by Patrick Murray
This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on March 28, 2021.
New Jersey easily ranks as one of the most racially and culturally diverse states in the country. In fact, nearly one in four residents were born outside the United States. This diversity brings a vitality to life in the Garden State that can be found in few other places. Unfortunately, it brings a lot of hate, as well.
Recent reports from the state Attorney General and the Anti-Defamation League show a huge increase in the number of bias crimes and the spread of white supremacist propaganda over the past few years. While this trend has been on the rise nationally, the ADL report puts New Jersey near the top of the list for the spread of hate speech. Moreover, the Southern Poverty Law Center keeps tabs on 16 different hate groups active in the state.
The recent growth of hate activity in New Jersey has been stunning, particularly since it erased what had been a steady decline from 876 bias incidents in 2008 to a low of 367 in 2015. That number slowly started to climb in 2016, reaching 569 incidents in 2018. It then skyrocketed to 994 in 2019 and to 1441 last year.
A recent Monmouth University Poll found that more than six in 10 Americans view white nationalism as a problem for the country, with nearly half seeing it as a big problem. And New Jersey is right at the center of it.
There is no question we need to confront these dangerous ideologies head-on. But we also need to address the larger environment that gives hate groups the air to thrive. We need to find ways to starve them of that oxygen.
In any society — be it the United States, Great Britain, or Myanmar — a certain, and not insignificant, percentage of the population is willing to submit to authoritarian leadership in times of instability. This trait always lurks beneath the surface. At the same time, a segment of the public is prone to believe that one group — their group — is inherently better than others.
The intersection of these two traits — authoritarianism and intolerance — is the root of hate activity’s rise today. Stemming the rise of authoritarianism is a key component in reducing white nationalist activity. This question is what can we do about it.
The American political culture is unique among established democracies in that our “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy leads to a rather large dose of skepticism about the role of government. New Jerseyans have this characteristic in abundance. The problem is when healthy skepticism turns to an unhealthy fetish that government itself is fundamentally malicious.
That is where we stand today. A sizable segment of the public has replaced any prior trust in our political system with an unqualified faith in charismatic authoritarian leadership. The irony here is that many of these people believe that their support of insurrectionist behavior is actually “defending the Constitution.”
We need a civic revival in this country. An understanding that the longevity of our nation is not based on fealty to a particular leader or ideology but on a consensus of public trust in our political processes and institutions. You may not always get the outcome you desire, but you believe that your side will get a fair hearing.
This is not to say we can ignore the very real and very deep inequities that have been brought to the surface in recent years. But in terms of reducing hate activity, shrinking the public appetite for authoritarianism that props up this societal ill should be an important part of the broader strategy.
One of the most disturbing findings in the recent reports on hate activity is its prevalence in New Jersey’s college and university towns. These groups are recruiting young people who lack an appreciation for the norms that maintain stability in our society.
Tackling the idea that authoritarianism is an acceptable governing philosophy requires a concerted effort starting as early as possible. The New Jersey Assembly is currently poised to consider Laura Wooten’s Law, named after the nation’s longest-serving poll worker. This bill, which mandates civics education in middle school and creates a civics curriculum for required high school history courses, is an important first step.
This step will not eradicate hate crime in New Jersey, but it will begin to starve this evil of the oxygen it needs to spread.