I was pleased to be a guest at Governor Kathy Hochul’s inaugural New York State Unity Summit last week, which gathered community and government partners “to stand against hate, violent extremism, and discrimination.” With New York State seeing a ten-year high in hate crimes (773 incidents in 2021) and ranking second in the nation for domestic violent-extremism plots, we need to develop strategies to combat these threats. The summit, however, offered little insight into how to do this.
Governor Hochul proclaimed that the summit had been convened “for one purpose: to stand together against hate.” New Yorkers call out hate when they encounter it, she said. Yet, in New York, most classified “hate crime” is not primarily motivated by hate, as my colleague Charles Fain Lehman’s recent data-driven report demonstrated. So the most effective safeguards don’t target feelings; rather, they strengthen the criminal-justice and mental-health systems to identify and detain those who are dangerous.
Focusing so much on “hate” also invites subjectivity and political opinion—and that problem was in evidence at the summit, where, over about five hours of presentations, some state agency leaders and community representatives included as examples of hate political conservatism or the American system itself. Jackie Bray, commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security, explained that “terror is driven by two global misogynistic movements. One we’ve exported.” She never identified these movements, but added that in America, “this is our original sin.” And she warned, none too clearly: “The fight of our generation turned out to be one against violent authoritarianism and the rise of hate crimes is a part of that.”
Panelist and NAACP leader Reverend Mark Blue railed: “Indians were here and Americans took their property.” Asian community representative Eugenia Oh reminded attendees that “perpetrators are all a victim of the same systems we live in.”
Right-wing views were analogized to mass terror. The keynote speaker, former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, included pro-lifers among the oppressors. “We see school shootings, we see them rolling back the right to an abortion,” she intoned.
In the panel titled “Working Together,” Debbie Almontaser described her organization, Bridging Cultures Group, as a “go-to” for trainings in the New York City school system on how to talk sensitively about different groups. It is psychologically harmful, she said, to use terms like “jihadist” or “Islamist.” Instead, “when we want to talk about groups that terrorize us, call them by their names: al-Qaida, Da’esh, ISIS, white supremacists,” and, she added, “neoconservatives.”
Did the panel moderator correct Almontaser that neoconservatives are not al Qaida-style terrorists—just intellectuals with another point of view? No. She said: “Thank you, Dr. Debbie,” and the room applauded. It’s alarming to consider that Almontaser instructs Department of Education staff, let alone that she addressed a “unity” conference.
The program also invited incoherencies by lumping together civil discrimination, hate crimes, and violent extremism. These are not a continuum; they represent starkly different legal categories, offenders, and remedies. A striking example came from panelist Audacia Ray, an LGBTQ advocate who defined safety as “feeling affirmed” and enjoying “access to housing”—goals far removed from objectives like preventing mass shootings.
Mismatched, too, were the strategies Ray promoted, such as “upstander and bystander” trainings and “the five D’s of de-escalation.” One of the D’s, Ray explained, is distraction—such as clapping loudly so that an assailant forgets his belligerence. “I have a musical theater friend who starts singing,” Ray added. Next up was the Orthodox Union’s Rabbi Moshe Hauer, who recounted how his mother fled the Nazis across Europe, while a cattle car transported his father to years of slave labor. (I pictured a theater kid trying vigorously to distract the Nazis with a rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”)
Other presentations during the conference simply abandoned addressing strategies and threats in favor of metaphysics. “Before you can get to any specific set of policies you have to have a moral foundation to build upon,” said Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado, in concluding the event. “A lot of the work that we’re doing here is meant to reset that. I hope that more than anything you are feeling the power of love.”
Spreading love was also the imperative of Maria L. Imperial, commissioner for the New York State Division of Human Rights (DHR), who described how DHR’s new initiatives include employing youth as “ambassadors of love” and healing circles as an “important part” of rapid response teams for hate and bias incidents. DHR’s final strategic “pillar” is creating a public “campaign for love.”
But New Yorkers could do with less talk of love or hate and more tangible steps and strategies to ensure their safety. If I have the pleasure of attending next year’s summit, I hope to hear how outcomes of all these new programs and investments were measured. Because safety, not love, is our true point of unity.
Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images