Symposium Highlights Link Between Hate and Democracy

Three guest speakers visited campus for the “Hatred in Democracy” symposium on Oct. 19, an event sponsored by the Colloquium on Practicing Democracy. Manar Waheed, legislative and advocacy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Nadia Aziz, program manager of the Stop Hate Project, addressed attendees in the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, while Joseph J. Levin Jr., co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, delivered the keynote address over dinner later in the evening.

Manar Waheed began by addressing the title she chose for her talk: “I Need a Hero.”

“We have been socialized to think of heroes,” she explained. “But there is no hero after the [2016 presidential] election.” She critiqued the White House’s “fear-based agenda” for targeting Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities, pointing to the use of the phrase “travel ban” as a euphemism for “Muslim ban.”

“If we call it anything less than [a Muslim ban],” said Waheed, “we are sanitizing history.” She went on to address the process of “extreme vetting,” implemented by the Trump administration in March of 2017, which requires immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants to submit their social media handles for examination.

“There are no known predictors of terrorism,” she said, and argued that this form of vetting requires profiling and discrimination. She also spoke about the inhibitive implications on the free speech of people who know they are being watched by the government.

Waheed expressed her belief that President Trump’s administration is working toward a long-term movement to end birthright citizenship by first denaturalizing U.S. citizens. She believes that the fallacy that the Trump administration does not understand the implications of its actions is a dangerous one. “This administration,” she said, “knows exactly what it’s doing.”

Nadia Aziz spoke next about her work with the Stop Hate Project, which provides resources to victims of hate crimes and helps prevent future violence. As a community lawyer, she investigates the legality of forms of resistance to hate. She has helped businesses navigate how to legally refuse service to white supremacists when there was a hate rally in town.

In those cases, she recommends shutting down temporarily or advertising that portions of proceeds will go to civil rights organizations. She explained that in community lawyering, the most important component is listening. “The simple act of listening can galvanize change,” she said. “Today’s climate requires that we listen.”

Following a reception, the guest speakers joined attendees for dinner. Levin delivered the keynote address later in the evening. Levin was born in 1943 in Montgomery, Alabama and spoke about his upbringing in a city where segregation had deep roots. “I never knew anything as a kid but Jim Crow segregation … Every white person I knew was a racist,” he said. “So was I.”

However, when Levin’s work for the Army took him to Manhattan in the late 60s, his views quickly and radically shifted. He returned to Montgomery in 1971 to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has since launched many successful initiatives, including those for the improvement of both the juvenile justice system and LGBTQ life in the South.

Levin spoke of the similarities he sees between today’s world and the world he saw growing up in Montgomery. “I thought the stories of bigotry and hate were relegated to the fringes of our society. I was wrong. I see, smell and feel the 1950s and 60s,” he said.

The SPLC has tracked a shift in the hateful rhetoric the nation has seen since Trump’s election. He summarized: “In the first three months after Trump won the presidency, [the SPCL] recorded an astonishing 1,372 hate incidents,” and “nearly half of these incidents involved people referencing Trump or … ‘Make America Great Again.’” Of the statistic, he said, “This kind of overt bigotry has been justified by our president, his vice president and their various surrogates.”

Levin concluded with a challenge to the audience. “Don’t let [hate] go unanswered,” he said. “Speak up in the community. Work in the community. When you hear attacks on immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, American Muslims, racial and religious minorities, whoever the ‘others’ may be, say something.”

Jonathan Paul ’22 said that he learned a lot from attending the symposium, but he wished the speakers had been able to speak to a question that Professor Austin Sarat asked in the afternoon and others reiterated in Q&As throughout the evening: “What is the Trump administration’s self-rendering? How can we understand them in ways they would recognize?”

The speakers all indicated that they found Sarat’s question of empathy to be a difficult one and did not provide answers that Paul believed to be thorough.