Philanthropy's Role in Combatting Extremism and White Supremacy

Across the country and throughout the world over the last few years there has been a documented increase in hate crimes and extremist views. Massachusetts is perceived as a liberal and inclusive state; however, research shows that, over the past two years, extremist activities, including increased threats to the LGBTQ+ community, antisemitic incidents, and white supremacist actions and propaganda, are no lower than national trends.

Philanthropy has a growing understanding and recognition of the systems and thinking within our society that perpetuate injustices, including, but not limited to extremism and white supremacy. At the same time, funding to combat extremism remains low.

On March 20th we brought together Michael A. Curry, President & CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and Member, National Board of Directors, NAACP, and Peggy Shukur, Vice President, East Division of Anti-Defamation League New England, to discuss the context around the rise in extremism over recent years, gaps in efforts to stem this rise, and what philanthropy can do to address the alarming rise in extremism and white supremacy thinking and action.

 As our moderator Imari K. Paris Jeffries, the President and CEO of Embrace Boston stated, “we're in a place where even the idea of having conversation and having views that are different from our own is an act of revolution.”

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in white supremacist violence and hate crimes in Massachusetts and in the United States more broadly. There has also been a normalization of violence. Can you place that into context? 

Michael Curry: “It didn't start with George Floyd. We knew, and ADL tracked, the amount of anti-Semitism and hate crimes across this country way before we got this epiphany around racial hatred and violence. The NAACP often lifted up racial hatred and violence, which should have been disturbing before George Floyd was murdered. The pandemic sort of forced us to sit at home, as my good friend William Watkins from the Urban League says, and it gave us 20/20 vision because we had to watch over and over again: the Eric Garners, the Laquan McDonalds, the Michael Browns, the list is long, and it almost seemed weekly that we started to see this racial violence. We started to see through Donald Trump and his presidency a growing racial animus and tension and anti-Semitism. And it was being fed by the rhetoric. I would argue that it was unleashed by that campaign…but it was always there, for those who paid attention. So, I do believe that now it's time to turn all of that awareness into action.” 

Peggy Shukur: “We are seeing the normalization of hateful rhetoric which then emboldens those who hate to act on their hate. Much of this starts with extremists. People are often surprised to learn that Massachusetts ranks number two in the amount of extremist propaganda in the State, second only to Texas. We are not immune to extremism here. We've seen it in terms of swatting activities on college campuses and even K-12 schools and in many houses of worship. More recently, we have seen extremists act to disrupt civic engagement. Just this week in Concord, Massachusetts, a town finance committee was disrupted by extremists who came in posing as citizens. They interrupted the meeting with virulent antisemitic rhetoric which in turn has had a chilling effect on civic engagement. It's hard on those who want to participate in the democratic process, particularly as one tactic used by extremists is to target folks on social media. It’s been especially hard on the elected officials who are subjected to hateful rhetoric both during official proceedings and when they receive threatening messages on social media or at their homes.” 

Some may be surprised to learn that Massachusetts is second in the nation, behind Texas, in extremist incidents. Could you speak about why this might be the case? 

Peggy Shukur: “I often get the question, “how can Massachusetts rank second to Texas?” To clarify, this is a measure of the amount of white extremist propaganda that we see. Here is how this often plays out: imagine waking up in the morning, going to the edge of your driveway finding a Ziploc bag weighted down with pebbles or rice or popcorn and some horrible antisemitic, racist, anti-LGBTQ+ or anti-immigrant message there. You look down the street and see that it’s not just your driveway, it's every driveway in your neighborhood. This is just one of the many tactics that are being used by some of the extremist groups that are in Massachusetts. We’ve spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why Massachusetts seems to be a location that is so appealing to these groups. This is conjecture, but there are some seeds of reality here: Extremists get a big bang for their buck in Massachusetts. It's densely populated. They like to recruit here because of a great number of universities where there is fertile ground to expand their ranks. There is a lot of activity in the Commonwealth they take issue with – be it healthcare equity, supporting migrants, gender-affirming care – and mine that to spread their special brand of hate. They are particularly adept at getting media attention, whether by standing outside Children’s Hospital or the Brigham and protesting gender affirming health care or racially equitable access to health care. They know they will get attention when they stage their anti-migrant protests outside of Governor Healey's house. They are also nimble and able to pivot from week to week to target various marginalized communities depending on the issues of the day. One week it might be a very racist pitch. The next week it might be anti-gay. The next pitch might be anti-Muslim hate and then next week it might be antisemitic. The throughline on all is using conspiracy theories to sow hate and fear. They're stirring up that kind of hate and attention fueled, of course, by the political rhetoric we're hearing in way too many circles.” 

How do we engage philanthropy in this conversation? 

Peggy Shukur: “There is room for philanthropy to support opportunities for people to learn how to disrupt the disruptors, to learn how to engage in civic conversation and to learn how to be in spaces where multiple truths can be explored. We are seeing so much conversation happen in echo chambers and philanthropy can help create those bridges and break down those barriers. A second area where philanthropy can play a role is to encourage people and communities to give voice to the hate they are experiencing. The FBI has recently released data showing an increase in hate crimes – every category that they measure - race and ethnicity, religion, gender and gender identity. At the same time, hate crimes are notoriously underreported. There's a good deal of work to be done in the community to encourage reporting of these hate crimes yet there are many barriers to reporting. Some are because people feel it won’t make a difference. Other barriers are that many communities feel uncomfortable reporting hate crimes to law enforcement, who are the keepers of that information. Ways to encourage reporting and improving responding when incidents are reported would be hugely important because public data gets managed.” 

Michael Curry: “[Philanthropy’s role is] supporting the organizations that are doing the critical work. It helps with envisioning what the future should be and investing in that future. Philanthropy does that in a way like no one else can. And I think when you reach out to organizations that are on the front lines of trying to fight back the hate, how are you investing in that work? Philanthropy has a critical role and I think Peggy said that best: how do you support the organizations that are on the front lines of doing this work? There's so many and if there was ever a time and to invest in that work it's now because the incidents of violence are up. The rhetoric is up. People can shop for whatever news they want, no matter the lack of truth there is to that news. What we saw on January 6, the Insurrection at the capital, is likely possible to happen again depending on the outcome of this election. That should terrify all of us. As people held up those flags that were antisemitic, as they held up racist signs, as they held up nooses for lynchings. I do believe that philanthropy has a critical role to play and I'm just thankful for the support that philanthropic organizations have been putting into organizations like mine.” 

Media plays a role in shaping how we see/view extremism. Given the way news is delivered and we consume news, it’s easy to view extremism in a narrow context, for ex. Islamophobia or attacks on LGBTQ+ communities. How would you, as a speaker, suggest participants combat hate through these digital, technology-based forms of hate?

Michael Curry: “I'm reminded of D. W. Griffith, the filmmaker who made Birth of a Nation in 1915. A professor described it as white racial pornography. D. W. Griffith when he was being interviewed about the film, I will never forget because it reminded me of Donald Trump, someone asked him about the truth, and he said ‘the truth? What is the truth?’ and that's the moment we're in. The truth is no longer what we thought it was and you can shop for your own truth so the only way we're able to combat the lies, the misrepresentation of history, the hiding of the data and what we actually know to be the truth is to counter that. It is chess not checkers. We’ve got to invest in media platforms and in gaming technology that then tells the truth to counter that. If we don't, because we can't stop that under the First Amendment, they're going to be able to push this racial hatred and discrimination broadly through these platforms. We got to find a way to counter that and make sure we're saturating those same places with counter messages and with love. And I don't believe we're doing that yet.” 

Peggy Shukur: “I think one point to note is that people will say things on social media and use it in ways they would never do in face-to-face conversation. That in and of itself fuels more hate. It fuels the normalization of that hate and emboldens people to act on that hate. There are ways we can take as we advocate for change. California, for example, recently adopted a measure that requires greater transparency on content moderation from major social media platforms and that social media companies take more steps to reign in the hate and harassment that appear on their platforms. Their lack of transparency means that users and policy makers have no way to know if those companies are actually abiding by and or how (or whether) they are enforcing their own policies. Consideration of similar legislation in Massachusetts is a worthy first step. More broadly, it's really essential to talk about the relationship between hate on social media and violence, including how social media can fuel people to act in violent ways as we saw from Christ Church to Pittsburgh to Buffalo. There's a throughline between those three horrific acts. Incidents of gun violence have happened worldwide where the perpetrators have been fueled and encouraged and emboldened by what they've seen on social media and actually use social media to amplify their hateful and violent actions.”

What do you see as the biggest gaps right now in efforts to thwart this extremism? 

Peggy Shukur: “One area that we haven't talked about and, is potentially more hopeful, is what work we can do together to be better allies because an issue that affects one community affects all. The concept of repair and reparation is one important community conversation to uplift and explore. We can spend all our time counting up the rise in hate crimes and incidents, but the challenge is finding ways to move beyond the numbers. We need to also look at the impact of these incidents, including those that don’t rise to the level of a crime, on people’s emotional health and their comfort in engaging with their community – there has clearly been a chilling effect. I think that's where we could be spending some of our time.” 

Michael Curry: “To add to that, I think part of that is investing in the conversations that we need to have in our communities. We don't have these conversations often. When I can walk into a room and share history and most of the people in the room have never heard that history, we have got a problem. We must remind people of our collective histories. So, I think there's an investment that needs to be made around how do we unleash that history so that we can learn those lessons and then we can tell a different story about the future.”

Is there some advice that we would give to philanthropists around supporting voter turnout and organizations that support voter engagement? How important is philanthropy's role in getting out the vote?

Peggy Shukur: “I think it's hugely important. Not just in getting out the vote but encouraging people to actually engage in democratic processes and civic engagement at all levels. A lot of the most divisive and disruptive activities are happening at a very local level. Those are places where individuals can have a lot of impact, but we are seeing that people have become reticent to get involved as they feel that they may be putting their family safety or their own safety at risk. There is also an emotional toll that many public officials are suffering in those settings – doxing, hate mail and calls, protests outside their homes or offices. Philanthropy has an opportunity to help people build that muscle to get involved. It is also important to note that there is a lot of money being poured into voter suppression to prevent people from being able to exercise their right to vote. I would say anything philanthropy can do to respond to that would be hugely important.” 

Michael Curry: “I don't want to be a broken record when I say if you're not at the table you're on the table or you're on the menu. Voting is being at the table so that your interests, your concerns, your livelihood is not on the table, and you can advocate for the things that you want. That is voting. Your vote does count. The reality is people don't show up for a reason. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley used to say, ‘people are dealing with trauma and trauma shows up in different ways.’ So, if I don't trust your vaccine, I don't come in to get a vaccine. Even though it could cost me my life. If I don't trust your system of voting and that I'll get any progress out of that I'm not going to show up and vote. We then have to crack the code on why they won't come. Give them a fast pass to get the vaccine once we convince them that it's safe. That it's not Tuskegee Experiment or J. Marion Sims experimentation on Anarcha, Lucy and Betsy. Once we convince them. Give them the honest history. Tell them what the impact of them showing up will be for their families, for their communities. Then we got to support them. So, philanthropy has to help give us the resources to crack that code. If you have uncles, like I did, who are mass incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. This is cracking the code on why I may not vote because now I want to show up to get those men out of jail to change our Criminal Justice System. You want to crack the code on why a young man may pick up a gun because he doesn't care about his own life therefore doesn't care about yours then how do we crack the code on the mental health support or the bad schools or the under resourced neighborhoods that he came from that led him to that place to not care about his own life to therefore not care about yours? We’ve got to find a way to invest in that kind of work and then say to them you need to show up and vote so that you can change those circumstances and conditions. I just don't believe quite frankly the many of the folks that you and I engage in Roxbury or Worcester, or downtown Springfield trust those systems because we've not shown that we're trustworthy. We have to invest in building that trust. 

Where does free speech come in or play a role in today’s topic of extremism and white supremacist thinking? How do we differentiate between hate speech extremist speech and free speech? 

Peggy Shukur: “I am a very strong advocate for freedom of expression and freedom of speech. The tension we have is that the impact of hateful speech – “lawful but awful” on many. This, coupled with the flow of deliberate misinformation and disinformation makes it all the more difficult to discern what's real and what's not. On top of that, there are forces, often forces of those spreading this hateful misinformation, that have an outsized voice. Where I tend to focus my efforts is making sure that people who have another view know that they shouldn't be intimidated and isolated and that they should use their voice and speak up. That's really to me the best antidote in the country and in the framework that we have. It's pretty distressing to see how deliberately extremists and their financial backers are trying to divide our communities and isolate them and intimidate them from even speaking up. It is important to note that these are often a small but extremely vocal minority that has this outsized view. Recognizing that and finding ways to work together with the many who are suffering the brunt of that hateful language and empowering them to speak up is our best direction forward.” 

Michael Curry: I think the hate speech becomes the shiny object that I think people like to focus on. I tell people all the time that of course I'm offended when I hear someone use the n-word anywhere in the country directed at an African American but I'm more disturbed by the fact you won't hire us or promote us or pay us the same or give us a loan or let us live in your communities or the host of other things. What to me is more important than what comes out of your mouth is how we're treated and what we don't have access to. That being said, I do believe that we have you know very few limitations. The legal system doesn't give us a lot of room to really hold people accountable for that and especially on their own platforms. But I'm a leader of an organization. I can control the space here and the culture that we have. We can decide if someone puts up a Confederate flag at their cubicle or something that's offensive to my African American employees who work here or my Jewish or my Muslim brothers and sisters who work here. I can decide what we won't allow in our space. We need to then take control of our spaces. I just was recently a speaker at Thayer Academy And I asked people during that presentation in almost 250 Years of Slavery, name me five black heroes and sheros and if you can't name me five over several generations, almost 250 years, how duped were you about American history? If you're going to tell me that there's a black child running around right now in in the South with a Robert E. Lee high school jacket on, the gaslighting of that, that we don't have a problem in this country about the truth and about history we got a problem. That to me is the critical work that the ADL is doing and so many others. Now truth is catching up to history because a lot of us got history, but it wasn't truthful. Truth is starting to catch up.” 

Final Thoughts 

Michael Curry: “If not you, then who? And if not now, then when? We can't wait. This requires everyone who is listening today to find a role that they'll play in addressing this escalating extremism and violence. That means that you don't have a moment, a day to take off and whether it's your investments, whether it's how you raise your children, or how you engage your community in the conversations you're having we have to really embrace this moment, or it will escalate. I feel like people are listening to us in a way they never have before, so I feel encouraged by that. 

Peggy Shukur: “It's often said that antisemitism is a light sleeper, and it's clearly awake today. There is an expression that is meaningful in this moment: ‘we're each the star of our own movie’. Those of us who are the stars of our own movie sometimes need to tune into other people's movies to make some progress even in our own stories. I'm reminded that in this world of extreme views there's a tendency to adopt an extreme mindset and not being willing to open ourselves up for those conversations or perspectives. We need to acknowledge that it takes a lot of courage to build the trust to have these conversations. I have too often heard in recent years that people are hesitant to have conversations be it on race or antisemitism or really any of those areas where we all need to do more learning because they're afraid of being labeled and shut out. If we drop our extreme mindset and adopt a learning and sharing one we can be in a better place. That’s a positive commitment each of us can make.”

Note: Quotes were reviewed and approved by speakers.