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Southern Poverty Law Center expert’s talk part of UMass campus fight against bigotry

  • Lecia Brooks, who is the director of outreach for the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaks Monday in Goodell Hall at the University of Massachusetts. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lecia Brooks, who is the director of outreach for the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaks Monday in Goodell Hall at the University of Massachusetts. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lecia Brooks, who is the director of outreach for the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaks Monday in Goodell Hall at the University of Massachusetts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@dustyc123
Thursday, October 05, 2017

AMHERST — When the designer Maya Lin created the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, she included the names of 41 people who died struggling for racial justice between 1954 and 1968.

Those dates are listed in a circle, with a smooth layer of water flowing over the top of them. But there’s a blank space between the beginning and end of that timeline, a small chunk making the circle incomplete. When visitors look down on that space, their faces are the only thing they see reflected back at them.

That’s a big part of why Lecia Brooks, the director of outreach at the Southern Poverty Law Center, came to the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Monday: to help the university community reflect on itself at a time of deep political divide.

“Maya Lin thinks, and we agree, that the march continues,” Brooks told the crowd of about 75 at Goodell Hall, urging them to engage politically to fight against racism. “When they write your name on the memorial, what will be added?”

Brooks’ visit comes during a time when colleges are struggling to deal with racist incidents, and local campuses are no exception. Last month, authorities said two juveniles left a noose on Amherst College’s football field, and black students at Westfield State University were targeted with racist and sexist vandalism at their dorms. This spring, a white supremacist organization’s fliers were placed on vehicles in a UMass Amherst parking lot.

In an effort to combat bigotry, UMass has launched the “Hate Has No Home at UMass” campaign, and Brooks’ talk was a part of those efforts. The lecture focused on the state of hate and extremism in the United States today.

A primary driver of the increasing prominence of hate groups in the United States, Brooks said, are the country’s changing demographics. In 1970, the country was 83 percent white, compared with 66 percent today, and in several decades demographers predict that whites will become a minority. Hate groups, she said, have exploited that fact to promote white supremacist ideas.

Fueling that fire is the ease with which people can encounter white supremacist propaganda on the internet, she said.

“People, especially today, are increasingly radicalized online,” Brooks said, pointing to Dylan Roof — the white man found guilty of killing nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina — as an example.

The Southern Poverty Law Center also documented more than 850 reports of bigoted harassment and intimidation immediately following the election of President Donald Trump, who Brooks said has emboldened white supremacists nationwide.

“These kinds of images, the stories that we heard about, really happened all over the country,” Brooks said. “It was in every region of the country.”

Of the 867 hate incidents Brooks’ organization documented in the 10 days after the 2016 presidential election, 183 occurred at K-12 schools and another 140 at universities.

“It’s more than just a slogan — ‘no hate at UMass’ — you have to make it so,” she said, urging the audience not to let bigotry go unchallenged. “You’ve probably heard bias or bigoted language right in front of you.”

To help students combat bigotry on their campuses, the university passed out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s anti-bias guide “Speak Up!” The booklet gives 10 scenarios designed to help people respond to biased incidents when they arise in everyday interactions.

“I don’t think we’ll beat it until we decide to live intentionally integrated lives,” Brooks said when an audience member asked how to teach children about combating racism.

“I have to be intentional about it, so you have to be intentional about it, too,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.