The wave of death threats against black colleges is just the tip of the iceberg

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Last week’s bomb threat against Fisk University was part of a vicious wave of such threats directed at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). More than 20 HBCUs have been victims of these threats in the last three weeks only.

Many journalists have linked these bomb threats to the bombings of black churches in the 1960s and the violence directed against black civil rights leaders. This historical context is important, but the upsurge in HBCU bomb threats is also part of a much larger contemporary trend.

Death threats are all over the world and they are directed against people of all races and creeds. The British newspaper The Guardian reports that“Statistics make for scary reading. Last year there was a 13% increase in reports of death threats in England and Wales, with 42,307 threats received between April 2020 and March 2021, up from 37,347 the previous year. Over the past decade there has been a fourfold increase, with only 9,480 threats recorded in 2010/11.

In the United States, death threats are increasing against people from all walks of life. In November 2021, Voice reported that officials from a wide range of civic institutions have faced a wave of death threats. This includes teachers, school board members, election officials and public health officials. And death threats against members of Congress have doubled. Basically, if you work in the public sphere, you can expect death threats.

Part of this is driven by anger at those who believe Donald Trump was robbed of the 2020 election. But many conservatives, including student conservatives, have also faced death threats.

Race is definitely a factor in all of this, as the targeting of HCBUs indicates. But anger over the 2020 election, fatigue with public health-based restrictions, over-the-top rhetoric from political leaders of both parties, and intensely emotional partisanship are also driving so many to threaten the lives of their fellow citizens.

Partisanship and political polarization are most likely the biggest culprits. A Harvard study of the explicit and implicit attitudes of four million Americans shows that people in this country have become less racist (and less homophobic) over time. So, while racism is still a major issue, it is unlikely to be the main driver behind the spike in death threats.

But political polarization has gotten much worse, especially “emotional polarization” – where we not only disagree with people from another party, but think negatively of them as people. According to recent research: “Emotional polarization has increased dramatically in the United States over the past few decades. In 1978, according to our calculations, the average supporter rated party members 27.4 points higher than outside members on a “feelings thermometer” ranging from 0 to 100. In 2020, the difference was 56 .3”. In other words, the sense that people personally like members of their own party more than members of the other party has more than doubled over the decades.

People are much more likely to say they would be very upset if their child married someone from a different political party than before. And, while affective polarization is on the rise worldwide, the study found “that the United States has experienced the largest increase in ideological polarization among the 17 countries considered.”

This trend is about equally true for Democrats and Republicans. Research from Pew Research shows that for both sides, partisan antipathy is “more intense and more personal.” Republicans call Democrats “narrow-minded”, “unpatriotic” and “immoral”, while Democrats consider Republicans “narrow-minded”, immoral” and “unintelligent”.

This translates into shockingly high support among political supporters of violence and even the wish for death of their political opponents. A 2020 survey asked, “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. To what extent do you think violence would then be justified? 18.3% of Democrats and 13.8% of Republicans said violence would be justified on a scale from “a little” to “a lot.”

Even more troubling: “Some 20% of Democrats (which translates to 12.6 million voters) and 16% of Republicans (or 7.9 million voters) occasionally think the country would be better off if many of the opposition were dying.”

The good news is that people from all political walks of life recognize that this is a serious problem. According to the previously cited Pew Research survey: “Even as Republicans and Democrats have become more critical of each other, they recognize — and express concern about — the partisanship that divides the nation. Overwhelming majorities in both parties (85% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats) say divisions between the two parties are growing. Similar shares express concern about partisan division, with around half of each party saying they are very concerned about it.

So at least Americans understand that this is a problem that needs to be solved. And, thankfully, none of the HCBU bomb threats were carried out. But they warn that political leaders must curtail extreme rhetoric and demonization of political opponents before more threats turn into real bombs.

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