A Conversation with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center

When I tell friends about Crossing the River and its story of a modern-day hate crime, they respond with disbelief: I didn’t know that cross burnings still happen today.

In order to learn more about this phenomena, I chatted by phone with Mark Potok, Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and Editor-in-Chief of the Intelligence Report magazine. Potok apologized for playing phone tag, explaining that earlier in the day he had published a substantial report documenting the explosive growth of the radical right in 2011. Increases occurred within the Patriot movement, which has grown 755% in three years, anti-gay groups, and anti-Muslim groups. Potok writes, “The growth was fueled by superheated fears generated by economic dislocation, a proliferation of demonizing conspiracy theories, the changing racial makeup of America, and the prospect of four more years under a black president who many on the far right view as an enemy to their country.”

Potok explained to me that the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Project” was developed after a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The project tracks hate crimes, “crimes motivated in large part in animus towards a group of people, whether race, sexual orientation, or disability,” said Potok. “We write investigative stories; we’re all about monitoring the extreme right to preserve the 14th amendment.”

Potok said it is easy to track when and where cross burnings occur because, as a “symbol of terror,” they are commonly reported in the newspaper. In Potok’s estimation, there are currently around 25 cross burnings a year. “It’s clearly not limited to the South,” Potok explained. “However, I think it’s fair to say that we find it much less on the coasts, and more in the interior of the country.”

Recent incidents of cross burnings and other hate crimes are outlined here in the Intelligence Report. I asked Potok to explain who is typically targeted by cross burnings today. He said that it is usually an interracial family or a black family in a white neighborhood that discovers a cross ablaze in their yard. “It’s an obvious act,” said Potok, “a kind of terrorism” commonly undertaken by young men, similar to other crimes.

Potok’s report illustrates the climate of intolerance in which hate crimes occur today. Crossing the River provides an up-close look at individuals involved in one hate crime, a cross burning, and in doing so sheds light on the racial, economic, and social factors that surround the incident. The occurrence of a cross burning 60 miles away from where Crossing the River was filming last week, highlights the story’s relevance and timeliness. Yes, cross burnings do happen today.

KatyAnna Johnson is the Curriculum and Communications Specialist for Crossing the River.


One thought on “A Conversation with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center

  1. Ann Lukens says:

    It is shocking that such things are still occurring. Hopefully, we will reach a day when hatred ad bigotry are footnotes in history books. Sadly, that is not yet the case, as the cross burnings and the recent very controversial Trayvon Martin case in Florida illustrate.
    Playing Caroline in Crossing The River was very illuminating to me. The pain and fear this family, and others like them, endured and stayed with me when filming was over. I found it hard to sleep and harder yet to answer the question “why is this still happening and how do we stop it?” Ann

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