When Public Figures Normalize Hate

When public figures use their platforms for hate speech, they become responsible for normalizing feelings of bigotry that can lead to hate crimes against innocent individuals.

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Muslim women pray outside the White House on February 13, 2015, after the murder of three young North Carolina Muslims. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Muslim women pray outside the White House on February 13, 2015, after the murder of three young North Carolina Muslims. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

As hateful speech has seized national headlines and occasionally led to violent outbursts, regular Race and Beyond columnist Sam Fulwood asked his colleague Sanam Malik to reflect on the impact that demagogic language has on the nation and, in particular, American Muslims.

In the wake of the tragic attacks in Brussels this week, innocent American Muslims faced increased Islamophobic sentiments even before the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Conservative public figures—both in media and government—used the terrorist attacks as an opportunity to express anti-Muslim bigotry and fears, even asking for surveillance and torture of Muslims. Racism is and has always been an ugly reality of American history with enduring and damaging effects for us all. But when public figures in influential positions appeal to hate, something particularly pernicious occurs: They legitimize socially unacceptable behavior and normalize hate, thereby encouraging violence.

Several high-profile, public figures in Congress and the media—including Frank Gaffney, Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA), and Fox News’ Mike Huckabee—are doing just that. And the rise in reported hate crimes—especially those directed at American Muslims—reveals the damage that already has been done to the nation’s social fabric. The display of overt hateful remarks, accompanied by a lack of accountability for the social harm they produce, has given a sense of empowerment to troubled individuals who might not otherwise have acted on their racist beliefs and intolerant feelings.

Calling it a theory of “activation,” Karen Stenner, a professor of politics at Princeton University, argues in The Authoritarian Dynamic that when certain people perceive a threat to the “oneness and sameness” of their group, they can adopt riskier and more violent behaviors. Public figures and the media can certainly stoke such fear when they paint certain groups as threatening outsiders.

Facts seem to support Stenner’s theory. In 2015, the number of hate crimes against Muslims rose while that of all other categories of hate crimes fell, with 63 recorded attacks on mosques. In 2012, after then-Rep. Joe Walsh’s (R-IL) anti-Muslim statements and Rep. Peter King’s (R-NY) anti-Muslim hearings, there was an uptick in anti-Muslim hate crimes, including a man who opened fired at an Illinois mosque while it was attended by hundreds of congregants and a Missouri mosque that was destroyed by arson.

As hate speech turns into hate action, more and more ordinary Americans are registering biased views: A September 2015 YouGov survey reported that 55 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of Islam and 57 percent of all Americans and 83 percent of Republicans said that Muslims should be barred from the U.S. presidency.

Beyond reported hate crimes—and the many more that go unreported—are the negative effects bigotry has on communities, families, and children. A 2012 study conducted by a group of Norwegian psychology professors showed that in addition to experiencing religious discrimination in their daily lives, Muslims in the West are fully aware of their devalued position in society, resulting in a “distinct effect on Muslim minorities’ health and identification.” The fear of discrimination and constant dehumanization has resulted in serious mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, for both Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims, such as Sikhs, Hindus, non-Muslim Arabs, Africans, and other South Asians.

Additionally, children from these communities suffer from bullying in school—not just from fellow students but from teachers as well. According to a study conducted by the Sikh Coalition, an organization dedicated to addressing bigotry and hate crimes toward Sikhs since 9/11, 50 percent of all Sikh children have experienced bullying, including two-thirds of Sikh children who wear turbans. Similarly, veiled Muslim women and bearded Muslim men are often victims of hate crimes and workplace bullying, which results in feelings of humiliation, anger, sadness, isolation, and disgust.

What’s more, this divisive rhetoric has reached far beyond the political arena and has seeped into the public discourse, influencing the developing minds of young Americans across the country. For example, a sixth-grade Muslim student in New York was attacked in December by three of her schoolmates who ripped off her hijab and repeatedly punched her while calling her “ISIS.” It is clear that this young Muslim student was viewed as less than American by her counterparts.

Public figures in influential positions have a responsibility to condemn hate and intolerance, not encourage it.

In the months following the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush repeatedly declared that the war on terrorism should not be viewed as a war on Islam or on Muslims. The president visited the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., at least two times—once just six days after the attacks to speak out against the rise in hate crimes against American Muslims. Recently, President Barack Obama did the same by visiting the Islamic Society of Baltimore to affirm that American Muslims are an important part of the United States.

Today, the nation needs more of this kind of responsible leadership to counter the normalization of hate and to begin to repair the damage that is being done to Muslim communities, families, and children.

Sanam M. Malik is a Research Assistant for the Immigration Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

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Sanam Malik

Research Assistant

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)