I am no historian, but I have a feeling that people have been hating each other for hundreds of thousands of years. Only after a wave of hate-related crime in the 1980s did the term “hate crime” become widely used. Curiously enough, while the original purpose of the term was to classify a set of crimes perpetrated against minorities, people are starting to use the term in an attempt to perpetuate violence against minorities, specifically Black people.
What am I talking about? I am writing to answer Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s question on Fox & Friends, “Why has the #BlackLivesMatter movement not been classified yet as a hate group? I mean, how much more has to go in this direction before someone actually labels it as such?”
(Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Fox News)
Hasselbeck was responding chiefly to two recent events: a #BlackLivesMatter protest march at the Minnesota State Fair and the shooting of White Police officer Darren Goforth. During the protest, some marchers chanted “pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon” in reference to police officers. This chant disturbed viewers who were still shaken by Goforth’s death, particularly because his suspected killer is Black. Although Hasselbeck gave her opinion following these two specific events, her bewildered tone implies that she thinks the #BlackLivesMatter campaign should have been labeled a hate group long ago.
It does not help Hasselbeck’s case that she made these comments on Fox News, a network that the political left scorns for misrepresenting information to promote their political agenda. To no one’s surprise, left-leaning news sources have come to the defense of the #BlackLivesMatter movement with characteristically refined rebuttals that most Fox supporters probably won’t ever read. Unfortunately, the mere setting of her question fuels all sorts of polarized hate—Republicans versus Democrats, supporters versus skeptics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, fans of Fox News versus fans of the Huffington Post, and Whites versus people of color.
But regardless of which news network pays Elisabeth Hasselbeck or who Elisabeth Hasselbeck is, it is undeniable that she asks an important question. So let us investigate: Why hasn’t the #BlackLivesMatter campaign been labeled a hate group?
Simply put, because the primary purpose of #BlackLivesMatter is social change, not hate or violence.
Hate groups have one primary focus: promoting hate against groups of people. The Southern Poverty Law Center, co-founded by the late Civil Rights hero Julian Bond, defines hate groups as organizations or movements that aim to “attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for [things they can’t change].” These things may be race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender, among others.
Part of Hasselbeck’s mistake is that her ears perk up to one chant at one rally of a movement that has been at work for years. In other words, she fails to see the big picture of #BlackLivesMatter. If the chanting at the #BlackLivesMatter protest in Minnesota represented the core of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, then it would be right to call the group a hate group; however, no matter how hateful the chant seems, it does not represent the group’s primary purpose: profound and lasting revision of the systems and institutions that disempower Black people.
In Hasselbeck’s defense, verbal violence can incite physical violence. Ehud Sprinzak, a counterterrorism expert, makes an important distinction between verbal and real violence. Verbal violence uses extreme language to imply a real physical threat or to call indirectly for others to harm someone physically (see Ehud Sprinzak, Brother against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination New York: The Free Press, 1999). Sprinzak notes that while most people know not to confuse this with real violence, verbal violence has the potential to incite less discerning people into acts of real, physical violence. So, it is possible that chanting “pigs in blankets, fry ‘em them like bacon” might compel someone with a loose screw to turn metaphor into murder. However, I repeat that literally or figuratively frying police officers is not the chief aim of #BlackLivesMatter. Its aim is to change American policies such that it is no longer unobvious that Black lives matter.
Why might Elisabeth Hasselbeck believe that #BlackLivesMatter is a hate group? Personally, I interpret her reaction as par-for-the-course human behavior: cherry-picking events that support one’s preconceived notions and ignoring events that contradict them, all for the purpose of nestling oneself more comfortably into the fluffy bed of “us and them.”
Let me explain. Hate groups rarely classify themselves as hate groups without adding some kind of justification or qualification. For example, religious hate groups might justify their hatred by saying that they hate the behavior, not the person. In other words, they believe they are doing what’s right, protecting what is sacred, promoting the greater good, or building solidarity amongst themselves—and that justifies their hatred. That said, in order to classify a group as a hate group, the person classifying it cannot be a member. Therefore, when someone classifies a group as a hate group, he or she makes a strong statement that he or she does not identify with the cause of that group. “Hate group,” in a broad sense, means “not my group.”
In light of this, Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s question merely serves as a ten-foot-pole with which she can push away #BlackLivesMatter and everything it stands for. Whether she uses the label “hate group” or “terrorist organization” or “fanatic” or “anarchist” or “extremist” or “Communist” does not matter—all that matters is that she uses a buzzword on a conservative news channel that triggers her audience to harden themselves against the enemy and empty themselves of any sympathy they once had for #BlackLivesMatter. After all, how could anyone sympathize with a “hate group”? You would have to be very confused and closed-minded to do that, right? You would have to be un-American, because Americans aren’t hateful. We are reasonable people who love liberty, not like those extremists.
By using the term “hate group” to make the #BlackLivesMatter campaign seem alien to American values—a rhetorical technique called “othering”—Elisabeth Hasselbeck prevents her audience from seeing any value in the social changes that #BlackLivesMatter intends to bring about. She uses the term as propaganda to prejudice her audience against the movement and, indirectly, against Black people as a cause worth fighting for. By placing #BlackLivesMatter among hate groups, Hasselbeck confirms that the present system—her system, the status quo—is diametrically opposed to the empowerment of Black people.
Hasselbeck might as well have asked, “Why has the #BlackLivesMatter movement not been officially written off by some authority as a movement we shouldn’t take seriously?”
The answer to that question, of course, is this: because #BlackLivesMatter is a movement that we should take seriously. It has not been called a hate group because its mission is constructive, not destructive. #BlackLivesMatter activists want to reform the system, not kill police officers. They want safety for Black people, not peril for Whites. We can never forget about it, and the movement will end when being Black in America is no longer a burden of fear, but a privilege and a joy.
~ Lessie Branch,is a Public and Urban doctoral candidate at The Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy and teaches at Monroe College.