The idea of racial hatred and violence against people of color for millions of Americans were believed to be vestiges of a tragic era in the nation’s history – long forgotten except for occasional Civil Rights anniversaries. However, since the presidential elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, social scientists have plotted an abysmal return to hate speech, violence, and intimidation.
Most troubling according to researchers including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the New England Journal of Medicine, and Pew Research Center, is the prevalence of hate language and acts of violence among young people.
The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, Calif. recently found that among U.S. cities, New York reported the greatest number of hate crimes at 380, a 24 percent increase from 2015, while Washington, D.C., had the largest percentage rise at 62 percent to 107 incidents. Overall, there were 1,037 incidents, a 23.3 percent increase from the previous year in the nine areas researched: New York; Washington; Chicago; Philadelphia; Montgomery County, Maryland; Columbus, Ohio; Seattle; Long Beach, California; and Cincinnati.
Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center – a group that tracks extremist groups, files lawsuits and works with communities to advance civil rights, told National Public Radio (NPR) that social media and the ability to post hate rants on the internet, virtually unchecked, during the Obama-Trump elections, may be to blame.
“We have seen since the latter parts of the Obama administration an incredible rise in the frequency of attacks like [Richard Collins, III], hate crime attacks and domestic terrorism attacks. And the targets of those hate crimes have tended to be those populations demonized by the Trump campaign and now Trump administration,” Beirich said. Collins, was a Black Army officer stabbed to death on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland days before his college graduation. Authorities are investigating his murder as a possible hate crime. “We tracked almost 900 hate and bias incidents between the election and 10 days later. Those are numbers that are quite extraordinary for such a short period of time.”
But is the nation experiencing more racial hatred and bigotry, or has the advent of instant media – camera and video feeds from mobile phones – simply brought lingering more visibility?
“There is a sense of unease and a very dangerous, childish, and un-American posturing that the U.S. ‘belongs’ to one group more so than another. So, like ill-mannered children, we are dividing and subdividing ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’ categories,” historian Saul Dorsey told the AFRO.
Dorsey, whose work documents grassroots human rights campaigns by Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, said that because young people have not been subjected to Jim Crow and other overt forms of state sanctioned bigotry, it is unclear how a new generation of Americans so easily took up the return to racial bigotry.
“We’re having debates about using the ‘N-word’ as if it is debatable – and there are instances on some campuses where flyers or nooses are being found – but there is much hope at the same time because students are challenging each other and their administrations to set aside their own bias, and make it clear that fearmongering will not be tolerated.”
Fear, though, may be unavoidable. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, taken from March 28 to April 3, asked more than 2,800 adults to rate the danger of racism and bigotry in America. About 36 percent gave it the worst rating possible, saying they considered racism and bigotry an “imminent threat” to the country. That is up a few points from the 29 percent who answered the same way two years ago.
“I treat people like I want to be treated, but I am noticing lately that Black people are being rude, White people are being snarky, and no one is being polite anymore,” mixed-race George Washington University graduate student, Anika Roseman told the AFRO. “I don’t want to live my life constantly in fear of someone hurting me or feeling so stressed that I stop enjoying the freedoms of being an American.”
And with that fear, said David Williams, author of a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Massachusetts General Hospital/McLean Hospital study on the rise of racial incidents in America since 2016, comes a “steady drumbeat of incidents of hostility,” in the country.
“There is research that shows since Obama [was] elected, there has been an increase in racial prejudice and animosity — but that it was primarily [concentrated] in social media context. Part of what created the space for Trump, and what Trump capitalized on, is the sense [White people] were losing their country and what their country represented was Obama,” Williams said. “The way that we’re thinking about this shows once again that even if there are extenuating issues like mental health issues, as in the case of Dylann Roof, the power of White supremacist thinking and how it can lead people, especially the fragile-minded, to incredible acts of violence.”