To Know Our American History Is to Know Ourselves

What does the rise in hate groups and hate crimes say about our American history and American democracy when all lives should matter? 


Are we losing our humanity? If indeed “love is a many splendored thing,” as a 1950’s songwriter writes, why is it that this current moment in our American political and social history seems to be one of unadulterated hatefulness, fear, divisiveness and deliberate unkindness? For the noisy hate groups on the fringes of our nation, hate is the result of fearing difference, of fearing that the “good ole days” are a distant past, never to be repeated. But those who value diversity in true democracy will ensure that the hands of time and progress will not turn back.

It is precisely this unwillingness to accept progress that explains the rise of hate groups, particularly white nationalist groups that are actively recruiting for membership. While the days of terrorizing whole towns on the basis of racial victimization like Rosewood, Florida, are gone, church burnings, church shootings and other hate crimes are still perpetrated in the name of some alleged religious teachings and an illusory “white racial purity.” The current trend in recruiting for and promoting these desperate groups—as in recent cases in Denver, Colorado, and in Dahlonega, Georgia—reminds us that the fear of the ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual and differently abled Other is still very real.

But even as the numbers of hate groups and hate crimes increase, Americans must be mindful that such groups and heinous acts of violence have defined our nation’s very identity and landscape. What would the United States be without the genocide of American Indians? Yet indigenous sports mascots and names persist in supposed homage to American Indian culture or heritage, though it is just the opposite.

A study of American history reveals that our version of police started not as a way to fight crime, but as white males during Reconstruction who were charged with controlling freed slaves. During the same period, the Ku Klux Klan began to keep black people “in their place” through intimidation, hatemongering and race baiting. And cultural appropriation and misrepresentations were another form of keeping black people in their place.

This history—and the present that results from it—indicates that my own and my colleagues’ work in Arizona State University’s Project Humanities is needed now more than ever. We’re building and promoting comprehensive programming around seven principles: kindness, respect, integrity, forgiveness, compassion, empathy and self-reflection. In spring 2017, Project Humanities reveals the new theme song for its Humanity 101 Movement, “Humanity (Love Is in the Air),” written by the late rock guitarist Dick Wagner and produced by the legendary Motown icon Bobby Taylor of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. The song is an R&B-rock hybrid, a musical testimony and a challenge to each of us to shed our individual vanity and to meet violence with creativity. After all, what is a social movement without a song to energize and to sustain community?

The work of educators, socially conscious people and other “woke” individuals will persist. We cannot and will not lose ourselves by bending to or otherwise legitimizing the inhumane actions of those who grab the headlines and the news crawls. We will remain focused and even more vigilant to ensure that our individual and shared humanity is greater than the fear others have of American progress defined by “liberty and justice for all.” We can use our knowledge of these growing hate groups and the historical contexts of their hate to strengthen our position of resistance and resolve. As James Baldwin put it, “The great force of [American] history comes in the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Lester is a foundation professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.