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On Hate Crimes

Two must-read posts: Vox ex Machina and XicanoPwr.

Vox details a handful of recent hate crimes, and points out that these are not individual acts; they are part of a larger and long-standing trend of violence against people who differ from the standard straight white Christian able-bodied man. She writes,

Given the history of hate crimes in the United States, the history that we, as a nation, are only now beginning to address with the arrests of people like James Ford Seale, no, this crime is not special or unique. If we cannot talk about our history, honestly and with an eye on preventing it from repeating itself, then it’s going to do just that.

It’s not a pretty history. It’s a history of lynchings, from Native Americans to blacks to Chinese immigrants. It’s a history of genocidal wars, slavery, forced sterilization, imprisonment in asylums, and discriminatory laws. It’s a history of unspeakable crimes committed against people of color, immigrants, and social “undesirables,” against women, against people of other faiths.

And because we won’t face it head on, every few years, the cycle rears its head.

There’s an urge to talk about hate crimes as individual acts — some crazy racist in some ass-backwards white trash town decided to attack a person of color. Some homophobe in the fly-over zone decided to kill a gay person. That’s it. A crime like any other.

But that’s not it. Hate crimes are unique because, as Vox points out, they’re part of a larger history of targeting traditionally disempowered groups. They’re also different in purpose than most other violent crimes: The purpose of a hate crime is not only to injure or kill an individual; the purpose of a hate crime is to terrorize an entire community of people who share an immutable characteristic. That’s what makes hate crimes different from “regular” crimes. That’s why the argument that “every crime is a hate crime” doesn’t fly. Many crimes involve hate. But hate crimes specifically lash out at a collective group by injuring one of that group’s members.

XicanoPwr points out that hate crimes also have a hand in maintaining traditional power structures:

The truth is, hate crimes function to maintain the status quo; they protect the people in charge, the men and women who are responsible for making important decisions at the highest levels of society. Blame tends to move away from the top, minimizing the possibility that profound changes could ever occur.

When your daily life is tinged with fear, it’s awfully hard to make substantive change. Consider the pervasive fear and threat of violence and sexual assault that women live with every day: It impacts our ability to freely move through society, to travel, to challenge male authority. Turning rape and intimate partner violence into individual, isolated crimes obscures their broader impact.

Further, as XicanoPwr says, isolating hate crimes removes responsibility from those in power — those who benefit from prejudice and hatred. Individualizing crimes that are by their nature collective removes culpability from all of us who help to maintain a system where entire classes of people are less valued and less protected than others.

Continuing to view hate crimes as one-time events perpetuated by people crazed by prejudice (you know, people who aren’t like you or I or anyone we know) against some unlucky individual does not do justice to their true nature. The rash of crimes detailed by Vox and XicanoPwr are not unfortunate incidents between two parties. They are part of an ongoing and wide-reaching epidemic. And they harm many, many more people than those who are named in the police report.

8 thoughts on On Hate Crimes

  1. This is a tough one. Although I’m sensitive to the issues here, and don’t disagree that so-called “hate” crimes are a larger epidemic in American and human society, I don’t agree with hate crime laws. Here’s why:

    First and foremost, there is no evidence that I’m aware of that hate crime laws serve as a deterrent. Indeed, the end result is that the perpetrator is simply incarcerated for a longer period of time in an institution (prison) whose racial divisions are far more acute and violent than in regular society. Note that neither of the articles you linked to included the most troubling rise in hate crimes–namely the dramatic increase of black-on-Hispanic and Hispanic-on-black racial violence erupting in major cities like Los Angeles documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center a few months ago. The SPLC rightfully pointed out the connection to racial divisions in prisons, spurred by prison overcrowding and longer sentences in general.

    Now I’m also not going to disagree with you that hate crimes directly and indirectly victimize an entire class of people. However, that class already has a forum in which the crime’s impact on their lives can be heard: the sentencing hearing. Often used as an opportunity for defendants to submit letters and declarations of support for the court’s consideration, the sentencing hearing is also a forum for the general public to file declarations with the court as well. If the injured class wants to be heard, they can be.

    In the past fifty years, the prosecution of racially motivated crimes has increased dramatically. Crimes against gay or transgendered people which in the past were famously swept under the rug are now prosecuted with gusto. Not in every case, mind you, but far more than before. Hate groups are now extensively monitored by the federal government and private entities and have become increasingly marginalized by society (although, again, not wholly marginalized). This isn’t to say that violence against minorities is on the wane, but it is clearly taken more seriously. And none of that is because of a hate crime law.

    Vox wrote:

    As long as hate crimes cannot be tried as hate crimes because the punishments are far less severe than trying them simply as plain kidnapping and torture cases, we will never be able to stop hate crimes.

    Although I appreciate the sentiment, there’s no evidence that what Vox says is true. Longer prison sentences are not deterrents to any kind of crime and never have been. Anyone familiar with prison reform known this. The solution to the rise in hate crimes is not to put people in prison for longer.

  2. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to lump intimate partner violence in with hate crimes. If anything I’d say it’s the exact opposite of a hate crime. If someone decides to kill a random gay guy that would intimidate me. If some bloke kills his boyfriend I can’t see how that’s anything but an attack on the victim. One is directed at a community the other at an individual.

    I’ve got to say while if pushed I’d agree that crimes which also victimize an entire class of people are more serious, I have my concerns about whether that idea is totally progressive. One of the reasons domestic violence was and is thought of as less important than street violence is that street violence terrorises the public, while domestic violence doesn’t.

  3. The purpose of a hate crime is not only to injure or kill an individual; the purpose of a hate crime is to terrorize an entire community of people who share an immutable characteristic. That’s what makes hate crimes different from “regular” crimes. That’s why the argument that “every crime is a hate crime” doesn’t fly. Many crimes involve hate. But hate crimes specifically lash out at a collective group by injuring one of that group’s members.

    This is the first cogent argument I’ve run into in favor of hate crimes legislation. I have always had an instinctual sense that they are worse- and deserve special attention by the justice system – but my ACLU tendencies held me back from fully embracing them. Too often hate crimes legislation is discussed as trying to punish speech or thoughts – which is problematic. Thanks for your analysis.

  4. At the recent events in Jena were clearly racially motivated, shouldn’t the white students who hung the nooses from the tree, and the black students who beat the white kid be charged with hate crimes?

  5. It might get me moderated out but in my experience oppressed minorities are far more hateful than anyone else. It is pretty logical as well since hate is one of the few ways they can vent their anger at their status. Most hate crimes aren’t committed by people in power, they are committed by other powerless people who identify with the people in power though they have a snowball’s chance in hell of actually being one.

  6. I think the arguments in the original posting are becoming overly broad. There’s a difference between “purpose” and “effect.” The effect of some drunk “straight” guys beating up a gay man might be–certainly will be–felt by an entire community, but that doesn’t say anything about the motivation or purpose of the perpetrators. They might be acting out of hate, but wouldn’t necessarily have a purpose directed toward a larger group.
    A public lynching, on the other hand, is undoubtedly intended to serve as a warning to a community.

    Unless you’re going to put “purpose” into the definition of hate crime? Then you’ll have a different subset of events. Not every beating, killing, or other crime directed toward someone because of their membership in a group will be treated as a hate crime if you also have to prove a purpose, not just a motivation.

    I’m not downplaying the issues here, but I think there’s a tendency sometimes to paint them as binary, when they aren’t.

  7. Not to blogwhore, but since July I’ve been working on a series of posts on LGBT hate crimes. It started out as a project to document those crimes on Wikipedia, but it began to grow beyond the guidelines of what’s considered notable enough to post on Wikipedia. So, I launched The LGBT Hate Crimes Project, to continue researching and recording these hate crimes.

    The reason? I got the idea while researching hate crimes for a blog post, and discovered that several I knew of and had written about weren’t on Wikipedia. So, I researched them and started adding them, because in many cases, the information is locked behind newspaper archives that almost no one accesses because doing so usually requires a fee. So, their stories fade away when they fade from the headlines. I just thought they needed to be remembered and told somewhere.

    So, I’m continuing to research and record them at the URL above.

  8. I hear the phrase “all crimes are hate crimes” a lot as a reason not to legislate against it.

    Drives me nuts. Most crimes are crimes of gain and opportunity, i.e. mugging the first person who may have more than a buck in the wallet.
    Hate crimes are targeted and specific, i.e. mugging the elderly Jewish man, and painting swastikas on the wall in his blood.

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