How Progressive Is California, Really?

California shows up steadfastly as a blue state on election maps, and, of course, it’s the butt of comments across the country about ‘liberals’ and ‘San Francisco values’ and the like. People seem to broadly believe that California is a progressive state, and not just a progressive one, but one with fairly extreme liberal political values. Yet, how true is that? I’ve written in the past about the lack of progressivism in many areas of the state and the fact that a few liberal pockets ‘dominate’ certain elections — yet, at the same time, conservatives manage to push through things like Proposition 8.

The other day, I took a look at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate map of California. Despite the SPLC’s name and the location of its headquarters, the organisation addresses social injustices across the United States, not just the South. There’s a common social attitude that the Southern states are socially backwards, regressive, and oppressive, while the North and West are, of course, innocent of any such thing.

But California’s hate map is actually pretty impressive, by which I mean illustrative of the fact that claims about the state’s progressiveness ring a bit hollow. The SPLC has identified 82 hate groups in the state, more than any other state in the union. Obviously, some of this is due to the state’s size, but it runs deeper than that. Despite the claim that the Southern states are filled with hate groups, California really does take the cake.

While the South certainly has issues when it comes to hate groups, oppressive legislation, overt racism, and discrimination, so too does the rest of the country. The United States needs to acknowledge that instead of pretending that these issues are limited to the South, as California’s hate map illustrates. With a huge array of racist organisations, including many based in the supposedly progressive regions of the state, California is hardly a model of social progress and sensitivity.

Large numbers of such groups are concentrated around the Los Angeles area, unsurprisingly due to the large population in the region. They include white nationalist groups, Holocaust deniers, anti-gay groups, and more. Others span up the coast (yes, even the sacred coast!) to the Bay Area, and across into the Central Valley. If you have a hankering to get your hate on in California, there are plenty of places that will be more than happy to oblige.

Part of the SPLC’s work involves identifying and monitoring such groups, as well as pressuring the government to take action when hate groups overstep the line, but the line is sometimes difficult to define. In a nation so obsessed with ‘free speech,’ simply hating people and being vocal about it isn’t ‘over the line,’ though advocating violence is. Yet, hate groups are remarkably adroit when it comes to using language and other tools deftly so they can deny charges that they are fomenting hate and recommending violence, when, of course, they are doing exactly that.

They masquerade as social clubs, try to argue that their events are simply meetings of people with like-minded interests, and more. They’re swift to avoid the appearance of activities aimed at inciting violence in public, while in private, they support and encourage members in acts of aggression — though those same members will be disavowed should they be caught at it. Members of the group fall back upon dubious arguments about how of course they never intended for people to act¬†on hate speech, they were just having brisk conversations and sparking lively discussions.

Hate groups exist because they’re tolerated, and they spread their poison insidiously through their communities to ensure they remain entrenched and have a continuous place in the community. This makes it very hard to fight their presence, especially when supporters include politically prominent people in a town or large numbers of extremely aggressive members who are willing, ready, and happy to go to the mat to defend their ‘right’ to be bigoted, hateful people.

In California, there are small towns where it is not safe to be a person of colour, to be openly LGBQT, to be ‘different.’ These towns are in the same California with the San Francisco values and the liberal politics, but few people talk about them, or the hate groups active in some of them. The refusal to acknowledge this keeps people struggling to survive in such settings isolated, and it acts as a reinforcement for hateful behaviour, as people know they can get away with murder (sometimes literally) without very many repercussions. Only through talking about this can the state really begin to confront the growth of hate groups, especially along the California/Mexico border, where a lively industry in racist hatemongering against people of Central and Latin American origin has been raging. Thanks to racist immigration in Arizona, the flames have only been fanned, legitimising racist attitudes and beliefs and making it easier than ever before for hate groups to recruit and retain members.

The SPLC is concerned, and rightly so, about the large numbers of hate groups in California and the way in which they create a web across the state. And it worries me, too, because the widespread belief that California is a liberal, ‘safe’ place where such things don’t happen means that it doesn’t come in for the same scrutiny that other states do. Even as people hound the South, they turn the other cheek to California and its profusion of extreme conservatism in politics, its growth of hate groups, its wealth of people who strongly believe that they are superior because they are white, Christian, and straight.

These, too, are ‘California values,’ as uncomfortable as that reality may make some people.