ITHACA, N.Y. — Recent months have been marked with incidents of hate: the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the killing of two African Americans at a Kroger’s Market in a suburb of Lousiville, Kentucky, and about 80 miles away in Upstate New York, a plot to attack a Muslim community in Delaware County.
“These and many more incidents have been spawned by and contributed to a climate of hate. These tragedies or near-tragedies should not be understood as isolated incidents. They are symbols of long-standing patterns of institutional and systemic bigotry,” said Dr. Kenneth Clarke, interim director for the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights. Clarke’s statements kicked off a panel Thursday evening that packed the Borg Warner Room of the Tompkins County Public Library.
Hate crimes rose by 17 percent in the United States in 2017, and it was the third consecutive year there was an increase, according to data from the FBI. In 2017, of the 7,100 incidents, 60 percent of victims were targeted because of race and ethnicity, about 20 percent were targeted because of their religion, followed by 16 percent who were targeted due to their sexual orientation.
“This and other surges of hatred are inspired by anxiety about the emergence of an America that is becoming increasingly brown, in which people of color will be in the majority by the mid-21st century,” Clarke said.
A group of panelists, who included academics and community leaders, waded into some of these difficult and intersecting topics. They discussed xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and hate spurred by regarding people as “others.”
The panelists included Sean Eversley Bradwell, director of the Center for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Social Change (IDEAS) at Ithaca College; Mahmud Burton, president of the Al-Huda Islamic Center; Rabbi Scott Glass, of Temple Beth-El; Anne Koreman, Tompkins County legislator; Patricia Rodriguez, associate professor and politics and Latin American studies coordinator at Ithaca College; and Jamila Michener, assistant professor of government at Cornell University.
Clarke said in a society that values freedom of speech, it is important to express and engage in diverse views. “It is this kind of engagement that leads to critical thinking, enabling us in the words of Malcolm X, to see for ourselves, listen for ourselves and think for ourselves,” Clarke said.
The panel discussion has been condensed for this article, but you can listen to the full audio from the panel below.
Sean Eversley Bradwell opened discussion Thursday by focusing on racism and emphasizing that “racism is directional. All forms of hate and oppression are directional.”
Bradwell shared a definition of racism from Leonard Harris, stating, “Racism is a polymorphous agent of death, premature births, shortened lives, starving children, debilitating theft, abusive larceny, degrading insults, and insulting stereotypes forcibly imposed.” He also shared another definition by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, which is, “Racism is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
“In other words,” Bradwell said, “the end of racism is death.”
He said racism removes humanity and its root is money, slavery, and economic exploitation supported by violence. He said racism is the violent foundation for economic exploitation, and while the end may be death, it is often caused by economic inequalities.
So, “Why does it continue?” Bradwell asked. “It is both because of hatred, but far too often racism continues because of indifference, the lack of action, the lack of urgency, the lack of engagement in community.”
He proposed four ways in brief to eliminate racism: focus on economic injustice; truth and reconciliation; have difficult dialogues; continually focus on intersectionality.
Mahmud Burton, president of the Al-Huda Islamic Center, discussed Islamophobia, which he defined as the exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from American social, political and civic life.
“What does it mean on a local level?” Burton asked before sharing a personal anecdote. He said he went shopping with a woman from his congregation who was wearing a headscarf, and when they were approaching the store, a person coming out of the store saw them and said loudly, “This place sure is turning into a s—hole.” He said he has also heard reports of incidents from Cornell students, including one time when someone was standing at a bus stop and somebody went up to her and said if they pushed her in front of this bus, nobody would care and “don’t tell anybody that I’ve threatened you in this way because I’ll have you deported.”
“So, Islamophobia is alive and well in Tompkins County,” Burton said.
Referencing a report by the Center for American Progress in 2011 titled “Fear, Inc.,” Burton said Muslims are up against a well-funded misinformation campaign. In an updated version of “Fear, Inc.” published in 2015, the Center for American Progress found $57 million had been invested in spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric. The report notes that the figure should not be “misconstrued as a sign of widespread antipathy toward the Muslim community in the United States, although concerns remain about the rise of anti-Muslim attitudes in the United States.” Burton said the effects of misinformation and Islamophobia on a national scale trickle down to the local level.
Burton said at this moment in time, the country is deeply divided and “when we are so polarized and so divided that we cannot come together across the broad, empty middle ground, we are not serving ourselves, and in fact, we are being pawns to this set of values that has created the divide. And so if we’re going to effect a change with this, I believe that it’s incumbent on all of us to not be drawn into this game. The questions are black and white and we occupy every shade in between. …We have to learn the art of taking the conversation away from the extremes and bringing it into a contoured middle where we can talk about issues with complexity and give them context and we can listen to each other in ways that acknowledge that we are never going to share all of the same views – and that’s not necessary.”
Like Burton, a few panelists shared anecdotes of when they or someone in their communities were targeted for their race or ethnicity or religion. Jamila Michener talked about how frequently she is pulled over and the fear that sets in when getting pulled over as a person of color. Patricia Rodriguez discussed xenophobia and the prejudice against foreigners. She said as a Latin American, she has seen and felt the prejudice of xenophobia and has been suspected of being an undocumented immigrant. She said xenophobia is a systemic problem that is part of a broader trend toward “exclusion of the other” from resources and opportunities.
Rodriguez said the media presents images of refugees and migrants as traumatized, vulnerable people that lack political agency and need to be managed or other times as violent as they tear down fences. “Regardless of how they’re painted, it often means their criminalization.” As thus, she said the response is to detain people. She said it’s easier to tap into people’s emotions than to “sit down with the fact that undocumented folks contribute tremendously to the fabric of social life and the economy in this country.”
To combat this hate, Rodriguez said “instead we could acknowledge the courage of those who risk their lives to live in a safe world or those who denounce the institutional, structural, historical racism, homophobia, misogyny they experience. We could instead hear their stories as to why they’re asking for safe haven, as to where their hope comes from to one day live in a world that guarantees their human rights and dignity, their right to asylum, their protection from persecution.”
Rabbi Scott Glass talked about values instilled by family, who he said insisted that the key to living with people who “were not particularly invested in one’s inclusion was treating everyone with kindness and regard in the hopes that over time they would see you as someone worthy of their respect.” Though Glass said this may work when dealing with neighbors, it is not as effective when dealing with people “fully convinced of the rectitude of their position” and “faceless, nameless bigots.”
Glass said the 1980s was a period of “malicious anti-Semitism” in Ithaca. He said there was a campaign to deny the Holocaust and described a series of incidents directed at the Jewish community, such as the painting of a swastika outside Temple Beth-El, a bomb threat, breaking of synagogue windows and spray painting stop signs with “Stop the Jews.” He said the same message was spray painted on his house. Though initially advised not to comment publicly for fear of copycat crimes, he said local media coverage, sermons and people denouncing the attacks did eventually help stop the attacks.
From one end of the spectrum to the other, Glass said the current political climate has brought a resurgence of anti-Semitic expressions.
“I’d like to believe that my grandfather was right in teaching us that respect and kind-heartedness helped to build bridges of understanding. We may not be able to directly confront our adversaries, but it will help us to foster alliances that will serve to educate and sensitize others and at least minimize the feeling of isolation and rejection,” Glass said.
Tompkins County Legislator Anne Koreman discussed isolation and hate toward the LGBTQ community. According to the FBI’s hate crime statistics, which indicated hate crimes have been increasing in recent years, 16 percent of the hate crimes were based on sexual orientation bias and about 2 percent were based on gender identity bias. Koreman also drew attention to the statistics that LGBTQ youth disproportionately experience homelessness. While about 10 percent of youth identify as LGBTQ, they make up 40 percent of homeless youth, according to a 2012 study by the Williams Institute.
But Koreman said she wanted to focus more on things to do moving forward. She said people need to work on creating a culture of acceptance and celebrate diversity. She also encouraged people to run for office.