Why We Need to Look at "Hate" Through a New Lens

Excerpted from Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics by Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black youth from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi. In the company of his cousin and friends, he went to a small grocery store to buy candy. A white woman whose husband owned the store was the only employee there. That night, acting on the belief that Till had insulted his wife, the store owner and a friend abruptly awakened the sleeping youth in the dark and kidnapped him. Three days later, Till’s body was dragged from the Tallahatchie River, weighted down with a seventy-four-pound cotton-gin fan wrapped around his neck with barbed wire. Till had been so savagely beaten before being shot in the head that he was identifiable only by a ring on one finger. Like thousands of black people before him, Emmett Till had been lynched.

When his body was returned to his mother, she chose an open casket, permitting photographers, and the world, to witness the mutilation of her son. The murder and subsequent celebratory acquittal of two killers by an all-white, all-male jury galvanized the burgeoning African American civil rights movement.  Decades later, Till’s murder is described in contemporary terms as the hate crime that changed America.

How We Understand Hate Violence

Does the shift from “lynching” to “hate crime” matter? Yes, and for important reasons. Who is considered a valued part of the community, and who is considered expendable? Answering these questions requires examining the hate frame.

Think of a frame as a conceptual path shaping how people understand an issue and what ought to be done about it. The sleight-of-hand of the hate frame is that it invites people to believe the problem of violence directed against marginalized groups exists anywhere else but in themselves. The appeal of the hate frame is that it reaffirms a clear distinction between those who do violence and those who do not. For people not directly implicated in acts of hate violence, the distance between “us” and “them” feels secure.

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Conceptualizing violence within the frame of hate makes it easy to mistake symptom for cause. Hatred is not the root cause of racism, misogyny, homophobia, violence against transgender people, violence against disabled people, or economic cruelty. Hate is a predictable consequence of deeply rooted, historically persistent forms of these maladies. They are foundational to institutionalizing hierarchies of power. Unnoticed and unexamined, they permeate mainstream culture.

Hate violence is also symbolic: it declares the superiority of one group of people over another. Those targeted are symbolically presented as psychically or physically disposable; the violence is a ritual of degradation. In 1998 in Jasper, Texas, James W. Byrd Jr., an African American, was tied to the back of a pickup truck by three white men, two of whom openly identified themselves as white supremacists, and dragged, still conscious, for three miles until one arm and his head were severed.

Proximity to such violence is terrifying. Society chooses to believe that only monsters and criminal bigots who exist beyond the pale of decency are capable of these things. Instinctively, people rush to morally distinguish themselves from those who commit such acts. The horror of this violence transforms into fear, rage, and desire for vengeance.

There are people who do not care that this violence occurs, and some who believe that the victims deserved or invited it. But many people, through mourning, remembering, and educating, register grief or anger. Some activists, seeking to deter hate violence, demand more policing and harsher sentencing. Many people offer support to the victims of violence and their families. “Stop Hate” rallies are organized and “This Is a Hate-Free Zone” posters appear. Initiatives teaching tolerance, prejudice reduction, and appreciation of diversity proliferate.

Despite these expressions of caring and conscience, hate violence remains part of the civic landscape. Many who are not touched by it assume that the notions of superiority and inferiority implicit to hate violence are so extreme that they are anathema to American society.

The irony is that they are not. The great successes of civil rights and social justice movements have not completely dislodged them. Hate violence is society’s visible eruption of long-standing practices of injustice that are expressed in a multitude of ordinary ways. Like Poe’s purloined letter, they are hidden in plain sight.

Cultures of Violence

The very idea of violence raises important questions that are never asked openly in policy discussions. What constitutes humanity? Whose lives are considered worthy of justice, dignity, and compassion? Whose lives are considered inferior, disposable? Why? Who has the power to make and enforce these judgments? The answers are not always clear, and certainly not found in the legal system. These questions go directly to the heart of that which is commonplace—story lines and images in mass media, popular culture, institutional policies and practices, and personal and group behaviors that normalize, excuse, or deny common forms of violence—even as those same forms of violence are legally proscribed.

In the United States, rape, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, coercion, and harassment are subject to criminal prosecution, including prosecution as a hate crime. These legal remedies, though seldom pursued, support the idea that American society does not tolerate this violence. Furthermore, people believe that sexual crimes are not tolerated because, in the public imagination, rape symbolizes the violation of all that is innocent. In its common form the rape story becomes an idealized tale of public virtue and individualized evil.

Reality reveals this to be untrue. This idealized concept of justice coexists with a rape culture in which sexual violence is tolerated as an everyday aspect of private and public life. Rape culture is defined by attitudes and cultural messages that continually downplay the extent of sexual violence, stigmatize those who are assaulted, and celebrate male sexual aggression. When rape culture is acknowledged at all, it is often described as a violent form of sexism that affects all women equally. That is a simplification and a distortion.

Andrea Smith, noting the centrality of sexual violence to colonial conquest, argues that it is “a tool by which certain peoples become marked as inherently ‘rapable.’”  Rape can be and often is a weapon used to enforce racial, gender, and economic power differences. To focus on an individual act of rape obscures the understanding that sexual violence often “encompasses a wide range of strategies designed . . . to destroy peoples [and] their sense of being a people.” For most of US history, the law did not recognize the rape of black women as a crime. An analysis of rape that focuses only on individual crimes produces the archetypal rapist: the black man, violent thug, stranger, and interloper with uncontrollable sexual appetites: the mythic defiler-of-white-innocence. This image was used to justify lynching and today continues to influence prosecutorial decisions. The archetypal rapist takes other forms in the public imagination: the dangerous stranger, the dangerous date, and the unknown lurker who inhabits dark alleys. The reality is that most attackers are known to those whom they assault, are familiar community figures, or occupy positions of responsibility.

From time to time, a horrific act of sexual violence galvanizes the public conscience. In New Delhi, India in 2012, a twenty-three-year-old physical therapy student and her male companion boarded a bus. The driver, several other adult men, and a youth brutally beat the couple, raped the woman, and then penetrated her body with an iron rod before throwing her and her companion, both naked, from the bus. She died some days later; he survived. The nightmarish nature of the rape and murder gave rise to protests against sexual violence in India and against the failure of the police and legal system to address the problem. Death sentences were given to the adult perpetrators with the assurance that the severity of sentencing proved that India took sexual violence against women seriously. Yet gang rapes, sometimes combined with murder, continue.

Around the same time, American activists were also denouncing legal and societal failures to address sexual violence. Multiple news reports appeared—about the Steubenville case and others—in which young white women were raped by at least one, usually several, young men who were classmates or friends of the women. Not surprisingly, there is a notable absence of reports about the experiences of women of color in these mainstream rape narratives. Bystanders witnessed the assaults, but did nothing to stop or report them. The media, community members, police, and even some of their friends held the women accountable because of their excessive drinking; the young men were not held accountable. Photographs, videos, and texts distributed via cell phones and social media amplified the assaults and exposed the young women to harassment. Law enforcement actions were hesitant and inconsistent. In some cases, serious community rifts opened, centered on contested ideas of innocence, guilt, consent, and morality. At the heart of these divisions was the belief that the accused were not criminal types, so the immorality must be located entirely in the young women.

Rape is imagined as an unspeakable crime, an affront to decency, perpetrated by violent interlopers. The reality is that it is an ordinary and integral part of everyday life.

An exhaustive 2010 federal study conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost 20 percent of women have been raped or experienced attempted rape in their lifetime. Scandals involving inadequate institutional responses to allegations of sexual harassment and assault regularly erupt in places considered to be respectable, including public and private universities—only to be downplayed or covered up by responsible people in positions of power. In 2013 the Pentagon estimated that at least twenty-six thousand sexual assaults had occurred in the US armed forces in the preceding year. Between 1950 and 2010, there were at least 10,667 individual reports that an estimated 4,000 priests in the US Catholic Church had sexually abused minors. Scandals have also erupted in other faith communities, including Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and various Protestant Christian denominations.

In US jails, prisons, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile corrections centers, multiple forms of sexual abuse are so pervasive as to be considered a form of punishment. Prisoners commit sexual violence against their peers, but most abuse is perpetrated by correctional staff. Sexual violence continues to be a common feature of US policing, and, as the photographs of torture and sexual humiliation of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib show us, and other reports confirm, sexualized torture and humiliation permeate the “war on terror.”

Myths and distortions have come to define hate, violence, and justice in the public imagination. Most politicians have a strongly vested interest in not rocking the boat by telling the truth. The discussions that shape public understanding of these concepts are not exclusively political. Many people just want to locate the problem out there and with somebody else.

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