Hate is on the rise in America.
Recently 10 members of a Midwest militia group were arrested for allegedly planning acts of domestic terrorism. One of their plans called for the murder of a police officer and the bombing of scores more at the victim’s funeral.
According to Mark Potok, who monitors hate group activity for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of vigilante, hate, and paramilitary groups in the United States increased dramatically in the past year. In fact, the center reports 369 new hate groups in the US since President Obama took office.
When hatred becomes a political value, disagreement can be used to justify violence. We witnessed this stark fact on Sept. 11, 2001, and on April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City.
The passage of healthcare legislation has fueled new hatred and unchecked anger has caused hate violence to enter the American mainstream. The offices of members of Congress have been attacked, and their personal property has been vandalized.
The recent violence against members of Congress came from people who were unable to manage their anger over healthcare legislation. Anger is a natural human emotion. However, when anger is experienced, it must be dealt with and managed. Left unchecked, anger can lead to hatred, and, ultimately, violence.
The hate violence against members of Congress may have been triggered by people’s anger over healthcare legislation, but much of it is rooted in a reservoir of hatred created by another major historical event: the election of the first black American president. It would be a mistake, however, to simply attribute this anger to racism. It is perhaps better understood as an expression of our society’s obsession with winning and the difficulty we have accepting what we don’t want. Mr. Obama’s campaign strategy and governing style suggest that the contemporary barrier to healthy political discourse is not racism but anger.
One year before Obama’s election, Shelby Steele, widely considered one of the brightest black American thinkers, published “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win.” In his book, Mr. Steele accused Obama of striking a bargain with whites on the matter of race: Treat me as if race doesn’t matter and I will not make race an issue. In Steele’s opinion, Obama sold out to white America, sacrificing his black identity in exchange for political success predicated on the compromise of colorblindness.
Steele underestimated Obama. He also underestimated the ability of white Americans to vote for a black man on the basis of his character.
Obama’s campaign strategy revealed a certain wisdom regarding the nature of anger: Even when anger is justified, holding on to it is ultimately self-destructive. Paradoxically, letting go of anger is empowering.
Throughout his campaign Obama followed a negotiating tactic used to resolve partisan conflicts. He shifted the focus from past grievances to present, practical concerns, allowing both parties to move beyond a past that would otherwise foreclose the possibility of moving forward.
Obama’s actions indicate that he seems to understand that regardless of past racial injustice, making race an issue typically makes white people defensive, and when people are defensive they withdraw and refuse to participate. Sometimes they become angry. His nonracial, racial strategy afforded white Americans the opportunity to avoid feeling defensive about race and to consider him not as a black candidate, but as a candidate who happened to be black.
The ability of Obama to transcend differences and traditional grievances is new to recent American politics. It suggests a politics that devalues anger, advocates dialogue and engagement, rejects hatred, and promotes hope over fear.
The rise of hatred in America and its entrance into the mainstream suggests that a line is emerging between the politics of dialogue and hope, and the politics of fear and hatred. This line marks a disturbing, but perhaps inevitable, moment in our nation’s history.
Our democracy has endured because we have been able to respect political difference and agree to disagree. We may become angry over our disagreements, but we have succeeded in protecting the right to disagree.
When anger is allowed to become hatred and hatred is politicized, the right to disagree is threatened. There is nothing patriotic about any political movement that threatens this core American principle.
Thomas McGowan is a sociology professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.