News & Politics

Liberal Group With Recent Racism Scandal Claims to Be a Modern 'Underground Railroad'

Liberal Group With Recent Racism Scandal Claims to Be a Modern 'Underground Railroad'
The 2018 SPLC hate map.

Two months after a devastating racism and sexual harassment scandal cleared out the leadership of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the organization’s interim president compared the SPLC to the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves in the antebellum South escape to freedom. It seems the far-left smear group has entirely forgotten its own past, even in the midst of an ongoing internal review to see whether or not racism and sexual harassment still dominate the organization.

“For nearly 50 years, the SPLC has been working tirelessly to develop ‘underground railroads’ for children, youth, families, and communities: liberation from broken and historically racist systems such as education, justice, and health; freedom from acts of bigotry, hate, and violence; and education to help emerging leaders become active participants in a diverse democracy,” Karen Baynes-Dunning, the SPLC’s interim president, wrote in a post on Wednesday.

Baynes-Dunning, seemingly oblivious to the SPLC’s scandals, went on to slam the Trump administration for “racism and misogyny.” Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that the Trump administration is delaying the release of the new $20 bill featuring abolitionist hero Harriet Tubman, well-known for running the Underground Railroad. Originally, the new bill was scheduled for 2020 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, but Mnuchin said it won’t release until 2028, since the Treasury needs to prioritize anti-counterfeiting features of currency.

“But this decision – like so many of Trump’s statements, decisions, and policies – clearly seems undergirded by racism and misogyny. It is not lost on the American public that candidate Trump opposed putting Tubman on the $20 bill in 2016, calling the move ‘pure political correctness.’ He offered to consider placing her portrait on the little-used or circulated $2 bill instead,” Baynes-Dunning wrote.

Threats to the security of currency are serious. While I share Baynes-Dunning’s disappointment that Tubman won’t be appearing on the $20 bill next year, I understand that there are many potential reasons for the delay, including the one Mnuchin referenced. Yet Baynes-Dunning seems primed to jump to “racism and misogyny” whenever Trump so much as sneezes. After all, she runs the same SPLC that strained to connect Trump to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, despite Trump’s Jewish family and the shooter’s hatred for Trump.

Yet this brazen post from Baynes-Dunning also shows that the SPLC has learned nothing from its recent scandal.

The scandal began in March, when Associate Legal Director Meredith Horton, one of two black directors, left the organization, complaining about sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Shortly afterward, the SPLC fired its co-founder, Morris Dees, President Richard Cohen stepped down, and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson removed herself from the Board of Directors. The group’s female legal director also stepped down.

This scandal followed decades of complaints from former staff that the organization’s culture involved racial discrimination.

In February 1994, Dan Morse ran a series of articles in the Montgomery Advertiser exposing the SPLC’s leadership problems.

“I would definitely say there was not a single black employee with whom I spoke who was happy to be working there,” Christine Lee, a black graduate of Harvard Law School who interned at the SPLC in 1989, told the Advertiser. Of the 13 black former SPLC staffers Morse contacted, 12 said they either experienced or observed racial problems in the organization. Three recalled hearing racial slurs and three compared the SPLC to a plantation — the very opposite of an Underground Railroad.

Former employees complained about racial disparities in leadership on the confidential employer review site GlassDoor as well. January 2017, a former employee who spent more than a year at the SPLC noted that while “all SPLC practice areas … have a disproportionate effect on black and brown people … such a small percentage of black and brown people are employed on the Legal team at SPLC (two Black lawyers and three Black Advocates within a staff of about 100 across five states).”

Another reviewer noted “a profound lack of diversity in higher level roles,” even though “there are well qualified people of color who’ve dedicated up to and over 12 years to [the] mission of the organization.”

Yet as the scandal broke, the SPLC went into damage control mode. It hired Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, to conduct an internal review of the organization’s office culture. It elevated Baynes-Dunning, a black woman, as interim president.

Baynes-Dunning seems committed to running the SPLC as if nothing happened. The liberal group gained its reputation by taking the Ku Klux Klan to court, but its struggles with racism should tarnish its reputation. The media continues to cite the SPLC as an authority on hate, however.

The SPLC has long accused mainstream conservative and Christian organizations of being “hate groups,” listing them along with the KKK and encouraging corporate America and Big Tech companies to blacklist them. During the recent scandal, the “hate group” accusations were outed as a fundraising scam, but media outlets continue to cite them.

Under Baynes-Dunning, the SPLC wants to have its cake and eat it, too. The organization wants to apologize for its past without undertaking any reforms that would change its political warfare tactics.

Fresh off a racism and sexual harassment scandal, the SPLC compares itself to the Underground Railroad and accuses Trump of “racism and misogyny.” Can this liberal smear factory get any more shameless?

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.