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Shawn Vestal: Battling hate, one conversation at a time

September 23, 2018

In 11th grade, living in a predominantly white Ohio town, Kristine Hoover was assigned to interview an adult about their career.

She chose an African-American man who worked as a nurse.

“He told me heartbreaking stories about a small, rural community, where people would cross the street and not pass him,” Hoover said. “He would have to explain to his young daughter why that happened.”

That interview made a powerful impression, she said. Putting herself in the shoes of that little girl, she connected to the experience in a vivid way.

A personal way.

Now, as the director of Gonzaga’s Institute for Hate Studies, she’s leading an effort to interrogate and better understand racism and hatred – what makes people cross that street, how does such hatred play out in society and in the Northwest, and what we can do to fight it.

“My goal is for us to understand the complexity of addressing hate in living together,” Hoover said.

The institute is marking its 20th year in existence; it was the “world’s first academic unit devoted to innovating the field of Hate Studies,” according to the International Network for Hate Studies. It was formed in 1998, in the wake of racist incidents on campus directed at African-American law students.

That was also the year the Aryan Nations held its first parade in downtown Coeur d’Alene, and people all across the Northwest were struggling with the newest iteration of the region’s history as a haven for white supremacists.

Twenty years later, the names have changed and the groups are different, but the underlying challenge remains. Emboldened white supremacists, white nationalists and members of the alt-right, united and inflamed by social media, feel more welcome now in the public square. Hate crime reports have spiked in the past two years, according to FBI statistics.

And we in the Northwest have our sorry piece of it – with a newcomer in Sandpoint sending out anti-black and anti-Semitic robocalls, and a prominent young alt-right white nationalist trying to wreak havoc in the local GOP, and a rise in hit-and-run, anonymous distribution of stickers, flyers and graffiti.

The institute is responding. Hoover and her colleagues host conferences, have developed new ways of teaching about hate across different disciplines and are building a digital research archive chronicling white nationalism and particularly the rise and fall of the Aryan Nations in North Idaho. They also publish the Journal of Hate Studies.

The journal’s upcoming issue this fall focuses on the resurgence of hate crimes and divisive rhetoric in the 2016 election. The journal draws papers and guest editors from universities around the country. One of the guest editors for the upcoming issue is David J. Leonard, a professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University.

“Academic work is seen as detached, as distant,” Leonard said. “But clearly, in our current moment, a special issue on the 2016 election – we’re right in the midst of it.”

He said the journal, and the institute’s overall work, is an attempt to connect with the larger community, in developing understanding and fostering communication.

“All the work I do and the work being done by the institute through the journal is trying to bridge between everyday conversations and academic research,” he said.

Reaching out

For Hoover, that connection to the wider community is crucial – through research and support for people working against hatred, and through fostering conversations in which people can discuss difficult issues in respectful ways.

She came to Gonzaga from Bowling Green University in 2009, and she teaches in the master’s program in organizational leadership. She was named the director of the Hate Studies Center in 2016 – even as political rhetoric on racial subjects was becoming more divisive and actual hate crime reports were on the rise.

The institute is not an activist organization, but it works to provide education and support for nonprofits and others in the community, as well as partnering with human-rights groups. In December 2016, in response to community concerns about a spike in hate crimes – including the defacement of the Martin Luther King Family Outreach Center – the institute joined with the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force and SpokaneFAVS to host a forum focused on fighting bigotry and hatred.

In 2017, it worked with two regional human rights task forces in hosting the International Conference on Hate Studies, which included events targeted at people in the community outside academia.

“I came away with a greater understanding of some of the local history, and I think that was helpful,” said Dean Lynch, a former Spokane City councilman and the head of the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force. “The institute has really started reaching out and becoming more involved with the community.”

Tony Stewart, a founder of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and a regional force against racism, was one of the speakers at the first event hosted by the institute – which was then called the Institute for Action Against Hate. He’s now working with Gonzaga on efforts to create the digital archive chronicling white nationalism across the region and beyond.

That includes case studies that Stewart has gathered in communities that have taken steps to resist racism. He and others helped establish a model for community resistance in Coeur d’Alene, based on two simple principles: 1) Never stay silent in the face of public displays of racism. 2) Respond without confrontation, usually by hosting an alternative event.

“Beyond that, each community does it its own way,” Stewart said.

Such tactics can be useful for students as well as for people working in other organizations throughout the community to ask themselves, “What would you do in your community?” he said.

Hoover said such community engagement will grow as a focus of the institute, whether through the archive or community-based research or its next major conference. On April 2-4, Gonzaga hosts “Building Peace Through Kindness, Dialog and Forgiveness,” the fifth-annual international conference on hate studies.

“We exist for a purpose – to make a difference, to have an impact in the community,” she said.

Ongoing commitment

The recent resurgence in racial divisions has left many with a sense of despair and fury. Where is there hope that fighting hatred – in universities or on the streets – can work?

For Hoover, the hope comes from the many people she works with who are engaged in the fight, and from the faith in trying to foster important but difficult conversations among people who differ.

Hoover also said that opponents of racism have a responsibility to engage and listen, even if the impulse is to shout and denigrate.

“Should I hate the hater, and is there some hypocrisy in that?” she said. “That’s an important question to ask. How can I have my best impact?”

Lynch agreed.

“Success for me is when we have a marked, clear improvement in the willingness to listen and learn from each other, and to acknowledge we’re all different people and we all have different perspectives,” he said.

That includes, he said, being slower to denounce. “Every time someone disagrees with you, you don’t have to presume they’re racist or homophobic or Islamophobic or whatever it is,” he said.

She tells the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was raised by the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, before turning away from it. The Kansas-based group has made a notorious name for itself with inflammatory hate speech and its anti-gay demonstrations at military funerals. The group made a controversial appearance in Spokane in 2010.

“She was an example of someone who was completely acculturated (in a hateful movement) and she came to see the world and human relationships in an entirely different way,” Hoover said. “People responded to her with kindness and love, and eventually, she actually married one of those people.”

A similar example is found in the new book, “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist,” written by Portland author and Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow. Saslow’s book details the story of Derek Black, who was raised among some of the key figures in American white supremacy and had become a voice of white nationalism before repudiating those ideas.

A key element of Black’s change of heart came after attending regular Shabbat dinners to which he was invited by an Orthodox Jew at his college. He made friends at those dinners, and those friendships began to influence him away from the beliefs he had grown up with. Saslow comes to Spokane on Monday to discuss “Rising Out Hatred” with The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club.

Just as Hoover was influenced by the stories of people refusing to share a path with an African-American, she said she also was influenced by a tradition on her grandparents’ dairy farm – the regular meal shared among people from all backgrounds who worked there.

“On Sundays, we would stretch the dining room table out from the kitchen to the living room, and we’d get out every chair in the house and have Sunday dinner,” she said.

Sunday after Sunday – a metaphor for how conversations across differences must be joined in a personal way.

“It’s an ongoing commitment,” she said. “We can’t become complacent.”

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