Editor’s Note: The following view is that of the writer and does not reflect the opinions of Bethesda Beat staff. 

 

In a May 16 Bethesda Beat story about a candidate for the student seat on the Montgomery County school board who was the target of Islamaphobic threats, board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said she didn’t “know if there’s more racism and bias than there was before or that people are just more comfortable being racist and biased.”  

That raises the question: Has hatred of others become more pronounced? I say no, but the use of technology and social media certainly makes it seem so.

Let me explain by relaying a personal experience.

From July 1992 through July 1993, I took an unpaid leave of absence from my job as a researcher with Montgomery County Public Schools and worked as fellow for the Teaching Tolerance Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a rare opportunity—an entire year to study and write about racism, bias, intolerance, hate and prejudice.

One of my Teaching Tolerance responsibilities was to review materials—books, films, and curriculum guides—that educators, and others, could use to help ‘teach tolerance.’ These reviews appeared in Teaching Tolerance Magazine, which is distributed free to educators.

Writing for Teaching Tolerance Magazine, I profiled books published by Alyson Publications to help better explain homosexuality and unconventional family arrangements to children. I won a journalism award for this coverage as well as writings about other instructional materials.

This was in 1993, years before the use of smartphones, email and social media and the internet became essential to our lives. Back then, weeks might pass by before public feedback in the form of a letter made its way into my mailbox after publication.

 

Sure enough hate mail arrived after some weeks had passed. But I recall that I received no more than a half-dozen negative letters. The content was the same; I was going to burn in hell because I had written about gays and lesbians. A few letter-writers said they were coming to kill me. I also remember getting a couple of calls that included threats of physical harm. If the magazine had run staff photos, readers would have known I am African American, which probably would have led to more invective.

The Southern Poverty Law Center excels at security and so I felt protected. No one came for me.

If the internet, email, smartphones, and all of the various social media tools existed in 1993, I expect that I would quickly have received hate emails and been attacked on Twitter. The Teaching Tolerance Facebook page would have been blasted with hate-filled homophobic comments.

Mrs. Ortman-Fouse is on the right track when she ponders if “people are just more comfortable being racist and biased.” I think some are, and the Donald Trump era definitely has emboldened people. If Trump has no filter, why must anyone else have one? But regardless of who is in the White House, trolls troll. They existed during the Barack Obama era, right?

But I strongly believe modern technologies simply make it way too easy to hate now. Back in the day, young people could hide from school or neighborhood bullies. Now, there is no escaping bullies online.

Research on cyberbullying is still in its infancy, but experts have warned us that the online environment is far worse when compared to traditional bullying. Enough Is Enough, an organization battling cyberbullying, describes cyberbullying as a “new playground” without “off-hours.” A 2015 Psychology Today article on cyberbullying noted that online environments are places “where a bully can attack their victim 24 hours a day” and “the intensity of cyberbullying is greater than that of traditional bullying.”

Some of us cite the intensity of cyberbullying, and perhaps new levels of cowardly ugliness, as evidence that hate is worse. But I’m not ready to go there yet. I strongly believe we are a better society today than ever before and hate is not worse. But hating is definitely way too easy, especially when a society operates without filters.

When I returned to my MCPS job, I joined the Montgomery County Committee on Hate/Violence and helped conduct a county-wide phone survey in 1994 of MCPS high school students about their perceptions of hate, bias, and prejudice. Sadly, we uncovered a great deal of hate in our schools:

  • 20 percent of the black students surveyed said they had been called a name (the n-word for example);
  • 54 percent of the white students surveyed said they had either seen or heard name-calling based on race or ethnicity;
  • Nearly half of the students who witnessed a hate incident at school knew the offender. However, 49 percent of these students said they either did nothing about the incident or ignored it; and
  • Nearly two-thirds of those who witnessed hate at school said they took no action.

Since 1995, I have periodically suggested to no avail that MCPS commit to redoing the hate/violence survey. If we had committed to conducting such a survey every five years, we would have volumes of data on hate, bias and racism. With all that data, none of us would be left wondering if hate is worse.

 

Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who retired in 2017 from a social science research firm in Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for The Montgomery Journal. His essays and editorials have been published in Education Week, The Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine.