By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of U.S. hate groups rose again in 2017, during President Donald Trump's first year in office, and has surged 20 percent since 2014, a U.S. civil rights watchdog said on Wednesday.
The Southern Poverty Law Center's annual census identified 954 hate groups in 2017, a 4 percent rise from the year before. The increase followed a 2.8 increase in 2016, and the most recent number represents a jump of one-fifth from 2014.
Among the more than 600 U.S. white supremacist groups, neo-Nazi organizations rose to 121 from 99. Anti-Muslim groups increased for a third year in a row, to 114 from 101 in 2016, after tripling in number a year earlier, the report said.
“President Trump in 2017 reflected what white supremacist groups want to see: a country where racism is sanctioned by the highest office, immigrants are given the boot and Muslims banned,” Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said in a statement.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In August, Trump came under under fire for saying "both sides" were to blame for violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a leftist counter-protester was killed.
He was also criticized for a string of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim comments, including using a vulgar term to describe Haiti and African countries in a White House meeting on immigration last month.
In a backlash to Trump, the number of black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam increased to 233 last year from 193 in 2016, the civil rights group's report said. It also added two male supremacy groups to its census for the first time.
The report acknowledged that it likely failed to capture the full extent of hate groups in the United States. A growing number of extremist groups, especially those identifying with the alt-right, operate mainly online, it said.
Alt-right groups believe that white identity is under attack by multicultural forces.
The Southern Poverty Law Center report defines hate groups as organizations with beliefs or practices that demonize a class of people, usually for fixed characteristics.
In the past, some groups have criticized the Alabama-based organization's findings, with skeptics saying it has mislabeled legitimate organizations as "hate groups."
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Tom Brown)