BAck row, left to right: Kelley Szany, Gilo Logan, Isaac Slevin.Front row, left to right: Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Jessica Rogers, Lecia Brooks, Echo Allen. Photo by Wendi Kromash

On Oct.  10, the audience at Evanston Township High School heard experts in hate speech – how to recognize it, how to respond to it, what it portends and what our legislators are doing to combat it. The event had been organized by the ETHS Speech and Debate Team, the ETHS Student Senate and the Democratic Party of Evanston. U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (IL-9) was there to be interviewed by two students, and student leaders from the Speech and Debate Team and the Student Senate presented mini-debates after each speaker. The program was moderated by Echo Allen, President of the Student Union; all the students involved are seniors at ETHS.

The RoundTable spoke with three of the students before the program. In addition to Ms. Allen, the conversation included Isaac Slevin, a member of the Debate Team and Vice President of the Student Union; and Jessica Rogers, a member of the Student Union and a board member of Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR). Ms. Allen explained that last year, the Speech and Debate Team hosted two students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida as part of a well-received public program against gun violence. This year, the students wanted the program to be a realistic and productive conversation about hate speech.

The students have been honing their positions with each other and with their faculty advisors, Michael Pond, a history teacher who also sponsors the Student Union, and Jeff Hannan, a debate and English teacher who coaches the Debate and Speech team. They wanted to ask meaningful questions of the speakers to elicit “responses of substance,” Mr. Slevin said. They practiced how to ask follow up questions respectfully if the original question was not answered. Ms. Allen said she was eager to explore difficult topics, such as free speech vs. dangerous speech? She said, “We need to be able to understand these issues and discuss them, because otherwise we are not preparing students for the real world.” They were eager to talk with Rep. Schakowsky.  Mr. Slevin said, “She’s been in Congress for 11 terms. She is the Senior Chief Deputy Whip. She has a lot of power and can tell us what is really happening in Congress.”

The three experts who spoke were Lecia J. Brooks, Chief Workplace Transformation Officer at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC); Kelley Szany, Vice President of Education and Exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum; Dr. Gilo Kwesi Cornell Logan, a diversity consultant, trainer and co-author of a new District 65 curriculum, “Power, Profile and Place of the N Word.”

Documenting Hate Groups, Hate Speech and Violence

Ms. Brooks’s presentation focused on specific actions within the past few years that qualify as hate speech. She documented how the current administration is intentionally setting in place policies to disenfranchise voters of color. “There is no way to skirt around the fact that the Republican Party has shifted to the right,” she said. Since 1990, the SPLC has published an annual census of hate groups that they share with law enforcement officials. They maintain a “hate map” of the U.S. that identifies the location and ideology of each hate group. Ms. Brooks displayed the hate map from 2018; every state had at least one dot, and Illinois had 31.

Ms. Brooks recounted disturbing trends and facts. A sample: 40 people in the U.S. died in 2018 at the hands of white supremacists. In 2018, there was a 50% increase in the total number of white nationalist groups over the prior year. Of more than 1,600 extremist groups tracked by the SPLC, 612 are active anti-government groups and more than 150 of those consider themselves to be “militias.”’ Hate groups are increasingly more male chauvinistic, misogynistic, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ.

Some of the groups go by innocuous-sounding names like Proud Boys and Identity Evropa. After the presidential election in 2016, the SPLC noted a surge in bias incidents across the country—1,094 in the first 34 days. The Trump administration has cut funding from $21 million in 2017 to $2.3 million in 2019, and canceled grants awarded by the Department of Homeland Security to organizations working to stop domestic terrorism and right-wing extremism. Key posts in the current administration are or have been filled with people who have ties to hate groups, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. The President repeatedly re-tweets false information and spews lies supporting his anti-Muslim and xenophobic rants.

Ms. Brooks assured the audience that the threat was real and white nationalist ideology was now a part of national policy. Damage from hate-related violence is not a series of isolated incidents; they happen more frequently and are fueled by the Internet. Anti-Semitism – which has been around for centuries—is a blueprint for white nationalism.  She emphasized that we as a country must pay better attention and must react to the growing threat of white nationalism and white supremacy.

The hate groups thrive on unfounded rumors of “white genocide” and “blacks taking over.” One theory about the rise in hate groups points to the anxiety among men who feel they are being denied a certain position in life, one that was promised to or expected by them, and anyone who is not white, male, Christian and straight is infringing on their ”rights.”  The U.S. Census Bureau data forecasts people of color will be in the majority by 2040, which only fuels the hatred of white supremacists.

The President is actively ratcheting up the fear and anxiety in the country by demonizing immigrants and spreading conspiracy theory rumors, which are expedited and spread unimpeded by the internet. He demonizes the press, saying the press lies to the public and hides facts. In reality, immigration has always had ebbs and flows, and there are other times when immigration surged in the U.S. 

Ms. Brooks encouraged the group to go to the SPLC’s website for additional information and printouts with ideas for combatting hate speech for educators, kids, and others. Most of all, she advised, “Don’t be afraid to take hold of the narrative and speak up.”

A Historical Look at Genocide

Ms. Szany used the lens of history to show how bigotry and genocide have always been with us. She read a series of quotes, verbal snapshots from authoritarian regimes across the boundaries of time and geography, to show how genocidal killing is the same everywhere, regardless of when and where it takes place. She mentioned Armenians killed by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1917; Jews killed by the Nazi regime, 1941-45; Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79; genocide and ethnic cleansing of Bosnians by Bosnian Serb forces, 1992-95; Rwandan genocide of Tutsis by Hutu extremists, April to July 1994; deaths and mass exodus from Myanmar by Muslim Rohingyan; Darfuri men, women and children killed by Janjaweed militants in the Sudan, 2003 and still continuing. It was a heartbreaking list of codified hate.

According to Ms. Szany, genocide occurs because of hate speech. It starts slowly, by dehumanizing the other, cultivating the fear of the other, depicting threats (falsely) so that violence against the other seems warranted. She cautioned the audience to pay attention to language, as hate speech will often describe the other as less than human, using nouns like vermin, snakes, rats, cockroaches, viruses, subhuman, bacteria, plagues, tumors. The verbiage escalates a call for action: the threat must be exterminated, what is infected must be cut out, what is rotten has to be removed. Supernatural descriptions such as more threatening or unnatural monsters serve to justify violence as a necessary measure.

Another technique used by hate groups, Ms. Szany explained, is the mirror technique. Someone within the hate group creates an incident that harms their own followers, but the incident is blamed on the group being demonized. This is often used as a reason to take violent action as a response to the so-called “attack.”

Authoritarian leaders and those who lead hate groups do not need to mention the specific group they despise, says Ms. Szany. This technique is dangerous because it leads to indifference and inaction among the general population. Another way to belittle the other is to deny their truths, accuse the victims of making up the violence or blaming them for its occurring. Ms. Szany said most genocides are preventable; there are warning signs leading up to catastrophe. The most vulnerable among the population, typically women and children, are most endangered.

Ms. Szany ended on an encouraging note with some suggestions for going forward. “When you watch the news, listen for dehumanizing language or hate speech. Get educated about the issues. Let your legislators know you are an anti-genocide constituent. It takes a long time to create change. It is difficult to stay engaged over long periods, but citizens need to be aware and stay engaged.”

The Power of Language and the N Word in Evanston

Dr. Gilo Kwesi Cornell Logan spoke about local issues. He talked of growing up in Evanston (ETHS Class of ’84), loving his community, raising his family here. But he cautioned the audience not to get swept up in thinking Evanston is the perfect liberal bubble. Racist speech exists in Districts 65 and 202 among students, teachers and parents, he said. Years ago, when one of his sons was called a racist slur, Dr. Logan saw how little published guidance was available to assist the educators in his son’s school and make the incident a “teachable moment.” That experience and others helped inspire him to develop and co-author the curriculum, “Power, Profile and Place of the N Word.”

The academically rigorous curriculum Dr. Logan co-created is aligned with learning standards and social and emotional learning by grade level. It helps children find the language they need to articulate how they are feeling. The power of language is central to any discussion of the “N” word. The curriculum includes age-appropriate books and resources for each group. The books cover all kinds of differences including racial, religious, family structure, learning style, sexual identity and income. There are also resources for parents, teachers and administrators.

As much as the Evanston community is aware of and works to combat hate speech, systemic racism still exists in City policies and funding decisions, Dr. Logan says. He cited three examples: the disparity in funding between the Robert Crown Center and Fleetwood-Jourdain; the fact that the 5th Ward is the only ward in Evanston without a local elementary school for its children; and the disparity in test scores. Being well-intentioned is not enough; we need to do better as a community, he said.

Report from the Hill

Mr. Sleven and Ms. Rogers interviewed Rep. Schakowsky, who spoke of her long history sponsoring and drafting hate-crime legislation. Some of the laws passed the House and some were bipartisan, mostly in areas of reporting and data collection. But she admitted that “It is difficult to get legislation passed now.” She cited the Hate Act (H.R. 2708 – Disarm Hate Act), which would make it illegal for anyone convicted of a hate crime to own or possess a firearm. It did not pass; not one Republican lawmaker expressed support.

She mentioned the increase in hate speech and white nationalism in Congress. Rep. Schakowsky spoke about meeting with her colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to discuss the latter’s insensitive remarks about Israel. Rep. Omar apologized, and the two women discussed where their opinions overlap and where they differ. In May they issued a joint editorial imploring Americans to take a stand against the resurgence of white nationalism, saying “…attacks on our faiths are two sides of the same bigoted coin.” 

When Ms. Rogers asked, “What can young people do now to combat hate speech?” Rep. Shakowsky replied, “Young people are the perfect demographic group to lead the way, not just in Evanston with hate speech but LGBTQ and religious bias. We [Congress] need to help amplify your voice. You live in a world that is much more tolerant than many older people.”

The representative continued, “The politics around guns  have flipped. Why? Because the students in Florida traveled everywhere, to communities of color, and led the way on this issue. The Equality Act in the House (H.R. 5 – Equality Act) passed because of young people. Look at Greta [Thunberg]. She is 16. So many examples of young people not waiting to be invited. Be brave. Be loud. Engage in conversations at every opportunity. Delve into the content.”

What Next?

For the final phase of the program, all the speakers sat on stage and answered random questions submitted earlier by the audience. Dr. Logan was asked how schools should teach literature that includes the N word. He answered, “Contextualize it, discuss the history behind it, make it a teachable moment. We need to provide contextualization to people, or they will do it themselves. Challenge authority in a respectful manner. It’s not what you say but how you say it. And if you feel uncomfortable about something, that’s a signal. Explore that. Challenge yourself.”

Ms. Szany spoke about the power of the story and the power of education, and the need to educate students, parents, teachers and the community. “We have a collective responsibility. Don’t become disillusioned. Be patient. Change will come.” Rep. Schakowsky cautioned the students to be both patient and impatient, citing the need to “educate everyone, including the police forces, institutions at every level—county, state and federal. Everyone needs diversity training.” Ms. Brooks advised, “You’ve seen how genocide happens. We need to interrupt it.”

The final directive to the audience: Make sure to vote.