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Nation & World

'Why We Hate' Author On Behavior Driving Recent Violent Attacks

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Justice Department announced this week that it will be stepping up efforts to confront a surge in hate crimes in the U.S. On Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland outlined a series of steps to implement the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act that passed after a series of attacks on people of Asian descent. And that all comes amid a wave of violent and destructive antisemitic attacks that include a Jewish man assaulted in broad daylight in New York City and vandalism directed at synagogues across the country.

And even as the country struggles to address these disturbing events, there was another horrific mass shooting, this time at a rail yard in San Jose, Calif., that left nine co-workers dead. And that marked the third such shooting in under two months. And all this has led us to ask, are these events somehow related? Is there something about the current environment in this country that is encouraging people to lash out at co-workers, at people who belong to certain groups in this way? And is this new?

To help us consider this question, we reached out to Jack Levin because he's been writing about and thinking about violence in general and hate crimes in particular for decades. He's the co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University and co-author of the book "Why We Hate." And I started our conversation by asking him if there really has been a surge in hate crimes. Or does it just feel that way?

JACK LEVIN: You know, when I first started studying hate crimes, most of them could be characterized as thrill-oriented. Most of them were committed by teenagers and young adults who would go out looking for someone to assault or bash. And the most they got out of it were bragging rights with their friends. They felt special. They felt powerful for a few moments, and that's about it. And then at the turn of the century, everything changed.

When 2001 hit us in September 11, 3,000 people died because of an act of terrorism. But after that, we saw one group after another being victimized by hate crimes. There were multiple threats. No longer did we see thrill hate crimes being committed by teenagers. Instead, we saw defensive and retaliatory hate crimes. And the question always arises now. Are hate crimes really on the rise? Have they really increased, or is it just the perception?

Well, they've really increased. It's one group after another because there are now multiple threats against the advantaged position of white America. It's not just Black against white any longer. It's now 2004 Gay Marriage Act, which threatened homophobics. It's the first African American president, which threatened whites who were racist. It's Asians who are seen as the perpetrators of COVID-19. And Jews have been seen as too powerful for their own good and operating behind the scenes. But you see, it's not one group.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about some of the motivating factors that you wrote about years ago back in 1993 with Jack McDevitt.

LEVIN: Right.

MARTIN: We talked a lot about thrill-seeking offenders. I mean, you said it back in the day that a lot of people who committed hate crimes were teenagers just looking to...

LEVIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: For drama. And so they would pick on somebody who they thought maybe they - it was basically by chance and often without warning. But they'd pick on somebody because they thought they could get away with it. What about so-called defensive offenders? What's their deal?

LEVIN: Those who commit defensive hate crimes tend to be much older than their counterparts who commit thrill hate crimes. They're not looking for the excitement. Those who commit the defensive hate crimes feel threatened. They feel that they have to protect the advantages that they have in life. And they believe strongly that certain vulnerable groups in society, those who aren't in the mainstream, are there to take those advantages from them.

MARTIN: I'm thinking about, like, Dylann Roof, for example, who killed the nine parishioners, the nine congregants at the church in South Carolina.

LEVIN: Right.

MARTIN: And he left this manifesto. He made statements to the effect of, I have to do this. Do these people believe that most people actually support what they do or are just too afraid to act? Like, do they feel that they have this notion that they are sort of on some sort of quest that, if other people were as bold as they are, would do it? Is that part of their thing?

LEVIN: Most people who commit hate crimes do not feel like villans. They instead believe that they've been victimized by the groups that they attack. They feel that other people probably agree with them but don't have the guts to carry out the violent acts that they carry out.

MARTIN: One of the things that's been striking, though, about some of these attacks in major cities - I'm thinking about...

LEVIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Particularly attacks that I've seen on Asian people, people of Asian descent - is...

LEVIN: Right.

MARTIN: ...This isn't white people necessarily. I mean, sometimes, it's white people. But sometimes, it's other people of color, right?

LEVIN: Sure.

MARTIN: And so how do you understand that?

LEVIN: Keep in mind, it's people who compete for small amounts of status and power and wealth. I remember in the days in Washington, D.C., when Vietnamese and Blacks fought one another in the streets. you know? It's people at the bottom who were fighting one another for the small amounts of power and prestige and wealth.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, knowing what you know and have studied about why people - the reasons people give for committing these types of crimes or the reasons that you have come to believe that people have for committing these types of crimes...

LEVIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...What are some of your ideas about the best way to address this?

LEVIN: We need effective hate crime laws, not only to protect the victims but also to give the symbolic value to members of our society. We need to give a message, a message to the perpetrators that we will not tolerate their intolerance. We also want to send a message to the victims that they are welcome in our community. And that can be done with laws that directly prohibit hate from taking the kind of message that we are giving right now to the most vulnerable people in our society.

MARTIN: That is Jack Levin. He's the co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University, and he's the author or co-author of many books on this subject, including "Why We Hate" and "The Violence Of Hate." We reached him at his home outside of Boston. Professor Levin, thanks so much for talking to us.

LEVIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.