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Confronting Hate

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
May 11, 2019


As we near the end of the semester, students should be focused on their final projects and post-graduation plans. However, here at my institution we are focused on another expression of hate on campus. For the second time this year, racist and homophobic content generated by students made its way through social media. Our university leadership quickly condemned the content, and held a packed forum to discuss the incident. My initial reaction was not anger. I was depressed that such an explicit expression of hate could occur in a community of which I am a part. Then I began questioning. Why do these incidents occur? How should we react to them? How can we stop them?

But first, why write about this in a publication dedicated to public administration? The foundation of democratic governance is, in my opinion, that all residents have an equal stake in their government. A society that dismisses the rights and equal humanity of individuals based on their demographics or sexual orientation is a society incompatible with democratic governance. Of course, the hateful actions or statements of an individual do not reflect the beliefs of a community. But they are nonetheless problematic because they exist within that community.

I assume most everyone reading this will feel like I do: that the idea of dismissing someone’s humanity because of who they are or who they love is both intellectually lazy, and wrong. So why does it happen? In regards to college students it may be a case of limited exposure to diversity, combined with poor decisions facilitated by alcohol. It may be the anonymous nature of social media that allows people to preach hate without facing real-world consequences. It may be the result of a growing political culture that equates proactive moves towards social understanding and the embrace of diversity as somehow surrendering to the chains of political correctness. I could continue, but the reality is these incidents occur because ours is a free society where some people are racist and homophobic.

Like so much else in the world of public administration, from a practical standpoint confronting the reality as it exists matters as much as, if not more than, fully understanding its origins. It is not that history does not matter–it does. But public managers must operate in the present. My university’s response of investigating, condemning, and publicly discussing the incident is a necessary start. While public discussions are important, private introspection is also important. We all need to take the time to think and reflect on our own prejudices, and be willing to confront and learn from past mistakes. We also must be able to forgive by recognizing that people change and should not forever be defined by past mistakes. Finally, our institutions should provide structural support for addressing the aftermath of hateful incidents.

The hard truth is that our institutional responses to hate feel insufficient. Public forums help us deal with our feelings, but words cannot be unsaid, deeds cannot be undone and free speech must be protected. Here on my campus there are calls for leadership to do more, but it is unclear what exactly that means. The only real solution is meeting the long-term challenge of creating organizational cultures that weed out, and ultimately prevent prejudice. Those of us with platforms must model good behavior publicly and privately. All of us must call out and confront prejudice when we see it. This includes calling out our own implicit biases. Public organizations can create policies that empower all voices and promote non-defensive discussion over issues of race and sexual orientation. Finally, all of us in public organizations must accept that mistakes will be made, organizational responses may seem inadequate and that we can learn from our mistakes.

I know no single government or organizational policy can change what is in people’s hearts. But one of the tenets of social equity is the ability for the public sector to serve as a model for society at-large. The response to hate on my campus is an example of how we can use a terrible incident to create positive momentum for long-term cultural change. Uncomfortable conversations, self-questioning and a willingness to learn from and forgive past mistakes can go a long way to ensuring equity and inclusion are part of the culture of our public institutions. The broader goals of effective and efficient governance are not possible if our public organizations are not equitable. Perhaps a fully equitable society is impossible. But it is nonetheless something we can, and should, pursue every day.


Author:Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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