When a man professing white supremacist views allegedly beat a black resident of Spokane, Washington, and pointed a gun at his head, it was more than just another of the many hate crimes being reported in the US.
It was a research opportunity for scholars at a nearby university.
Gonzaga University’s Institute for Hate Studies is among a growing number of academic centres, new courses and multidisciplinary research programmes springing up worldwide in response to an international upsurge in racism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other prejudices that are increasingly leading to violence.
“Universities have a tremendous amount to contribute to this conversation,” said Kristine Hoover, director of the institute. “If we’re going to stop hate crimes, then we need to know what leads to hate crimes. We really want to do what higher education is supposed to do, and that is to create a commitment to the greater society.”
While hateful sentiments have always existed uninterrupted beneath the surface of society, their renewed prominence is driving more of this work, said Mark Walters, co-director of the International Network for Hate Studies and a reader in criminal law and justice at the University of Sussex, which is planning to open a Centre for the Study of Hate and Prejudice.
“You might refer to it as academic activism, in a sense,” said Dr Walters. “We’re all responding to a new era of hate. In the UK, it’s the Brexit effect and, in the US, the Trump effect. We’re seeing a lot of political rhetoric that has turned more toxic, giving permission to the undercurrents that were already there, and giving them legitimacy.”
The risks to academics who wade into this minefield are evident from the disputes over whether speakers with controversial views should be allowed on campuses, or whether their critics should be allowed to shout them down. And although the research under way into these same topics has attracted less notice, the people who conduct it said that they are treading carefully.
“There’s a general perception that most academics are left-leaning,” Dr Walters said. “The right-wing media and politicians have been quick to criticise us, and I think that sometimes that has had a chilling effect on what we’re prepared to say.”
In the US, nearly 60 per cent of conservatives have a negative view of higher education, according to a survey released by the Pew Research Center in July.
Meanwhile, some liberals push back on allowing conservative voices on campus.
“It’s still a very highly charged environment, even in our classrooms,” said Susan Dicklitch-Nelson, professor of government at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College, who helps to organise the Global Barometer of Gay Rights.
Professor Dicklitch-Nelson previously taught a course called Evil Versus Good: The Struggle for Human Rights, to which she invited a one-time member of the Hitler Youth.
“I had some Jewish students in the class. It was a little tense,” she said. “But just to be able to hear the historical perspective was an incredible teaching moment for these students.”
It also relates precisely to the events going on today, including white supremacists marching with torches through US university towns, Professor Dicklitch-Nelson said.
Hearing such perspectives is sometimes as challenging as it is essential to research into hate crimes, Dr Hoover said – especially at her Jesuit Catholic university.
“The commitment to meet people in their own context is very much part of Jesuit values,” she said. “But anybody who watches the news in their own living room, whatever their perspective, may find it very difficult to listen” to hateful views.
The Gonzaga institute publishes an international Journal of Hate Studies (one recent special issue was devoted to the role of hate in the 2016 US presidential campaign) and holds a biennial international conference on the topic.
Dr Hoover and others said they hope that, in this field, academic research can produce more than journal articles and presentations, but can also propose solutions.
“I really think so,” said Dr Hoover, whose institute had to turn people away from a filled-to-capacity gathering for people concerned about hate crimes in Spokane. “There is this incredible need to be thoughtful but also to go beyond that and be proactive.”
Dr Walters, the network co-director, agreed that “that is part of our job, actually. I don’t think we can solve the globalisation of hate, but we can bring together academics and lawmakers and policymakers and practitioners so we can address this topic together. Hate studies cannot solve the problem, but it’s a really important part of the puzzle.”