The history of the United States has been plagued by brutality against Native peoples, Black people, LGBTQ people, disabled people and many other groups. Often, this violence is framed as caused by “hate,” erasing its structural causes. In Considering Hate, longtime activists and theorists Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski argue for a new understanding of hate – and a new political framework centered on goodness and justice.
The following excerpt is from the first chapter of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics:
Dehumanization and Violence
“All paradises, all utopias, are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” – Toni Morrison
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.
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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.
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.
Murder is not the most common form of hate violence, although some groups such as people of color, and particularly transgender people of color, are at higher risk for being killed. Assaults, rape, arson, bombing, verbal threats, intimidation, harassment, slurs, and the desecration of places of worship are more common. Yet it is the vivid act of killing, sometimes carried out with grotesque symbolism as in castration or dismemberment, that transfixes the public’s imagination.
This is the public face of violence that is most likely to be condemned. Behind that façade are larger backdrops of dehumanizing violence. Transformative change can only occur by first understanding how hate violence is inextricably bound to broader social and political systems.
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 by Beacon Press.
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Michael Bronski is the co-author, with Kay Whitlock, of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics (Beacon Press, 2015).
Kay Whitlock is an activist and writer whose work focuses on dismantling structural violence and abolishing the prison industrial complex. She is is the co-author (with Michael Bronski) of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics (Beacon Press, 2015) and the co-author (with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie) of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Beacon Press, 2011). She is, with Nancy A. Heitzeg, the co-founder and co-editor the Criminal Injustice series on the Critical Mass Progress blog. Follow her on Twitter: @KayJWhitlock