Janell Ross, Tennessean (Nashville), May 10, 2008
Hate crimes against Hispanic and disabled victims rose dramatically in Tennessee last year, leaving advocates for both groups concerned about the trend.
A recent Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report shows hate crimes rose 28 percent overall between 2006 and 2007, but those against Hispanics more than doubled and those against the disabled grew from 1 to 30.
Those who study social conflict say stress over the economy is a contributing force, along with an increase in the Hispanic population and related anger about immigration.
Most of last year’s incidents were thefts, forgeries and burglaries victimizing mentally disabled persons. Donna DeStefano, assistant director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said the problem is likely economic, with criminals using one of society’s most vulnerable groups for money.
House, car are targets
Nationally, hate crimes against disabled victims rose incrementally, while hate crimes against Hispanics grew 20 percent, from 2002 and 2006, the most recent five-year period with data available.
Both incidents were declared hate crimes, criminal acts motivated by a victim’s race, ethnicity or national origin, religion, gender, sexuality or disability. In Tennessee and 32 other states, when prosecutors can prove that a form of bias played a motivating role in a crime, perpetrators face additional punishment for their crime.
For many people, the term “immigrant” or “illegal alien” has become synonymous with a Hispanic person, said Catalina Nieto, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
Nieto suspects that much of the hate crimes against Hispanic victims goes unreported because of immigrants’ concern about the consequences of contact with police.
Historically, hate crime has grown most intense in the United States during periods of economic distress and when the social order is in the process of being upset, said Steven Tepper, a Vanderbilt University sociologist who specializes in social conflict.