Elected officials and other community leaders can be important allies in the fight against hate. But some must overcome reluctance — and others, their own biases — before they’re able to take a stand.
The fight against hate needs community leaders willing to take an active role. Mayors and police chiefs, college presidents and school principals, local clergy and corporate CEOs: Their support and leadership can help your community address the root causes of hate and help turn bias incidents into experiences from which your community can learn and heal.
When leaders step forward and act swiftly in the wake of a hate incident, victims feel supported, community members feel safe, and space for action and dialogue can grow.
Too often, the fear of negative publicity, a lack of partnerships with affected communities, and a failure to understand the root causes of hate and bias can prevent leaders from stepping up. Their silence creates a vacuum in which rumors spread, victims feel ignored and perpetrators find tacit acceptance.
Steps to Take
Here are steps for a healthy community:
>> Form relationships with community leaders before a hate incident occurs. If your community group already has a relationship with the mayor, for example, you will be better positioned to ask her to make a public statement in the event of a hate crime.
>> Educate community leaders about the causes and effects of hate. Sometimes, well-intentioned leaders don’t understand that bias-motivated actions can have far-reaching effects across a community. Educate leaders about the impact of hate and the root causes of intolerance, so their response can match the incident.
>> Demand a quick, serious police response. The vigorous investigation and prosecution of hate crimes attracts media attention to issues of tolerance and encourages the public to stand up against hate.
>> Demand a strong public statement by political leaders. When elected officials issue proclamations against hate, it helps promote tolerance and can unify communities. Silence, on the other hand, can be interpreted as the acceptance of hate.
>> Encourage leaders to name the problem. Local leaders sometimes try to minimize incidents fueled by hate or bias, not calling them hate crimes. As a result, victims and their communities can feel silenced, and national hate crimes statistics become inaccurate. “Only when we know the true level and nature of hate crime in the U.S. will we be able to allocate resources in an effective way to combat it,” advises Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
>> Lobby for action. To heal in the wake of a bias incident — and to grow into a more resilient community — requires more than official statements. It also takes hard work. Ask your community leaders to walk the talk. Ask for their public support and involvement in rallies, community meetings and long-term solutions that address the root causes of intolerance.
When Leaders Show Bias — or Inaction
Sometimes, elected officials, law enforcement and community leaders are the source of bias and hate. The effects of officially sanctioned intolerance can be long lasting. It can take a special kind of organizing to fight such bigotry.
>> In early 2005, when Sheriff Mac Holcomb of Marshall County, Ala., refused to remove a public letter decrying homosexuality as “despicable” and “an abomination” from the county’s website, local residents and others from across the country wrote thousands of letters of protest. After sustained community pressure and a significant amount of media attention, the county finally removed the offensive material.
>> A week after the 9.11 terrorist attacks, U.S. Rep. John Cooksey, R-La., told reporters that everyone with a “diaper on his head” should be considered a suspect. After outcry from his constituents, Cooksey apologized, but the damage was done: His remark offered tacit encouragement for an alarming wave of hate crimes against Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs and citizens of South Asian descent.
>> When Nashville-area minister Maury Davis called Islam “the evil religion” and “the greatest threat to the American way of life” in early 2002, the local Islamic community quickly organized. Local Christian leaders also stepped up as allies, making a public stand against hate.
More Than They Asked For
When a group of residents in Montgomery, Ala., joined forces to counter the burgeoning post-9.11 backlash against Arab and Muslim Americans, they had no idea their efforts would result in the appointment of the first hate crimes officer in Alabama history.
“All that we had really hoped for was to get some sort of public statement from local leaders about the backlash,” said Trish O’Kane, secretary for the Alliance for Civility and Tolerance.
Instead, their plea to local leaders was so persuasive that within hours of meeting with ACT members, Police Chief John Wilson named the state’s first hate crimes officer.
ACT met with Chief Wilson to voice concerns about several local hate crimes against Muslims. The group also expressed their worry that other bias-motivated crimes were going unreported and undocumented.
“Security was high on the agenda, and there was a problem that needed to be solved,” said O’Kane. “I think (the police) were glad to see people walking through the door who were willing to help and who could provide them with some information about the problem.”
Before meeting with ACT, said Chief Wilson, “It was hard for us to get something off the ground, because there was nothing else like it in this area. We didn’t really know what we needed.”
Now, after community involvement, the Montgomery Police Department has one full-time hate crimes officer and another officer trained as a backup.