Majoring in Hate

Some scholars want to create new academic programs to focus on study of extremist groups.
June 6, 2005

Understanding hate crimes and the impulses that drive them is a discipline that should not fall solely to activists, but should have a central academic home within colleges, according to participants in a discussion Friday at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education.

About 20 faculty members, administrators and students came to discuss the place of hate studies in academe. The discussion was organized by the Institute for Action Against Hate, which was formed at Gonzaga University in response to hate crimes against black students there, and to the actions of white supremacist groups in the Pacific Northwest.

“Once I saw my own students … become victims, and start thinking about leaving, it fundamentally disturbed me,” said George Critchlow, dean of the Gonzaga law school. But many at the discussion said that institutes and activist organizations are not enough.

Giving hate studies an intellectual place in the university might be the only way to craft effective responses to hate crimes, said Ken Stern, program specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee. “There are no long-term studies about what kind of education is effective,” he said. “A hate studies program could be an academic home for those studies, and for people from many disciplines to bring their expertise to bear. We want to make sure actions are not just well-intentioned, but effective.”

Laurie Wood, senior intelligence analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that academic programs are needed to supplement organizations like the law center. “We’re usually so busy just tracking the extreme haters, that we don’t have the luxury of discussing where hate comes from,” she said.

Stern noted pressing issues that he said demand research. “My organization shows a poster of babies with the caption, “No One is Born Hating.’ I hate that poster. We aren’t born speaking either,” he said. “But if you don’t develop the capacity soon, something’s wrong.” Stern wants colleges to unite various disciplines to study such things as the nature-versus-nurture debate as it pertains to bigotry. “The academy needs to step up. In medicine they pull together chemistry, biology, psychology to help sick patients. We don’t do that with hatred.”

He added that one of the few short-term studies available showed that teaching the history of the Holocaust in some settings, with certain methods, increased anti-Jewish sentiment among students. “We can’t just say education is the key for all situations, we need accountable theories.” He added that an academic home could have provided a better arena for discussion of accusations of anti-Jewish attitudes in Columbia University's Middle Eastern studies courses. Lacking such a forum, students organized outside protests and created a video -- a process that Stern thinks was generally destructive.

Still, some wondered whether a formal program in hate studies is the answer. “I think racism in the Northeast is a lot different than in the Northwest,” said Lauren Russell, an undergraduate at the University of Massachussettes at Amherst who studies political economy. “It’s much more subtle, not like the KKK. [In the Northeast] it’s more built into some of the power structures of capitalism.” Russell said she thinks the most effective approach in the Northeast would be to encourage the examination of power hiearchies within the context of political science and economics classes that already exist.

Raymond Reyes, academic vice president for diversity at Gonzaga, waved his arms and spoke like a preacher before a congregation in describing his frustration in attempting to establish a hate studies program at Gonzaga. “This is something we need, to discuss questions like how you reconcile your theology with the quest for love,” he said. “Tolerance is not enough. You tolerate a root canal or a spinal tap, not a human being.”

Some of the administrators present thought it would be worthwhile, but difficult to establish a major or minor in hate studies. “We’d have students that would be interested in a heartbeat,” said Bil Leipold, assistant dean in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. “This is such a multidisciplinary thing, and if for a major, it needs a capstone class. How could we have one or two teachers teach a class like that? And how do we get funding for them?” he asked. “And the class would have to let students emote, not just stick to raw facts like much of academia. It would have to be a different kind of class.”


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