During the presidential campaign season, there were scattered, alarming news reports of harassment that echoed Donald Trump’s stump speech rhetoric — white students chanting, “Build the wall,” during a basketball game against a predominantly Latino high school, or racist graffiti, for example.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, starting the day after the election, these incidents skyrocketed. Combing through news reports, social media anecdotes, and direct submissions to the SPLC database, the organization’s staff has collected 867 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment between November 9 and November 29. And many of these reported incidents appear to be pegged to Trump’s presidential election win, using his name in vandalism or using the campaign promises he made as the basis of threats.
Trump, when informed of this trend during a 60 Minutes interview on November 14, said he was saddened to hear the news and that the people responsible should “stop it.” The message didn’t take. Since the interview aired, the SPLC has continued to collect disturbing stories — from vandalism featuring phrases like “Take America back” and “Mexicans suck” to a white man approaching a Chinese-American student at a gas station and saying, “Can’t wait for Trump to deport you or I will deport you myself, dyke yellow bitch.”
To be clear, the reports are just that: reports. Many haven’t been independently verified, and the majority do not include illegal or violent activity that would categorize them as “hate crimes” (a distinct set of violent incidents defined by the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and state laws, and for which the FBI is responsible for record-keeping). In addition, there’s no standard data on hateful expressions to compare this with — no group collects the “normal” frequency of expressions of hate, intolerance, and harassment incidents that occur daily in America.
Given all that, what does the growing, informal list of post-election accounts tell us about the country’s climate, and about the consequences of legitimizing bigotry for the people who have been the targets of the president-elect’s racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric? According to the SPLC and a sociologist with expertise in qualitative methods and in stigmatization, plenty.
People reported expressions of white supremacy, xenophobia, and racism through taunts, vandalism, and harassment
More than 867 incidents have been reported through local news, social media, and direct submissions to the SPLC’s #ReportHate database. They’ve been reported in every state and run the gamut from public instances of vandalism to the direct use of racial epithets and slurs.
Some accounts involve people taunting members of groups that Trump criticized while campaigning, often with gloating or threats about the consequences of his win for them. Others simply parrot language and themes from his candidacy: that Muslims are dangerous or that aggressive deportation is on the horizon, for example.
In Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported (including an image of the note):
A Gwinnett County high school teacher said she was left a note in class Friday telling her that her Muslim headscarf "isn't allowed anymore." “Why don’t you tie it around your neck & hang yourself with it...” the note said, signed "America!"
A Latina woman in Texas told the SPLC:
I was walking my baby at my neighborhood park and a truck drove by with a male driving and a female passenger. The female yelled "white power" at us as they drove by and then sped away.
A Muslim woman was riding the Max to Beaverton in the early afternoon and a group of teenagers went to the corner of the car where she was sitting and got up in her face yelling at her that she was a terrorist, that our new president was going to deport her, that she can't wear her hijab anymore. They got increasingly menacing, and my friend went over and made them get off the train. When they were leaving through the door they tried to spit on her.
8th grade students told Latino students on the school bus, “Not only should Trump build a wall, but it should be electrocuted (sic) and Mexicans should have to wear shock collars.
Also cited in the report was an instance in which students in California brought “deportation letters” to school for their Latino classmates. In Florida, a teacher scolded the behavior of black students by saying, “Don’t make me call Donald Trump to get you sent back to Africa,” and a 75-year-old gay man was ripped from his car and beaten by an assailant, who told him, “You know my new president says we can kill all you faggots now.” On the Las Vegas Strip, a white man punched two black men and attempted to assault a black woman, chanting, “Donald Trump!” and, “White power!”
According to the SPLC report, “the frequency and tone of street harassment” hurled at women also seems to be on the rise. The organization added:
In the 5 percent of the reports that involved sexist attacks, women frequently reported that men and boys were actually parroting the President-elect’s most infamous misogynistic words, from the leaked tape of his 2005 exchange with Billy Bush. In Minneapolis, middle-school boys leaned out of a school bus to yell, “Grab her by the pussy!” to a man walking with a woman. A 50 year-old woman from Venice, California, said three white men in a pickup truck bearing a Trump sticker shouted at her, “Do you want us to grab your pussy?”
Several of the reported incidents involve the deployment of the anti-Semitic, white power symbols and language of these groups. A total of 35 incidents of vandalism involving swastikas were reported to SPLC, including the following from California:
A swastika was spray painted on a billboard for the movie "Almost Christmas," which shows an African American cast.
Additional examples are available at the SPLC’s website.
Why these types of reports matter
Michèle Lamont, a professor of sociology and of African and African-American studies at Harvard University, says the informal nature of the SPLC’s reporting does not invalidate the significance of the wave of accounts of harassment, intimidations, and expressions of hate — and the fact that it’s not confirmed doesn’t mean it’s not relevant “data.”
Getting a sense of the number of people who experience feeling attacked, ignored, or harassed based on their identity is tricky. While there’s plenty of data on discrimination (which can be demonstrated through audit studies), stigmatization is more subjective. “It’s not about getting access to things; it’s the feeling of being ignored, mistreated, or misunderstood,” said Lamont, who authored the book Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel.
In other words, these acts aren’t as cut-and-dried as hate crimes, and they can’t be measured as easily as acts of discrimination can. (For example, studies have provided data proving that employers are less likely to call back applicants with “black-sounding” names, all other things being equal.) Instead, each reported stigmatizing act relies on the narrative of the target’s experience and the feeling that follows. Because of that, Lamont says, “Many people say we cannot study this because we only have the narrative of the victim, not the perpetrator. But the perpetrator is not neutral in this context.” But in her field of study, the unique challenges of verifying these reported incidents don’t take away from their relevance.
Ryan Lenz, editor of the SPLC’s Hate Watch newsletter, agrees. He told Vox the sheer volume of reports at this hour is cause for some concern. “This is a crowdsourced report of what seems to be happening in America right now,” he said, adding that even if only a single report were true (which is highly unlikely, of course), it would still give us information about the perceived legitimacy of bigoted views and how this affects the targets of bigotry.
Anti-immigrant and anti-black expressions topped the list
The SPLC reported on the categorical breakdown of expressions of hate:
Most of the reports involved anti-immigrant incidents (136), followed by anti-black (89) and anti-LGBT (43). Some reports (8) included multiple categories like anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. The "Trump" category (41) refers to incidents where there was no clear defined target, like the pro-Trump vandalism of a "unity" sign in Connecticut. We also collected 20 reports of anti-Trump intimidation and harassment.
Lamont says this could be in part a reflection of the boundaries between various groups of Americans that Trump’s rhetoric — inflammatory statements about people of Mexican descent, talking about black people only in terms of the “inner city,” only discussing Muslims in the context of terrorism, etc. — repeatedly emphasized during his campaign.
“My expertise is in the study of boundaries, what makes social boundaries more rigid,” Lamont said. “Many people have argued that Trump’s own personal style is one of inciting people to draw much stronger racial, religious, and anti-gay boundaries. You cannot draw causal arrows between what he said and the attitudes of these individuals, [but what he said is part of] a configuration of causes that feeds the same phenomenon. Because of that, the results are not surprising.”
The most common locations of the reported incidents were schools
According to the SPLC, the most common victims and perpetrators were kids in school:
Disturbingly, the most commonly reported location where incidents of harassment occurred were K-12 schools. Previously, the SPLC reported on the deteriorating climate in schools as a result of the campaign for president. It appears that the election results might have pushed some schools to a boiling point. For example, a school in Maple Grove, Minnesota, made headlines after racist and pro-Trump graffiti was found in the school bathrooms.
This could be explained by the simple fact that schools are the places where kids, who have less self-control and fewer filters than adults, are forced to interact with each other, and where their interactions are closely observed by teachers.
But it could also be interpreted as a reminder that the cultural myth that bigotry and hate effortlessly fade in younger generations is just that: a myth — one that’s even less plausible when the president has publicly made comments that would violate most classroom’s rules against slurs and race- and gender-based insults.
How these incidents fit into the bigger picture of bigotry
The good news is that the number of incidents collected by SPLC each day has steadily decreased since the election.
But when the reports stop rolling in, the incidents aren’t erased from the memories of the people who reported or observed them.
Lamont says stigmatization of the kind reported has potential long-lasting, harmful effects — psychologically, but also in terms of physical health. “We know from the literature that these kinds of examples are pervasive in the lives of African Americans and these are the kinds of experiences that lead to massive racial disparities in health because they add massive stress to people’s lives,” she said.
They also paint a picture of what has been, for many, a sad and alienating moment in American history. They are one measure of the country’s climate — one that we may look back on in the future when we contemplate the various aspects of the significance of Trump’s victory. That’s why Lenz says the collections of these reports of individual behavior can’t be evaluated separately from SPLC’s work on systemic issues like economic justice.
“They certainly seem to be a reflection of the zeitgeist in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election,” Lenz said. “I think this election proved to us that the concept that many pundits said in the wake of Obama, that we may indeed live in a post-racial America, was fundamentally wrong. The waters of racial resentment were boiling very quickly beneath the surface.”