A day after the presidential election, a senior editor from the popular music blog, Genius, noticed a disturbing trend in his social media feeds. Users from all across the country were sharing their personal experiences of being subject to hate.
“I felt like I just had to do something about it,” Insanul Ahmed said. Ahmed compiled many of these personal accounts into a now-viral Twitter moment called “Day 1 in Trump’s America.” The collection featured instances of bigotry, sexism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant bias. Reports included race-based verbal abuse, Nazi graffiti spray-painted in schools and a string of pride flags burned in an LGBTQ community. While The PBS NewsHour could not independently verify these user experiences, Buzzfeed confirmed that most post-election reports of hateful incidents were authentic.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been more than 1,000 incidents of hateful intimidation or harassment nationwide between election night and Dec. 12, which marks the latest available data. “Many of the incidents include a direct mention of [President-elect Donald Trump] either by someone yelling it before assaulting a minority or spray-painting it on a car,” says Mark Potok, the organization’s senior fellow.
In a Nov. 13 interview on 60 Minutes, CBS reporter Lesley Stahl asked Mr. Trump to respond to reports of racial slurs and personal threats against African Americans, Latinos, Muslims and gays by some of Trump’s supporters.
“I am so saddened to hear that,” Trump said. “And I say, ‘Stop it.’ If it– if it helps. I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it.”
One incident included 18-year-old Tayz Enriquez, a high school student in Greeley, Colo. Her Facebook post, which also went viral, described an incident in which a classmate allegedly harassed her and other Latinos in the classroom while chanting “Build the Wall” and “Trump 2016.” The classmate’s chants became directed at her when she tried to intervene, she said. In a phone interview with The PBS NewsHour, authorities for the Weld County School District 6 acknowledged Enriquez’s account, adding that the white, male student has since apologized.
“It was embarrassing; I felt humiliated,” Enriquez said, recalling the incident in a phone interview. “I don’t think there are words to describe how it feels knowing the people in your classroom, even those who have been your friend, can turn on you because of your culture, telling you to leave the country you were born in. I’m just as much a part of America as anyone else.”
Potok says most of the post-election accounts, including Enriquez’s experience, will likely never be classified as a hate crime, which is different from hateful incident. The FBI defines hate crimes as criminal offenses “against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.” Many of the post-election incidents don’t qualify simply because they’re not criminal — it isn’t illegal to shout racial slurs, joke about or threaten deportation or distribute hateful pamphlets. These actions are protected under the First Amendment. As The NewsHour also reports, even among the incidents that are criminal, such as vandalism or assault, prosecution is rare.
2016 marks the first year that the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked hateful incidents immediately following a presidential election — both criminal and otherwise. But Potok estimates by the sheer volume of reports that 2016 cases far surpass the estimated 200 incidents following the country’s election of the first black president, Barack Obama in 2008 — when African-American victims were largely targeted. The number of recognized hate groups has also risen since then.
“These recent incidents are a continuation of the deep-seated racism and xenophobia we’ve been witnessing over the last eight years,” he said.
An FBI report released in November counted more than 5,800 hateful incidents involving 7,100 victims in 2015. Those numbers are voluntarily submitted by local and state police departments through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program database. But according to Benjamin Wagner, former U.S. Attorney for California’s Eastern District who has prosecuted dozens of hate crimes, these reports still don’t present the full picture of how widespread hate is in the United States.
“Many more incidents are likely never reported due to factors such as an unknown suspect or intimidation of the victim,” he said.
While the majority of recent hateful incidents will never be prosecuted due to what Wagner calls a “broad scope of protection for hateful speech under the First Amendment,” he says the increase in reports could encourage more people to come forward. “It can be an educational tool, especially in towns that are not politically disposed to look at minority communities with sympathy,” he said. “There’s a lot of denial about it.”
Raising awareness is why Ahmed says he created his Twitter Moment in the first place. “We can’t move forward without a dialogue,” he said. “But we can’t even have a dialogue if people won’t recognize what are the real, everyday obstacles people of color across this country are facing.”
Since then, Ahmed says he’s directly engaged with social media users, ranging from productive dialogues to hostile rejections that these incidents are important or real.
Some reports of hate-based violence have turned out to be untrue. At least two incidents that garnered nationwide attention have since been debunked. Police in Louisiana confirmed that a student who reported an anti-Muslim assault lied about her story. And authorities in New York City say a young woman who claimed to have her hijab forcibly removed while on the subway also made up her account. But Ahmed says there are still too many verified incidents to underplay the problem.
“This is real. This is the country we live in,” he said. “People aren’t making this up, and until we acknowledge it and do something about it, it will just get worse.”