Mar. 29, 1999
Volume 51, No. 25
Jack Levin dissects increasing hate crime on U.S. campuses
As colleges and universities have grown--both in student population and diversity--the number of hate crimes on campus has also increased, and that is no coincidence, said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, in his March 18 lecture in White Hall.
Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence, also studies the lives of serial killers, but he said hate crime is more important. "When you talk about hate, you're threatening [to people]. You're not talking about marginalized individuals, like serial killers--you're talking about us, and that's not easy for many people to take."
Key to the issue of campus hate crime is the fact that, for many students, their arrival at college signifies their first real, sustained encounter with other ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, etc. "Some students have latent attitudes that come to the surface when they get to college," Levin said. "We grow up with blinders on; often we can go through life with our prejudices because who's there to challenge us? We generalize from what we see everyday to what we don't see every day."
As women, ethnic and religious minorities, gays and lesbians, disabled students and others who are "different" increasingly infringe on the traditional "white, male and Protestant" make-up of college campuses, friction between the groups increases, Levin said. Students fight for their share of the rapidly shrinking academic "pie," whose ingredients are things like scholarships, grades, coveted courses, admissions slots and internships.
"If there is one sociological law, it's that competition breeds hostility," said Levin, who explained how he demonstrated this in one of his classes. He separated the students into four groups and stationed them at the centers of the classroom's four walls. To each student he gave a balloon, some Scotch tape and a straight pin. The objective of the game--which had no prize for the winners--was to tape to the wall as many inflated balloons as possible.
"I walked out of the room, and within 30 seconds I heard shouting, shoving, fighting, popping-I had given them a weapon, and they were popping each other's balloons," Levin said, who added that the game "worked too well" in illustrating its point, and he had to stop it after his third try, when he walked back into the classroom just as a Northeastern hockey player was about to throw a table at another student. "All this, and what was the prize? Nothing," Levin said. "Think of the prizes in the real world. They could be jobs worth millions of dollars."
This relates back to campus hate crimes, he continued, because most such crimes are "defensive," meaning the perpetrators believe they are "defending" something that is traditionally theirs. "On campuses all around the country, students are popping each other's balloons," Levin said. "And college is a microcosm for society."
Nearly all hate crimes in this country--95 percent--including those on college campuses, are the work of single or small groups of individuals, not organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation, Levin said. "In their defense, most college students are too sophisticated to be taken in by hate groups. These groups are most successful recruiting in junior high schools," he continued, saying most hate crime perpetrators are teenage boys.
To fight hate crime, Levin advocated "zero tolerance" for incidents of intolerance on campus, saying administrators should come down hard on even the slightest offense. "Colleges often want to ignore these things--why expose themselves to bad [public relations]?" he said.
But the most important way students can fight intolerance is by forming coalitions and solidarity with groups different from themselves. When a gay student is assaulted, he said, straight students should march in support, the same as whites should march for blacks, Christians for Jews, and so on.
"Folks have so much compassion for the plight of their own people," Levin said. "If we could only get people to empathize with groups that are different . . . That's the only way to conquer this problem."