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Social hate

March 11, 2009

This is a difficult posting to write. The impetus comes from an exhibit presented by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan (link). The curators have put together a set of artifacts that capture horrific attitudes towards African-Americans, Asians, gays, women, and other individuals and groups in American society, extending over a century of our history. There are photos of mass rallies of the Ku Klux Klan in the midwest; images of the lynchings of Emmett Till and other African-American victims; t-shirts with racist images of blacks, Jews, Asians, Latinos, and gays; photos from the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing; and recent examples of racist depictions of President Obama. And, of course, it’s not just about iconography; it’s also about real violence against individuals from these groups. Hate-based murders continue to occur in the United States.

Just viewing these images is a profoundly disturbing experience. But here is the really difficult part: our society continues to embody these strains of hatred somewhere. And it continues to reproduce these hateful beliefs and attitudes for the next generation. We want to imagine that our society is peace-loving, tolerant, respectful of difference, and ultimately “good neighbors” for all members of our society. And this is certainly true for a very high percentage of Americans. But the exhibition makes it all too plain that this is not the case for everyone. There are individuals, and more importantly, there are groups, for whom racial, sexual, and religious hatred is a fundamental social and psychological reality. As investigators for the Anti-Defamation League (link) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (link) have documented, these extremist groups continue to exist, and they continue to recruit new adherents using sophisticated social media (web pages, video games, chat rooms), as well as more old-fashioned means of mobilization.

How are we to come to grips with the idea that some of our fellow citizens — in our own communities, in our state, and in our country — have such despicable attitudes and behaviors towards other human beings? And what precautions should our society take to defend itself against the violent manifestations that these attitudes and groups sometimes lead to?

It seems that schools have done a pretty good job of conveying the values of racial equality and social tolerance to our children. This has been an important priority for the past several decades. But at the same time, the hatred documented in the exhibits mentioned here can still be found among young people as well — not just gun-toting aging militia types. (Here’s a resource on youth hate crimes.)

We would all like to imagine that the twenty-first century is going to be a better time than the twentieth century. And a big part of that hope is the idea that hatred and violence between groups will subside, replaced by the values of tolerance and civic equality. Anti-semitism, racism, hatred of gays and lesbians, and the forms of violence that are associated with these attitudes, must disappear. It is tough to be reminded how far we are from that ideal in the first decade of the new century.

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