President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign often targeted blacks, Latinos and Muslims for criticism. Sometimes the rhetoric sounded racist or meant to appeal to the racism of others. Does that mean ethnic and religious prejudices are rising in the United States? Let’s start with the pessimistic answer.
Following the election, the number of racial incidents and attacks seems to have risen. The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded more than 200 reported incidents of harassment and intimidation for the remainder of the week after Election Day. Before the election, anti-Semitic tweets were becoming more common and more aggressive.
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Violent hate crimes already were trending up since 2011, following an earlier period of modest decline. In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation just reported that hate attacks in 2015 had risen 7 percent from the year before. Possibly a new trend has started, and the worst parts of the Trump campaign were in part a symptom of those earlier developments. The killings of black men by police officers, and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, predate the election of Trump and can be thought of as independent warning signs that the American recipe for racial and ethnic harmony isn’t working.
Furthermore, there are structural reasons why prejudice might be rising. The United States is more polarized than it used to be, Trump’s supporters are especially likely to be white, and social media create ideological bubbles, encourage extremists and pull attention away from blander mainstream media.
In this kind of setting, it’s easy enough to see how prejudice gives rise to inflamed sentiments, and thus to more prejudice and conflict. It could be worse yet if racist sentiments or hints emanate from the Oval Office or from presidential appointees, and it is charged that Steve Bannon, Trump’s pick for White House strategist, already has a history in this regard.
But there is also a reasonable case for a more optimistic scenario.
Steven Pinker, in his historical study, The Better Angels of Our Nature, shows that there’s been a long decline in crime and violence in Western society notwithstanding some temporary movements in the opposite direction.
Some of the reported hate crimes in the days following the election turned out to be false reports or hoaxes. Initial reports are frequently untrustworthy after major events such as elections or terror attacks.
Spikes in hate crimes are common in U.S. history. For instance, after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reported hate crimes went up — but only temporarily. The United States soon returned to its normal level of hate crimes, and perhaps the same will happen today.
There is historical evidence that racist propaganda is most effective when communicated to young people and propagated through schooling. There isn’t such a danger in the United States now, when surveys show less prejudice among the young, and schools promote multiculturalism. The cultural impact of millennials will increase as they age and more of the elderly die. Nor does American big business show interest in jumping on the pro-prejudice bandwagon — quite the contrary.
It’s worth remembering that attacks targeted at minorities are hardly new. In 2014, 59 percent of religiously connected hate crimes were directed at Jews. That’s no excuse for the current wave of anti-Semitic oratory, but maybe we’re just noticing it more because of the election. Smartphones, viral videos and social media will bring the worst events to our attention.
The broader historical data suggest that discrimination can persist across many generations, and of course the United States has a long history of prejudice toward many groups. The real lesson might be “We’ve been worse all along” rather than “things are getting worse again.” That’s not comforting, but it might imply greater sustainability for what we cherish in current American institutions. The 200-plus reported incidents in election week (an annual rate of about 10,400) have to be compared with the 293,900 hate crimes reported for 2012 (note that the two numbers do not use exactly the same counting metric).
Overall, I find the pessimistic scenario to be more convincing. The United States is losing global status, and many white Americans are losing status within their own country. Inevitably, some of the blowback takes the form of prejudice. A candidate such as Trump would have been unthinkable as recently as four years ago, and that is the single most significant piece of evidence before us.
The good news is that the case for the pessimistic scenario is hardly airtight. It’s up to our leaders, and most of all up to us, to turn things right again.
Dr. Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and Bloomberg View columnist; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.