For more than three decades, Cal State San Bernardino professor Brian Levin has been doing more than just keeping an eye on people who inflict some of the worst harm humans wreak on each other.
He takes his original and collaborative trend analysis to Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Department of Justice, and also to community stakeholders, because he believes a civil democracy’s market place of ideas should be informed by facts at all levels.
From that perspective, the professor of criminal justice and director of the non-partisan CSUSB Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism has with repeated accuracy identified trends not only to help law enforcement and policy makers fight hate crimes and other extremist acts, but also to inform the public through independent and timely data.
Along the way, he has earned the reputation for being one of the most knowledgeable and accessible scholars of extremism and remedies to it. He is often called upon by governmental and academic bodies and journalists around the world for his insight and analysis.
Add to that recognition the 2020 Wang Family Excellence Award from the California State University, given annually to the university system’s outstanding faculty members and one outstanding staff member who, through extraordinary commitment and dedication, have distinguished themselves by exemplary contributions and achievements.
Levin was honored in the Outstanding Faculty Scholarship category.
Awardees, who will be honored by the CSU trustees on Jan. 28, were selected by a committee comprised of representatives from the Board of Trustees, the chair of the Academic Senate, a previous faculty recipient of the Wang Award and CSU executive staff.
Each recipient receives a $20,000 award; Levin said he plans to direct some of the funds to the work of the center, as well as programs that serve U.S. military veterans, the LGBTQ community and the homeless.
“The Wang Award is a wonderful and appropriate recognition of Professor Levin’s devotion to promoting scholarly understandings of prejudice, hate, and their attendant threats to our society,” said Rafik Mohamed, dean of CSUSB’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, where the center and criminal justice department are housed. “I couldn’t be happier for him, or prouder of the work that he and his colleagues do in the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at CSUSB.”
Levin becomes the fifth CSUSB faculty member to receive a Wang Family Excellence Award, joining Diane Halpern (psychology, 1999), Robert Blackey (history, 2003), Alan L. Smith (geology, 2006) and Stuart Sumida (biology, 2008).
“This award, which really belongs to our team, furthers our ability to undertake additional research, community engagement, and sadly, security,” Levin said. “It is also a reaffirmation of academia’s keystone role to inform and engage the public and policymakers in a Jeffersonian marketplace of ideas anchored by provable facts.”
For some of the public, Levin is an occasional face, voice and quote often included for context and reasoned analysis in television, radio and newspaper coverage of hate crime and terror attacks, such as the El Paso Walmart shooting in the summer of 2019 and the December 2015 massacre at the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center that killed 14 people – five of them CSUSB graduates.
“I think there is a solemn responsibility, especially when one’s own community is brutally attacked by terrorists,” he said. “At a time of violence and fear, critical information about context, prevention and aftereffects must inform our responses. However, a center like ours, dedicated to civil discourse, has a special obligation not to let the terrorists, nor those who would exploit the attack to foment hatred, have the last word. So, there’s now a campus peace garden, but we also have a virtual archive to memorialize the event.
“What I am most proud of though, is that among the top extremist scholars, we also have on our center’s board Trenna Meins, the wife of one of those lost, a pillar of our community,” Levin said. “She is central to our board and not only informs our policy, but her grace, candor and friendship anchors us in a way no one outside can ever truly know.”
Since then, he has had family members of the victims, including Meins, speak at his classes so students could get their insight.
“Every community heals in its own way and I think a university can be a unique place for some of that healing,” Levin said. “Those most impacted were immediately sought out when they were severely traumatized and least able to reflectively respond. After the glare faded, the passage of time and a dose of empathy allowed a tilt of the remaining spotlight to the graceful heroes and their experiences, that otherwise would have been lost. These neighbors are our friends and you just go from there.”
The presentation of diverse and compelling voices to his students is key to his teaching philosophy, and he is on constant alert for people of good will who may not have yet been effectively heard.
While there was no grand plan that led Levin, who came to CSUSB in 1999 from Stockton College in New Jersey, to where he is today, there was a vision. Similarly, and reflective of his collaborative nature, there is no single person, but rather a small supportive ensemble at critical times in his life. An Honors American history major at the University of Pennsylvania, he also worked a community beat in Harlem and Washington Heights as a New York City police officer, Levin went on to earn his law degree from Stanford.
“I think that like most valuable lessons in life, you are molded incrementally,” Levin said.
The molding began soon after he was born. A native of Long Island, N.Y., Levin is the son of a New York City policewoman and a veterinarian. His father, Howard, who served as a U.S. Army medic, was captured by Nazi troops in France after the Allies’ D-Day invasion and held as a prisoner of war in Essen, Germany. Being a POW — and a Jewish American at that — who barely escaped death because of his medical training, and living through the Great Depression of the 1930s helped shape how his father lived. Long lines of diverse people visited his father’s South Bronx animal clinic because the veterinarian charged nominal or no fees for services that were sometimes paid back in barter, homecooked meals, prayers or friendships. As long as there was freedom, food on the table and clothes on their backs, the elder Levin saw good fortune.
“He also saw the dark side of the world,” Levin said. “And I think that influenced him toward both kindness and skepticism, and that in turn, influenced me.”
Two other influences on his life were A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., and Frank Breen.
Higginbotham was a towering figure in civil rights as well as a respected federal appellate court judge who also taught classes at the University of Pennsylvania, where as an undergraduate, Levin took on a graduate-level class during which the judge imparted valuable wisdom. Levin picked hate crimes as a class project and noticed that something was terribly amiss in its reporting. Higginbotham encouraged Levin this way: Go find out what it is, and back it up with good, thorough and solid research. That counsel led to a small grant and its eventual use in Supreme Court briefs of his, and in the promulgation of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
Breen was a New York City police officer and instructor at the police academy when Levin was there. He was, in Levin’s words, an Irish cop who resembled Teddy Roosevelt, and demanded excellence across the board, regardless of race, religion or gender. And beneath the tough cop exterior, he was an educated man who could talk about art and culture.
After graduating from Stanford Law, Levin continued his work on hate crimes that he began under Higginbotham’s guidance. He wrote a legal brief defending Wisconsin’s hate crime law that was being contested in the U.S. Supreme Court. With the help of that brief, the Wisconsin law was upheld — and Levin’s name became known in legal circles. What set the brief apart was that it solidly quantified its findings with research that showed crimes motivated by bias — whether it is race, religion or sexual orientation — inflict greater individual and societal harm.
From there, in 1995, the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., hired him as an associate director of legal affairs for its then Klanwatch/Militia Task Force. He began teaching at Stockton College after that to be near family when his father fell ill. After coming to CSUSB, he established the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in 1999 as a resource and clearinghouse of information.
In 2015, after much demand, the center began publishing reports on hate crime, terrorism and extremism from data Levin analyzes.
As demand for the center’s work grew, he brought in Kevin Grisham, chair of CSUSB’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, as assistant director of research, and John Reitzel, CSUSB associate professor of criminal justice, as research associate, complemented by an international advisory board.
In addition to Levin, the Wang Family Excellence Awards recipients are Brian P. Self, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Outstanding Faculty Teaching; Rajee Amarasinghe, Fresno State, Outstanding Faculty Innovator in Student Success; Brian J. Bartelink, Chico State, Outstanding Faculty Service; and Laura Lupei, Outstanding Staff Performance.
The Wang Family Excellence Award was originally established in 1998 when then-CSU Trustee Stanley Wang provided $1 million to recognize the remarkable contributions of the CSU’s faculty and staff over a 10-year period.
Trustee Emeritus Wang generously agreed to reinstate the award beginning in 2015, and in January 2017, Mr. Wang endowed the program with a $2.5 million gift, allowing the CSU to recognize outstanding faculty and staff for years to come. In total, Mr. Wang has given $3.8 million to the CSU over the years.