The Hate Groups Behind the Think Tanks

REECE JONES

Imagine you are reading a news story about race relations in the United States, and the reporter interviews the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan to get his opinion on Black people. Sounds outrageous, right? Reporters would never do this, because the KKK is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the opinion of the Grand Dragon is not newsworthy, because his views are predictable and beyond the pale. The KKK is just one of over 1,000 SPLC-designated hate groups, and news organizations generally refrain from interviewing any of them, with one conspicuous exception: anti-immigrant hate groups. 

The White supremacist terrorist attack in Buffalo led to criticism of Tucker Carlson for mainstreaming the “great replacement” theory that immigrants are replacing White Americans. Unfortunately, Fox News is not the only news organization that deserves the blame. Most of the major media outlets in the United States have played a similar role in legitimizing extremist views on immigration by platforming representatives of groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies. Like the KKK, both FAIR and CIS are SPLC-designated hate groups that promote the idea that immigrants represent an invasion that will replace White Americans. Despite this, FAIR and CIS are routinely interviewed as legitimate voices in immigration debates. This should end.

According to the SPLC, a hate group is “an organization that – based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities – has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” The SPLC designated FAIR a hate group in 2007 because “FAIR leaders have ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists and have made many racist statements.” CIS received the designation in 2016 for “repeated circulation of white nationalist and antisemitic writers in its weekly newsletter” and hiring an analyst known to pursue racist pseudoscience.

Media Matters for America found that from January 2019 to July 2021, there were over 200 articles that used these anti-immigrant hate groups as sources. These included pieces in The Wall Street JournalThe AtlanticThe Associated PressReutersThe Washington Post, and The New York TimesThe Times even published a guest essay by a fellow with CIS on their prestigious editorial pages in 2020. CNN has joined the parade, including CIS President Mark Krikorian in a debate on Fareed Zakaria GPS about “the cost or gain from refugees” in 2018. In March of this year, The Hill published an opinion piece by FAIR President Dan Stein about Ukrainian refugees. The platforming of these groups even extends to Google’s news feed, which includes press releases from CIS as “news.” Worse still, the Media Matters for America report found that only a small fraction of these references in the media indicated that these groups had an anti-immigrant agenda at all, much less that they are designated hate groups. 

The success of FAIR and CIS at maintaining the veneer of respectability is not by accident. Instead, they were created by John Tanton specifically for that purpose. Tanton has been called the most influential American that most people have never heard of. From the 1970s until his death in 2019, Tanton established dozens of organizations to argue for English-only laws and a reduction in immigration to the United States. Tanton chose innocuous names for his groups and presented them as if they were regular think tanks. He realized that the public face of the organizations needed to be moderate, but behind the scenes, Tanton was closely associated with many White supremacists, including figures like American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor. In a 1998 memo, Tanton wrote that the FAIR board of directors should be reading Taylor and other White supremacists, because “We are on the same side.” An early funder for FAIR was the Pioneer Fund, which supported resistance to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, among many other racist causes. 

As Tanton’s White supremacist views were exposed, the groups he founded cut ties with him, but FAIR and CIS have continued to pursue his arguments about the dangers of immigrants replacing White Americans. FAIR President Dan Stein has expressed “great replacement” views, saying that increased immigration was a Democratic strategy formulated by late Sen. Ted Kennedy to “retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance and hubris, and the immigration laws from the 1920s were just this symbol of that, and it’s a form of revengism, or revenge, that these forces continue to push the immigration policy that they know full well are [sic] creating chaos and will continue to create chaos down the line.” CIS publishes a weekly newsletter that routinely included articles published by VDARE, a White nationalist group named after Virginia Dare, the first White person born in the Americas. The logo for another Tanton network group, Numbers USA, is a representation of a graph depicting the “great replacement.” Perhaps the tragedy of the Buffalo shooting will lead to the belated realization that FAIR and CIS do not deserve a place in public discussions about immigration. Journalists routinely consider news value and journalistic ethics when reporting on a new topic, but some journalists might question whether they can be expected to know the history and views of every think tank prior to an interview. This problem is solved by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has already done the research. Determining whether an organization is a designated hate group is an extremely low bar that should be easily attainable. Additionally, Google should remove CIS as a source from its news feed. FAIR, CIS, and the rest of the Tanton network should be seen as what they are: anti-immigrant hate groups that played a crucial role in mainstreaming the “great replacement” theory in the American public discourse. Like the KKK, they are free to have their opinions, but journalists should stop interviewing them as legitimate sources on the topic of immigration.

REECE JONES is a professor of geography and environment at the University of Hawai’i and the author of White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall.

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