Out of the classroom

Hate speech

Keegan Hankes, AB’13, on how he learned to talk to racists.

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

As a third-year, Keegan Hankes, AB’13, ended up in Matthew Briones’s American civilization course “by total accident,” he says, “with only a passing interest in race relations.”

Briones, who won a Quantrell Award for Undergraduate Teaching in 2015, specializes in comparative race relations, Asian/Pacific Islander American history, and African American history. His book, Jim and Jap Crow: A Cultural History of 1940s Interracial America (Princeton University Press, 2012), focuses on the intersection of Asian American and African American culture.

During the first week of Briones’s course, Hankes, who grew up in Auburn, Alabama, volunteered to lead a discussion on the Scottsboro boys. (In 1931 nine young African Americans were accused of rape; their trials are now a famous example of a miscarriage of justice.) “It was probably really obnoxious, but I think I talked for half the class,” says Hankes.

Soon afterward he visited Briones during his office hours. The two began to have long conversations about Hankes’s upbringing in the South. “He gave me an entirely new lens on where I was raised and caused me to think a lot more critically about a region central to my identity,” Hankes says. “If you aren’t careful, you can unconsciously participate in some pretty nasty racial projects that have persisted for generations.”

A fundamentals major, Hankes took three more courses with Briones: Baseball and American Culture, 1840–Present; Interracial America; and Introduction to Asian/Pacific Islander American History. He was one of the few white students in the Asian/Pacific Islander class; it was his first direct experience of being a minority. “You learn a lot about yourself,” he says. “You start doing a lot of listening.”

Hankes had no clear plans after graduation other than hiking the Appalachian Trail with his father, since “fundamentals doesn’t exactly lend itself to any immediate career.” He hoped to move back to the South, where his family and many of his friends still live. Then “it just kind of worked out”: he was offered a Metcalf Internship at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Alabama.

Hankes now works full time for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, monitoring organized hate across the country. He spends much of his day on the internet, reading about extremist groups, trying to understand who they are and what tactics they’re using against what communities.

The Intelligence Project, once called Klanwatch, now monitors the full spectrum of hate groups. “My major ideologies are white nationalism and neo-Confederates,” Hankes says. “The neo-Confederate stuff is a pet project, because I know those people. I recognize those people from growing up down here.” Other staff members focus on anti-gay, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant organizations.

He was a bit naive when he first started. He remembers sending an email to a colleague, concerned about racial slurs he found online. “That’s just laughable now,” he says. “What are you going to do about that? That’s not a battle you can fight and win.”

In addition to reading literature produced by hate groups, Hankes talks to members directly, to get quotes for the articles he writes. Several of his articles have been picked up by Salon.

He credits his UChicago experience with helping him remain dispassionate during these interviews. “You can’t have a knee-jerk reaction, like, why would you say that? What is wrong with you? You have to dissociate with whatever you feel about it,” he says. “I’m attempting to have the same rigor and intellectual curiosity that I would have in the U of C classroom.” He just happens to be having such discussions “with someone who believes that black people should have a passport to come into the state of Alabama.”

Last year Hankes made sure to meet up with Briones when he returned to campus for Alumni Weekend. The two laughed about the pragmatic approach to racism that Hankes’s career requires. “It feels so different to be fighting hate in this way than it felt in the classroom,” says Hankes. “A theory and practice type thing.”


Hate group count breakdown in percentages

From the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, “The Year in Hate and Extremism”: “The percentage of Klan and neo-Nazi hate groups has dipped, while the share of racist skinhead crews has grown. It appears that in 2014 certain KKK groups went underground, disappearing from the Web. The neo-Confederate movement has fallen, while Christian Identity has dropped to the point where the racist religion has nearly disappeared. Rising anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT sentiment has contributed to considerable growth in the general hate category.”


General hate count breakdown

According to Intelligence Report, “There is also evidence that large numbers of extremists have left organized groups because of the high social cost of being known to affiliate with them.” These people have turned to the internet to share their views anonymously.


Keegan Hankes, AB’13, spends much of his workday on the internet, monitoring organized hate at websites like Reddit. (Screengrab collage and graphs (below) courtesy Southern Poverty Law Center)