well as how ardent believers might be in a particular community.