I have the dubious honor of having criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) many times before it recently start circling the drain. (Of course, real journalists starting going after the SPLC long before I did.) Once a reputable organization fighting for civil liberties and against bigotry, it’s devolved into a money-grubbing organization whose top dogs earned monstrously huge salaries, and an organization that took in far more money than it spent on the causes for which it’s famous, that stashed money in offshore accounts, and that spent its time confecting “hate lists”, one of which, the “field guide to anti-Muslim extremists“, included Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz. (Nawaz sued the SPLC for defamation and won, getting more than a million bucks and an apology, as well as the list’s removal.)
Two weeks ago the SPLC fired, for causes that weren’t clear at the time, Morris Dees, its co-founder and the major figure and fundraiser of the organization. There was talk about harassment and bad behavior in the office, but what really happened wasn’t clear. It’s still not, but it now appears, ironically, to involve racism and misogyny—two behaviors the SPLC has battled.
This article in the recent New Yorker gives more details, and leads me to believe that the organization is now not only outmoded, but is going to die. I hope it comes back with its original mission, but they’ll need good leadership.
Author Bob Moser worked for a while at the SPLC, and observed some of its dysfunctional culture before leaving. In fact, the racism and sexism was a standing joke at the operation:
Cameras were everywhere in the open-plan office, which made me feel like a Pentagon staffer, both secure and insecure at once. But nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff—“the help,” one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The “professional staff”—the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers—were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay.
During my first few weeks, a friendly new co-worker couldn’t help laughing at my bewilderment. “Well, honey, welcome to the Poverty Palace,” she said. “I can guaran-damn-tee that you will never step foot in a more contradictory place as long as you live.”
“Everything feels so out of whack,” I said. “Where are the lawyers? Where’s the diversity? What in God’s name is going on here?”
“And you call yourself a journalist!” she said, laughing again. “Clearly you didn’t do your research.”
. . .The great Southern journalist John Egerton, writing for The Progressive, had painted a damning portrait of Dees, the center’s longtime mastermind, as a “super-salesman and master fundraiser” who viewed civil-rights work mainly as a marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals. “We just run our business like a business,” Dees told Egerton. “Whether you’re selling cakes or causes, it’s all the same.”
Co-workers stealthily passed along these articles to me—it was a rite of passage for new staffers, a cautionary heads-up about what we’d stepped into with our noble intentions. Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women. And the unchecked power of the lavishly compensated white men at the top of the organization—Dees and the center’s president, Richard Cohen—made staffers pessimistic that any of these issues would ever be addressed.
And the bigotry?
The official statement sent by Cohen, who took control of the S.P.L.C. in 2003, didn’t specify why Dees had been dismissed, but it contained some broad hints. “We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion,” Cohen wrote. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.” Dees’s profile was immediately erased from the S.P.L.C.’s Web site—amazing, considering that he had remained, to the end, the main face and voice of the center, his signature on most of the direct-mail appeals that didn’t come from celebrity supporters, such as the author Toni Morrison.
. . . The staffers wrote that Dees’s firing was welcome but insufficient: their larger concern, they emphasized, was a widespread pattern of racial and gender discrimination by the center’s current leadership, stretching back many years.
For me the sign that the SPLC was plummeting earthward was its demonizing of Hirsi Ali and Nawaz, who were certainly not anti-Muslim extremists: Nawaz is a Muslim and Hirsi Ali’s last book was a plan to make Islam less extremist. This smacked of mission creep: an organization that now had less to do because of the moral improvement of America still had to find a way to spend its money. It has in fact about half a billion dollars in endowment, more than does the American Civil Liberties Union.
Moser’s piece, while giving these details, is a bit marred by being more of a personal mea culpa, in which he wonders how his good intentions could have been coopted by such a dysfunctional outfit. The SPLC is, however, undergoing an outside review, and I wish them well. My advice: stop paying huge salaries to the top dogs, walk the walk by giving minority employees real power, get rid of those offshore money stashes, and, above all, concentrate on real issues of poverty and law and stop making the “little lists”.