Final Report of the Lieutenant Governor’s Commission on the Prevention of Hate Violence
At its most fundamental level, hate violence is an aggressive expression of hatred against another person or group of people simply because of who and what they are. But an act does not have to be criminal to be an act of hate; the use of an epithet with the intent to cause fear is an expression of hate regardless of whether or not it is a crime. Thus, we have chosen to use the term “hate violence,” encompassing both explicitly criminal acts and acts of hate which we also seek to prevent.
What Causes Hate Violence?
The roots of hate violence are broad, but most causes come back to one element in the end: fear. This fear is most often rooted in ignorance: fear of the unknown, fear of the “other,” fear of perceived competitors; all of these hold the potential to generate a violent reaction under the right conditions.
“US” and “THEM”: The Nature of Prejudice
Prejudice is, at a basic level, instinctual. Many studies have been conducted to show that people habitually, instinctually are drawn to notice differences and similarities between themselves and others. This is a natural function of our desire to create order out of the chaotic world around us.
But in comparing ourselves to others, we tend to label others’ similar attributes to be desirable, and others’ dissimilar attributes undesirable. Soon we are judging whether a person is “good” (that is, we react positively to them), or “bad” (we react negatively). It is only a short jump for a stressed person from thinking “that person is bad because they are different from me” to “those people caused all my problems, and I’m going to do something about it.” (This discussion of prejudice draws heavily on the work of Dr. Norman Miller of USC and Dr. Marilyn Brewer of UCLA, who have done a number of studies of prejudice, how it is formed and how it can be broken down. Dr. Miller was a presenter at the Commission’s January 7, 1992, hearing.)
External Influences: Hate Groups, Traditional and Pseudo-Mainstream
In terms of external causes, the effort of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and other neo-Nazi organizations to preach violence against racial, religious, sexual and other minorities continue unabated today. They have hate hotlines, computer bulletin boards, hate propaganda distribution networks, youth groups, street gangs, etc. active throughout the state, pumping out a steady drone of messages designed to transform the fears of the economically distressed, the paranoid and the ignorant into violent reaction. WAR, in particular, has been adept at indoctrinating and training gangs of young skinheads to brutalize minorities and vandalize their property.
These groups recognize very clearly the psychology of the issues they raise. As former WAR youth leader Greg Withrow told the Commission, referring to his upbringing by his neo-Nazi father, “before I ever learned to hate, I learned to fear.” They are indoctrinated to believe that minorities are a threat to their way of life, to their very existence, and that the only choice is to fight back in as violent a fashion as possible.
Yet, the efforts of these hardcore white supremacist groups ultimately reach only a few sympathetic ears on the fringes of American society.
What is more disturbing and potentially dangerous is the increasing proliferation f pseudo-mainstream hate groups like David Duke’s National Association for the Advancement of White People. Duke and others of his ilk do everything possible to look, act and sound like standard interest groups simply promoting their views about society. But their messages are riddled with innuendo and code words designed to play on people’s worst fears and prejudices in order to generate hatred against the people these groups perceive to be their enemies. For example:
- The homophobic preaching of some self-proclaimed watchdog groups like the Traditional Values Coalition spread an insidious message of hate. Their adoption of loaded terms to mask or even justify their virulent hatred of gay and lesbian people has made their views acceptable for some political leaders and small subgroups of the general population.
- Ethnically based groups like the National European American Society (NEAS)… purport to be simple ethnic pride organizations, but attack U.S. civil rights laws and immigration policies as “pure genocide” against European Americans. When provoked, they revert to true form and call people of similar ethnic backgrounds who disagree with their views “race traitors” and the like. Not all European-American groups are fronts for white supremacy; some are well-intentioned attempts to mimic other ethnically based clubs and groups. But the term “European American” has been tainted by its use by groups like the NEAS and the White Student Union, an offshoot of WAR.
These pseudo-mainstream hate groups are perhaps the most dangerous. A large percentage of the population automatically tunes out messages from known racist groups like the KKK, because they know who is talking to them and what their true agenda is. But groups with a mainstream cover, who use mainstream terminology and a healthy dose of charged code-words to spread their message, can find a much wider audience.
Other Key External Influences
Most young people value the opinions of their peers highly. Many young people who have become involved and then left white supremacist groups say they joined because their friends were doing it or because they wanted to belong to a group — any group. The relative void of an American culture when compared to rich cultures like Mexican, Jewish and others may be a part of psychology at work. Joining a racist gang — or any other gang — fulfills the need to belong. In the case of a racist gang, joining may additionally meet the desire to lash out at others who have a strong ethnic, cultural, religious or even sexual identity.
Family may also exert a strong influence on attitudes regarding other people. Former WAR youth leader Greg Withrow told the Commission: “My father’s expressed ideal for me was to lead a youth movement; to be as a Hitler … I was raised in Nazi camps, I was raised with this philosophy from childhood. I knew nothing else.” Raised under these extreme circumstances, it is hard to imagine another outcome for Mr. Withrow than what occurred: heavy involvement with Aryan youth gangs and a career of several years as a WAR youth leader. While Mr. Withrow’s experience represents an extreme, many young people in California and throughout the country are exposed to parental or other familial prejudices in the course of day-to-day living. These attitudes coming from important role models will inevitably affect how they view others.
A related issue is the new economic realities of the family. Kids today are the first generation in this century to know that they are unlikely to improve on the standard of living their parents enjoy. For many of them, this has darkened their outlook on life and nurtured a feeling of victimization which may in extreme cases demand some kind of retaliation.
The mass media play a key role in shaping popular attitudes, especially among young people. The vast majority of young people today watch several hours of television per day, much of it unsupervised by parents. the portrayals, or lack of portrayals, of various types of people on the programs they watch inevitably shape their attitudes about those groups.
This is especially true in homogeneous neighborhoods where students may have virtually no firsthand exposure to people of a different background. In such case the only information a young person may have with which to form an opinion about a group of people is what they see on television, in the movies or in popular music. If stereotypes or negative portrayals of members of a group are all they see, they are likely to adopt negative preconceptions about members of that group.
Some political figures today are willing to fan the flames of bigotry in order to advance their own interests and careers. We have seen rampant examples in recent years of political campaign ploys that are permeated with racist and homophobic connotations. The appearance that political figures and even some government leaders approve of these views gives them a veneer of respectability that they do not deserve. young people who see leaders using these kinds of tactics and drawing a following may conclude that there is nothing wrong with race-baiting or gay-bashing.
Given the multiplicity of sources and the instinctual nature of prejudice, when addressing hate violence we cannot afford to focus more than a small portion of our efforts on responding directly to specific sources of negative messages. We have to focus most of our efforts on the broader goal of inoculating the next generation so that they can reject those who try to infect them with hatred for others.
This is a publication of the Lieutenant Governor’s Commission on the prevention of Hate Violence. May 1992. For further information on this report contact CAHRO.