The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

A Selection of Viewpoints about Backlash

From the Rights Stuff Newsletter, Fall 2009

As American culture changes and groups long without a voice speak up, other Americans are shouting back. To some, our country seems more divided, and the conversation more heated, than ever.

In this Rights Stuff Forum, we present a selection of viewpoints from those who have observed or experienced firsthand the increasing tendency to lash out – from hostility to hate speech – that finds its way into news reports, online blogs and everyday conversations. How can we get beyond the rage to a more civil discourse? Here eleven Minnesotans share their perspectives.

Note: The information and interviews in this section appeared in the Fall 2009 edition of the Department of Human Rights newsletter, The Rights Stuff. The newsletter includes additional material related to this topic. The views expressed are those of the individuals interviewed and not necessarily those of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

Introduction & Overview

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In 1991 Wall Street Journal reporter Susan Faludi published "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women," a cultural manifesto in which she declared that the victories of the feminist movement had spawned a powerful reaction from those who sought to roll back hard-won gains.

In America in 2009, it appears to many as if we are in the middle of numerous wars — a never-ending series of cultural battles being fought over the rights of women, gays, immigrants, Muslims, the poor, and just about any group that is perceived as staking a claim for its slice of the American dream. The skirmishes are perhaps part of a new, larger undeclared war, in which Americans on one side have articulated a variety of cultural and political grievances, but seem to have found and fear one common enemy: change.

"You're looking at people who think that their culture and their beliefs are disappearing, which to some extent is true," comments Jerry Carrier, a lecturer and trainer on diversity, class and American culture. America is becoming more polarized, Carrier adds, and as some groups long excluded become more visible and vocal in their quest for equal opportunity, others are convinced that these gains are being made at their expense. "Now somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of people in this country are certain that they are getting short shrift in all this — that either women, or minorities, or someone is getting more than they're getting, and getting it because they have an unfair advantage," Carrier explains.

The Many Faces of Backlash

The backlash — and the urge to strike out against someone else's perceived undeserved advances — comes in many forms, from a disapproving glance at a mother on "welfare" using food stamps at a grocery store, to a snide comment about disabled people getting all the good parking places, to hate crimes. But perhaps nowhere is the anger more evident than in the pages of our daily newspapers, which have adapted to the internet age by giving readers the opportunity to post comments on news stories online. "There is a lot of hatred out there," says Terry Sauer, Assistant Managing Editor for the Star Tribune, who is in charge of the paper's online presence.

So much venom has already been spewed in its columns, that the Star Tribune has declared eight topics off limits for reader comments. Among the topics on which comments are no longer allowed are racially sensitive stories, crime, gays, and Muslims. Stories related to Muslims are particularly likely to inflame passions. Before the Star Tribune banned comments on Muslim-related stories, discussions would frequently be undermined by "just a horrible series of hateful comments," Sauer recalls. "We need to have a good dialogue, and not just this hatred spewing on any topic that Muslims are referred to."

The comments have become so outrageous that the Star Tribune has recently hired moderators to review all reader contributions, in most cases within two to five minutes after they are posted. Now that moderators can maintain some control, the banned subject areas (including stories about Muslims and gays) will soon be opened to reader comments once again. But moderators will review all comments in these categories — before they are posted — to preempt any hateful attacks.

The internet typically allows Americans to lambast and villify others anonymously, a fact lamented by critics who argue that anonymity encourages hateful and irresponsible speech online. Sauer and other online editors argue that even if posters were required to use their real names, it would be virtually impossible to check to ensure that they are who they say they are. And while the ability to hide behind a screen name might contribute to online incivility, there seem to be plenty of people who are quite willing to attack others publicity, with no need to hide.

Verbal harassment is increasingly common. Some incidents make headlines: In 2006, a Rochester woman driving a minivan reportedly followed a terrified female Muslim driver, who was wearing a traditional headscarf, into a parking lot and confronted her about terrorism and her Islamic religious beliefs. Although the driver argued that her conduct was protected by the First Amendment, a court found her guilty of stalking and imposed a $3,000 fine and a jail sentence (the sentence stayed on the condition that she perform community service).

Backlash can also take the form of sexual harassment, according to University of Minnesota sociology graduate student Heather McLaughlin, who recently completed a well-publicized study that found that women who hold supervisory positions are more likely to be sexually harassed at work than women who are not supervisors. Although more research needs to be done, she says, her study suggests that a backlash occurs as women move into positions of power. "They're threatening the dominant position of men in the workplace, and that's why they are experiencing harassment."

As with other forms of harassment, the comments can be brutal — and revealing. In the study, woman managers in male dominated industries talked about experiencing sexual harassment from men who believed that women should be secretaries. The sexual harassment — unwelcome discussions of sex and suggestive stories — was often accompanied by other backlash designed to undermine the female manager's authority, including comments like, "if we had someone with balls in this position, we'd be getting things done,'" McLaughlin explains.

But often backlash can be subtle, even hiding under a veneer of Minnesota nice. While anti-Muslim hate speech may be rampant on the internet, "most of the stuff that we experience is so intangible. It's a general sentiment, a feeling, a way someone is treated," say Taneeza Islam, Minnesota Civil Rights Director for CAIR-MN (Council on American Islamic Relations). "You go to the restaurant and everyone is given a seat at a table except you and your family, who wait for half an hour. Or you're seated at the booth but not served for 45 minutes, while everyone else is."

Then, sometimes, it can explode, and result in a bias-motivated crime. Whether bias or hate crimes are becoming more common in Minnesota depends upon whom you ask. A report by Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the Department of Public Safety found that there was a 9 percent decrease in bias offenses reported for 2008, compared to 2007. Critics argue, however, that statistics from law enforcement agencies may significantly understate the true incidence of bias crimes, especially violent crimes. Because they may not want to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity, GLBT victims may be reluctant to contact the police. In contrast to law enforcement statistics, a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which advocates for the GLBT community, concluded that anti-GLBT violence in Minnesota increased 48 percent from 2007 to 2008. Others who may fear contact with law enforcement, leading to under-reporting of bias crimes, include undocumented immigrants, as well as those here legally who may feel increasingly targeted and vulnerable.

The Many Targets of Backlash

The Muslim community has been viewed by some with suspicion and enmity ever since 9-11, but recent news reports about Somali youth disappearing overseas may have added fuel to the stereotype that Muslims are terrorists. "I think that especially with the missing youth stuff, the Somali community specifically feels kind of under the gun in how they are being treated," says Islam, who herself has been told she ought to go back to her country. "The joke is always, I was born and raised here," says Islam. "I could go back to Michigan, but that's not very far."

The "go back where you came from" mantra seems to be aimed increasingly by some at immigrants in general, but especially at Hispanics. In Southern Minnesota, the National Socialist Movement (NSM) has been active and vocal, showing up at educational workshops sponsored by organizations like the Austin Human Rights Commission. "They're a small group locally, but they're loud," says Kirsten Lindbloom, chair of the commission. The NSM has organized rallies in the Austin area, which has brought organizations seeking immigration reform out into the streets to oppose them. "You've got both sides standing in downtown Austin on the other ends of bullhorns, yelling," says Lindbloom. "It's pretty intense."

The hostility toward immigrants comes in many forms, and can rear its head unpredictably, even on a nice Sunday afternoon. "We've heard of cases where people are just walking in the park with their kids, and they hear racist words coming from drivers and people going by," says Ernesto Bustos, a community organizer for Centro Campesino, an organization that advocates on behalf of Hispanic/Latino immigrants in southern Minnesota. Bustos sounds almost used to it, and says it it hard to measure if anti-immigrant sentiment has really increased in Minnesota lately. "We have the Nazi groups in the area, so it can seem like there is more. But really it just moves around — kind of like a virus, or the flu."

Another group targeted by a history of hateful online comments, gays appear to be increasingly targeted for backlash, even as some polls show Americans becoming more accepting of gay marriage and President Obama vows to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "We are becoming much more accepting of the GLBT population, and as that happens, the folks who are opposed to that are getting strident about it," notes Carrier. The stridency can cross the line to become dangerous. The number of GLBT people killed in bias-motivated incidents increased by 28 percent in 2008 compared to a year earlier, according to a national coalition of advocacy groups. "What we're also seeing, more disturbingly, is the increase in the severity of violence," said Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project which coordinates the coalition, has been quoted as saying.

But backlash — that simmering anger fueled by the feeling that someone else has something they really don't deserve, and they got it at your expense — seems to increasingly target those who you might not expect to in its crosshairs. An Accessibility Specialist for the Minnesota State Council on Disability, Margo Imdieke Cross has seen a growing backlash against those in the disability community. "I think that as our society becomes increasingly self-centered, that anger is out there," says Cross. That means for people with disabilities, "as we increase or exercise our individual rights, people get angry if they are not equally applied to everyone. And sometimes they can't be."

But perhaps you don't need to have much to be a target of someone else's resentment and rage. Those who receive government assistance have long been vilified by some as lazy or "welfare crooks," but one doesn't need to be getting "welfare" to be seen as a burden to society, deserving of scorn — one just needs to be poor. As America remains in a economic recession, some Americans seem to hate poor people more than ever, and find the homeless, especially, to be easy targets. Violent, unprovoked attacks against homeless people have risen steadily over the past decade, according to a just-released report from the National Coalition for the Homeless. The increase has prompted Maryland to add attacks against the homeless to its bias crime statute, and at least five other states are considering doing so. A bill has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to make attacks on the homeless a federal hate crime and require the F.B.I. to collect data on it.

What's Behind the Backlash: Why are so Many So Angry?

The reasons so many Americans seem inclined to lash out at others may have a lot to do with an economy in turmoil, many observers agree. "There is a lot of research that shows that in times of heightened economic competition, what is seen as racial or religious strife often has an economic component to it," says Joseph Gerteis, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. "People are out of work, and along with losing their job, are losing access to health care. There is resentment about that — you've got something I don't, and I want it," agrees David Hancox, Director of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living.

Mike Knaak, Assistant Managing Editor of the St.Cloud Times, believes the incivility and outright racism that can crop up in reader comments on his newspaper's web site is also born of economic frustration. "These are tough times for folks. They feel threatened and challenged, and they are scared, and some people express that emotion in different ways — sometimes it's to lash out," he says. Carrier sums up what may be our economic zeitgeist. "The pie is getting smaller and smaller, so competition for that piece of pie is getting a lot more intense. And everybody is sure that everyone else is getting a larger slice," he observes.

But the economy is surely not the whole story. One reason there seems to be more incivility, is that in the Internet age, there is more opportunity to lash out, and to do so anonymously if one wishes. "I really do think that the norms of discussion have changed, so that in the Star Tribune, for example, you see more angry and seemingly unhinged commentary than you would have in past years. That's a manifestation of the anonymity of Internet chat rooms," says sociologist Gerteis. "I also see it in e-mail... the expected civility and formality of written communication is not there anymore, in quite the same way that it was in past years."

The fact that America is changing drastically demographically is also causing some people to feel threatened and challenged, even if they are getting by or doing well economically. In Minnesota, the numbers of Latinos, blacks and Asians are projected to more than double over the next 30 years, while the white population will grow slowly and decline in some parts of the state, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center. By 2035, all regions of the state will become more racially and ethnically diverse than they are now, and already diversity has come to nearly every corner of our state, from urban areas to the suburbs to small towns, catching many Minnesotans by surprise. "When I first moved to town 14 years ago, there was a nonwhite community but it has grown significantly," notes Lindbloom, who is also an Austin teacher. "In Austin's public schools roughly 45 percent of our kindergarten class this year is not white."

The traditionally white suburbs are also seeing a wave of newcomers. "The largest group of immigrants that have been coming in are the undocumented Latinos," says Peg Kennedy, Cultural Services Manager for Roseville Schools. The latest group, landing in Roseville with assistance of refugee resettlement agencies, are the Karen from Myanmar (Burma), a group that is expected to eventually be larger than either the Hmong or the Somali populations in Minnesota, Kennedy has been told. "That's shocking to me," she says. Roseville's once predominately white school district is considered 36% ethnically diverse, and those numbers will certainly climb.

How have the newcomers been received in inner-ring suburbs like Roseville? "My experience with the community is that if you take the unknown out — if they know who is here, why are they here, and what are their customs — people are very open," says Kennedy. "But if they don't know who the strangers are who are moving in next door, that's where you get a lot of fear."

When Somali students started arriving in Roseville, soon after 9-11, "we did have a few speedbumps," Kennedy says, with respect to community reaction. As the schools accommodated the Muslim students' need to pray by providing prayer space, some parents were also concerned about the role of religion in the schools. "There was a little backlash — parents thought there would be less resources for their child," Kennedy explains. But "we don't take away from other students when we provide additional services to some students," she adds.

For some Americans, there may be no more obvious sign that their country has changed dramatically than the election of President Barack Obama. "The big change has been the election of a black president," says Gerteis. "There are folks who just can't accept that there is a black president, and that might be a moment around which a lot of these underlying claims come to be expressed." Those underlying claims are goals and grievances of those on both sides of the political spectrum, which were brought into sharper focus in the presidential campaign. The election of Obama seems to have proved to be a pivotal moment, in the aspirations of those on the left and the right, for their view of what America ought to be.

It is the right that is the most excitable now, and their voices tend to be the most strident, but that stridency goes back and forth, says Knaak of comments posted by readers of the St. Cloud Times. "The conservative comments we get are harsher than the liberal comments, right now. But it was probably the other way around a year ago, toward the end of the Republican reign."

Solutions — Where Do We Go From Here

Despite the fact that America seems increasingly polarized, incivility appears to have reached new heights and people sound more angry than they used to be, there is still reason for optimism, some social observers say. Things aren't as bad as they seem and most people aren't as agitated as those whose opinions dominate cable news, talk radio and internet blogs, some who have studied American opinion insist.

"There are often fringe movements that drive the national media and the national discussion," maintains Gerteis. "It's not that those movements aren't important, but you have to look at where the average person is. And when you see a broad cross-section of Americans, it doesn't look as polarized and antagonistic as that."

Things could be worse — and in fact, they often have been. There have been plenty of times in American history when it seemed as if the country was coming apart, yet it held together. "In the late 60s and early 70s, it was the left that was radicalized... this seems like the same kind of moment, except for the right," Gerteis observes. The fact that we survived the turmoil of the 60s doesn't mean that there wasn't violence, and there is the potential for increased violence today, he warns.

If one looks back further in history, says Gerteis, there were moments when partisan struggles between political parties were every bit as hot as today. "In the election of 1892, there was huge election fraud, and groups were just at each other's throats — there were killings and all sorts of things, neighbor against neighbor stuff," Gerteis continues. "These kind of moments cycle through."

Before the current cycle of incivility and divisiveness ends, the country is likely to experience a bit more social turmoil, some believe. "I think things are going to get a lot more intense before they get better," says Carrier. "It's kind of like a lightbulb — it burns brighter, before it burns out. That's exactly the pressure that you're seeing. It's a pretty predictable thing in terms of cultural anthropology."

Does that suggest people of goodwill are helpless to curtail backlash and encourage a more respectful dialogue? That all we can do is wait for better, more tolerant times?

There is plenty we can do, particularly in our own communities, say those who have studied social movements. Although it may be difficult in times of backlash, one thing to do is to get involved in organizations that bring people together for local interests, even if their broader political views are opposed. "Neighborhood organizations or PTA groups that support a local community around a neighborhood or around a school — that can do good things to support communities and knit people together, even though people might be opposed in lots of other ways," suggests Gerteis.

In other words, get to know your neighbors. In times of backlash, Americans need to get acquainted again, even if they don't agree with each other. "It's real easy to be a racist if you don't know anybody of a different race," notes Carrier. "It gets more difficult when you start knowing the folks, and having to start dealing with them on a daily basis."

The fact that our society is becoming so more diverse provides reason to be optimistic that we will learn, perhaps out of necessity, to talk to each other again. "If you lived in small-town, rural Minnesota even 10 years ago, your chances of running into a minority and actually working out a personal relationship with somebody of a different race was pretty small," Carrier notes. "That's not true anymore. There are large Latino, Somali and Russian speaking populations all over the state."

And while it might sound Pollyanna-ish: one can disagree with ones' neighbors without being disagreeable — one can be thoughtful and respectful, even in an online forum where civility is sometimes in short supply. "I think good speech drives out bad speech," says editor Knaak, of the reader comments posted in the St. Cloud Times online. "I think the way to drive out the people who just want to be obnoxious and offensive is to have more of the good stuff." He believes that "free speech has with it some responsibilities, and one of them is articulate, logical arguments."

There is much that can be done. And unlike real venom, for that poison that is spewed in hateful comments on the internet and angry voices on TV, it's never too late for an antidote: equal parts reason and compassion just might revive civility and promote an end to backlash, especially if applied locally.

"I think civility isn't dead," says Gerteis. "It might be kind of in abeyance in the public discussions, but it's not dead yet."

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