NEW YORK – Reports of slurs, threats, hate speech and intimidation at the hands of Donald Trump supporters have be on the uptick, in the days following Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency.
Speeches from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump himself have emphasized the need to unite, reconcile, and build bridges across the deep divides of American society. Yet here we stand, less than a week later, amid hatred, discrimination, violence, and fear.
This comes as little surprise to those who have monitored hate-inspired speech and crimes this past year. “Donald Trump has, to a large extent, single-handedly ripped the lid off Pandora’s box,” says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organization combating intolerance and discrimination. “I think that Trump did more than any one person in a very long time to legitimize white supremacists and a whole variety of bigots and haters.”
Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology and psychology at the City University of New York (CUNY) and an expert on online racism, was surprised by the level of attention white nationalists received during the election cycle. Noting the persistence of white nationalism since the Civil War, Daniels says, “There’s a bit of disingenuous surprise, I find, or a kind of naïveté in the mainstream reporting. Like, ‘Oh my god! There’s white nationalists here?! Clutch pearls!’”
Minority groups have not had the luxury of ignorance. “[Asian Americans] haven’t been blind or deaf to the messages coming out in this election,” says James Hong of MinKwon Center for Community Action, a Korean American organization in New York. “They understand that they are in the crosshairs of very exclusive, xenophobic, racist, and exclusionary rhetoric.”
Potok says they have been seeing increases in anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, and anti-Black hate crimes over the past year, noting the attack on a homeless Latino man in Boston on August 19, 2015.
The task facing human rights organizations and advocates now is addressing the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and ableism exposed during this election cycle.
The U.S. Constitution offers some of the broadest protections for free speech in the world. “There’s no such thing as hate speech. That term has no legal meaning at all. There’s nothing called ‘hate speech’ that’s illegal in the United States,” Potok says.
Only a few forms of speech can be restricted under the First Amendment, namely “fighting words,” true threats—statements that convey a serious intent to commit violence against an individual or group—and incitement to imminent violence, destruction, or other illegal activity. This differs dramatically from laws in much of Europe, where the prosecution of group libel—speech that attacks or defames a religious, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, or gender group—is largely allowed.
These freedoms are central to the U.S. system, and are unlikely to change any time soon. What, then, can or should be done in response to the growing tide of hate in America?
For advocates and activists, the answer continues to be responding to hate speech with more speech. The purpose of free speech is to scrutinize ideas, even hateful ones. Steve Freeman of the Anti-Defamation League, a non-profit organization fighting anti-Semitism and discrimination, sees “education, critical thinking, counter speech, finding good models, getting people to exercise their own rights and getting people to follow positive messages” as key goals moving forward.
Many are also turning their attention to social media and other online platforms. The unprecedented use of these sites, throughout the presidential campaign, highlighted ongoing debates about the regulation of hateful and offensive speech online. “It’s unfortunate what we’ve seen,” Freeman says, “this surge or this outpouring of manifestations of hate, particularly hate online.”
Eric Fusfield of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization, supports the speech-related restrictions created by social media companies. He sees more opportunities for cooperation among members of online communities. For him, it is important to refuse to “help haters spread their message.”
“It’s one thing to acknowledge that the First Amendment is there and there’s a legal right to say whatever you want, but if you are a mainstream publication, if you are an Internet service provider, you don’t have to participate in disseminating hate speech,” he says.
In addition to activism, education, and empowerment, advocates emphasize the importance of having public figures leaders act as moral guides.
“Words have consequences,” Potok says. “It is absolutely true that this kind of speech is protected by the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean that politicians and preachers and pundits and others in the public square who make these kinds of statements aren’t ethically responsible.”
President-elect Trump came under fire for failing, in the eyes of many, to live up to these moral standards.
Daniels says that “dog whistles” used by Trump drew white nationalists to his campaign. “When he launched his campaign talking about immigrants and calling them rapists and drug dealers and that sort of thing, that was absolutely a dog whistle to white nationalists, it resonated with the kind of rhetoric they use to mobilize white believers in their cause. And I believe that they absolutely responded to that.”
“There’s a responsibility particularly for those who are in leadership roles or who aspire to leadership roles to use the political influence they have,” says Freeman. “If you have a large following, if you have a bully pulpit, there should be a responsibility that goes with it to lead by example, to set a certain tone, to speak out against hate, and not to ferment it.”
On November 6, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticized Trump’s final campaign ad for “conjuring painful stereotypes and baseless conspiracy theories” against a “global conspiracy” overlaid with images of prominent Jews.
Fusfield, however, finds Trump’s victory speech “very encouraging.”
“President-elect Trump talked about binding the wounds that divide us and helping our country unite together as a people,” Fusfield says. “And this is what we need, this is the first thing that we need on the heels of a divisive and often vitriolic campaign. To bring our society together.”
For Potok, on the other hand, because Trump made “these kinds of statements demonizing minorities, he is ultimately morally responsible for the violence that inevitably hits those people on down the road.”
As of this writing, the president-elect has not released any statements acknowledging or condemning the hateful acts purportedly taking place in his name.