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THE NATION : HISTORY

Hate Crimes Amid the Prosperity

April 18, 1999|Bruce J. Schulman | Bruce J. Schulman, who teaches U.S. history and directs the American studies program at Boston University, is the author of "Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism."

BOSTON — The savage murder of Matthew Shepard last October culminated a startling and disturbing recent epidemic in hate crimes: an African American man dragged to his death in Texas; a wave of church bombings across the South; synagogue desecrations in New England; and brutal murders of gay men in Buffalo, Richmond and rural Alabama. While experts disagree about the frequency of such incidents (many remain unreported), no one doubts their mounting ferocity. On April 6, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that antigay attacks in 1998 were more violent and caused more hospitalizations than in previous years.

The trend seems all the more puzzling amid the current good times. The United States enjoys widespread economic prosperity and nearly unprecedented social peace. Crime and unemployment rates have plummeted. Wall Street breaks new records almost daily. After decades of stagnation, wages are rising and real advances in productivity, the long expected fruits of the computer revolution, have begun to appear. Remarkable contentment has accompanied this booming economy. With so much to go around, there is little reason to squabble about how the bounty is divided. Well-fed and self-assured, the nation tolerated President Bill Clinton's sex, lies and videotape.

The recent wave of hate crimes hardly seems to fit. The incidents appear inexplicable, merely the pathological behavior of twisted individuals. But this is not the first time the United States has witnessed the odd concatenation of thriving, satisfied millions and desperate thousands left behind.

During the 1920s, the United States celebrated a similar, and similarly checkered, triumphal moment. Emerging from a brief post-World War I recession, the nation enjoyed previously unmatched prosperity. Workers brought home fatter pay envelopes while the costs of the most desirable consumer goods fell dramatically. Like computers in the 1990s, automobiles, once the exclusive province of the elite, became affordable to ordinary workers. The overall economy amassed stunning gains in growth and productivity, the stock market boomed and corporate profits skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, a contented nation almost giddily accepted the new modernity. "A Revolution in Manners and Morals," in journalist Frederick Lewis Allen's words, ushered in more liberal sexual mores. Bobbed-haired flappers threatened established gender roles and newly mobile teenagers flaunted parental authority as youth culture moved from the front porch to the back seat. Advertisers marketed a cornucopia of new products, appealing to the vanity and stoking the passions of America's emerging consumer society.

But, at the same time, not all Americans participated in the economic boom or applauded the loosening in manners and morals. White supremacist and nativist terror stained the seemingly golden land. A resurgent Ku Klux Klan spread out of the South and became a national phenomenon. Cloaking more than 2 million men beneath its sinister hoods and robes, the klan lashed out against a perceived assault on traditional values: lewd movies, premarital sex, more assertive roles for women, wild youngsters who no longer deferred to parental authority.

The klan formed only the most conspicuous link in a vast national chain of racist and nativist groups. The White American Protestants, the Junior Order United American Mechanics, the Greater Iowa Assn., the Puritan Daughters of America, all stalked the nation, targeting Japanese in California, radicals in the Northwest, Mormons in Utah, Catholics on Long Island, immigrants in the Northeast, Jews in the Midwest.

While the marauders seethed at blacks, Jews and Catholics, hoping to preserve a "white man's country," the greatest fears of the '20s hate groups revolved around cultural insecurities: changes in gender roles and sexual behavior, disrespect for Prohibition laws, the onslaught of new products, new jobs and new social expectations. While klansmen, their families, and like-minded neighbors were never the "poor white trash" of legend, the brave new world of the 1920s still left them behind. They bristled at the fast-paced, consumption-oriented economy, with its cars and advertising men, its self-indulgent ways and thoroughly modern views. They lashed out at the people--blacks, immigrants, Jews--they blamed for the strange new order of things. Like today's antigay assailants, this earlier generation of hate criminals worried obsessively about their manhood. Modern society unmanned them.

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