University starts work to open up the dialogue about fighting hate

Panel on racism and hate groups


After Pitt held a rally to honor the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the University would have a continuing role in advancing the dialogue about “resiliency to hate.”

On Dec. 3, a panel of Pitt scholars helped move that discussion forward in a forum about anti-Semitism, racism, hate crimes and organized hate as they relate to the Oct. 27 Tree of Life attack that killed 11 people.

The event, sponsored by the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Law, brought together legal and social experts on hate groups, and attracted nearly 50 faculty, staff and students to listen and to add their own thoughts on how Pitt and the nation can combat hate crimes. Pam Connelly, vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion who moderated the event, said participants would be asked to come up with three “I will do …” initiatives.

Dietrich School Dean Kathleen Blee led off the panel, focusing on her years of research as a sociology professor into hate groups. Blee, who gave a similar speech at Pitt’s commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, said that there are five misconceptions about white nationalism/white supremacy.

  1. People who commit these acts are evil. Instead, Blee said, they are fueled by white supremacist groups that channel their rage in a particular direction.
  2. This is a world of hate. Really, she said, these actions are pushed more by fear than hate.
  3. The perpetrators, like the man in the Tree of Life shooting, are lone wolves. They may act alone, Blee said, but their violence is wrapped in white supremacist groups, particularly through the internet.
  4. The best way to deal with people in this world is to convince them their ideas are wrong. But she said this “often makes their ideas feel to them even more right.” The reasoning they follow is circular and conspiratorial, so that any arguments against it are part of the problem.
  5. These groups are getting smaller. While the physical meetings of these groups have diminished, now anyone even marginally moderate has fallen away and the others have shifted to the virtual world where there are no constraints.

A legal perspective

The other three speakers on the panel were professors from the School of Law — Vivian Curran, William “Chip” Carter and David Harris.

Curran spoke on the historical background of anti-Semitism. “We are not used to what we’ve just seen here in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism has existed always in this country, but we’ve tended to know it as a social anti-Semitism. Jews were not welcome in certain clubs for long time. They were also turned away from certain hotels.”

In countries where violence against Jews has been common, Curran said hate groups frequently have had tacit or overt support for anti-Semitism from the government. She cited a book created by the Russian tsar’s secret police — “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — which spread the idea that Jews were conspiring to take over the world. The book continues to influence hate groups, and the ideas it espoused were even considered respectable before the Holocaust.

“The irony of contemporary mass communication is that we are globalizing throughout the world, but not necessarily communicating beyond groups of like-minded individuals,” Curran said.

European countries have tried to legislate against hateful beliefs, such as the denial of the Holocaust, and tried to require that some disturbing parts of their own history be taught in schools with mixed results.

Curran said this gives us “some food for thought about how we might go about analyzing the interests of our First Amendment, freedom of expression, at this time when new modes of communication are also introducing new dangers into our society and challenging laws written in another time.”

Carter focused on the First Amendment and why hate speech remains protected, unless it falls under the exceptions of incitement, true threats or fighting words.

“To be clear, the First Amendment only applies to governmental action that restricts the freedom of speech; it does not apply to private entities,” Carter said. “So barring a drastic change in the Supreme Court's doctrine, privately run social media platforms, for example, are free to censor hate speech if they choose to do so; NFL teams are free to forbid protests by their players.”

There are ways, though, that the government can discourage hate speech without messing with the First Amendment, he said. “The government doesn't have to stand silent in the face of destructive social messages. It can use its power of persuasion, not to punish or suppress speech with which it disagrees, but to convey its own speech, affirming human dignity. That's why Pitt can have an office of the vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and doesn't have a vice chancellor for racist people.”

He also said the government cannot punish private speech because of its content, but it can subsidize private speech that it wants conveyed.

And while he’s skeptical of increased government power, “citizens can push for a re-examination of current hate speech law. Constitutional law is not written in stone: especially since it’s a form of common law, it evolves and changes. And I think that we should be cautious about such changes. But we can also push the boundaries of legal doctrine, through litigation, public pressure, and otherwise, and see if there's a better societal balance that can be struck with regard to protecting free and robust exchange of ideas on the one hand, and human dignity and equality.”

Harris said one of the areas the attendees might want to try to change is Pennsylvania’s current hate crime laws. Violations of Pennsylvania’s ethnic intimidation law cannot be prosecuted as a separate crime, but is instead an enhancement statute that can be added on to other charges.

“If you are convicted of an ethnic intimidation count, as well as the underlying crime, what happens in Pennsylvania is the seriousness of the conviction goes up one level. So if it’s a felony two it goes up one level to a felony one.”

The Pennsylvania statute also only covers “malicious intention toward the race, color, religion or national origin of another individual or group of individuals,” the code reads.

Federal law, on the other hand, includes free-standing hate crimes, including the Church Arson Prevention Act, which is what the Squirrel Hill shooter is charged under. This law, which was passed after a spate of church arsons in the 1990s, says, “whoever in any circumstances … intentionally obstructs by force, or threat of force any person in the enjoyment of that person’s free exercise of religious beliefs or attempts to do so shall be sentenced as provided,  and if you killed somebody in the course of that, the possible sentences go all the way up … to capital punishment,” Harris said. “And that’s what’s charged here.”

The Shepard-Byrd Act, passed in 2009, enlarged the federal hate crimes laws to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability, which Pennsylvania’s ethnic intimidation law does not include.

Getting involved

Erika Gold Kestenberg, Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Justice consultant in the Center for Urban Education, facilitated discussions among those attending the panel after the scholars’ presentations.

She said participants greatly appreciated the opportunity to connect, network and dialogue about religion-related hate — anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, racism/racial justice, immigrant rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, and combating hate groups.

There was discussion of creating a new hashtag to organize further action, and of collaborating within the group to share resources and further related justice work together.

The provost’s office will continue to provide information about ongoing community events here.

The next related activity is a “Community Conversation: Anti-Semitism in America,” from 6 to 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at Heinz Field’s Hyundai Club, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dean Blee will be joined by Emory University Jewish history professor Deborah Lipstadt, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life and Joshua Sayles, director of community relations, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh

To register, visit or call 412-263-1541.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.