Antidemocratic behavior is permeating U.S. society at an alarming speed and scale, from restrictions on classroom instruction to bills limiting voting rights to systems of surveillance built to ban abortions — and Black Americans must remain vigilant, a new report suggests.
The National Urban League’s “Democracy in Peril: Confronting the Threat Within” arrives at a moment when right-wing extremism is gaining new visibility. Coincidentally, the annual study of the state of Black America comes mere days after Tennessee Republicans’ retaliation against state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black Democrats who led a gun control demonstration in the House, backfired.
“What we saw in Tennessee is one of the most naked and contumacious attacks on democracy in modern times, where you removed two legislators because of — what — violation of decorum? No, you removed them because you don’t like their positions on gun reform and other issues,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial. “And you broke democracy when you removed them.”
Using data and analysis from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and universities, this year’s report interrogates the “explosive growth” of racial violence and right-wing extremism.
For example, hate crimes ballooned by 44% in 2021, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino. Also concerning is the fact that, per the ADL, hate crime reporting from law enforcement agencies fell by 22% during that same period. FBI statistics reveal that hate crimes reached a two-decade high in 2020, and that more than half of these crimes were directed at Black Americans.
In her essay for the study, Kristen Clarke, the U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, underscores the wide-ranging harm that hate begets.
“Unlawful acts of hate come in many forms — from mass murders, physical assaults, cross-burnings, and attacks on houses of worship, to online harassment and verbal threats,” she writes. “These acts have one thing in common: They terrorize not only individuals and families but entire communities because of their race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity.”
The report notes further that, over the past year, more and more Republican-controlled states have introduced bills that would circumscribe classroom discussion of race, sexuality, and gender and, in some instances, even eliminate AP African American Studies from schools.
Read more: The College Board’s Race Problem
“Our focus this year is the attack on democracy — the ideology and philosophy of white supremacy,” Morial said. “And the reason is that this philosophy is impacting public policy. It’s impacting laws about voting and representation. It’s impacting education, with the censorship of books. It’s led to the infiltration of law enforcement by hate groups. So, we’re addressing this issue because of its impact on those things that impact the quality of our lives.”
Morial added that, while working on the study, he was particularly struck by the magnitude and intensity of this animus.
“We’re not talking about a handful of bills. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of proposals. We’re talking about a movement to normalize hate,” he said. “The depth of it — the reach of it — smacks of what we saw in the 1950s and ’60s.”
In short, while the movement to transform extremism and white supremacy into a mainstream political philosophy isn’t always obviously coordinated, it’s certainly visible.
Tennessee Republicans’ votes to expel Jones and Pearson aren’t the only recent examples of antidemocratic behavior.
“The [state] legislature has been leading on social and cultural wars,” said Cardell Orrin, a Memphis-based racial justice advocate and the Tennessee executive director of the nonprofit organization Stand for Children. “It’s passed an anti-drag law and an anti-critical race theory law that prevents educators from teaching an honest, truthful history of the U.S.”
As the country kept its eyes on Tennessee last week, Missouri’s GOP-controlled House of Representatives approved a budget proposal that eliminates all funding — about $4.5 million — for public libraries throughout the state, after the Missouri Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over a Draconian law that bans books that explore race, gender, and sexuality.
That same day, Franklin, Tennessee, about 20 miles south of Nashville, narrowly secured a permit to host a Pride festival. The event was held without trouble last year. Over the past few months, though, it’s become a lightning rod for the fury of local conservative groups and been swept into the political right’s larger assault on LGBTQ equality. Already, a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced this year, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union.
And days before, the country got a glimpse of the havoc that’s been unleashed by the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June to overturn Roe v. Wade. Federal judges released conflicting opinions on mifepristone, a drug typically used to terminate pregnancies and handle miscarriages. Experts told Capital B that they fear how limiting access to the pill could affect Black people’s reproductive health in the months ahead.
The above issues paint a vivid picture of the fragile state of U.S. democracy.
“What I hope people take away from the report,” Morial said, “is how this movement is impacting energy policy, economic policy, education policy, voting policy, and on and on. It’s not just a movement of noise.”