Eric Ward, Imagine 2050, May 11, 2009
Much has happened since federal hate crime legislation passed out of the U.S House of Representatives two weeks ago. Last week similar legislation, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was introduced on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The bi-partisan legislation, named after hate crime victim Matthew Shepard, would allow the U.S. government to prosecute hate crime violence within areas of federal jurisdiction.
Since 1995, when hate crime statistics were first collected at the national level, one thing remains clear. Blacks are more likely to be victims of hate crime than any other identity group in the United States.
In the last decade alone nearly 40,000 hate crimes against Blacks have been recorded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That’s over 3,000 incidents targeting blacks per year. While the reporting of hate crimes over all continues to decline, hate crimes against blacks have remained fairly consistent (hate crimes against Latinos are on the rise).
While 40,000 incidents in a decade should be alarming news, the actual fact is that that number is closer to 600,000 (that’s nearly 45,000 per year). Why? Because hate crimes are notoriously undercounted in the United States. A study done in 2005 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that hate crimes were actually 15 times higher than reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Marcie Morin in a Sunday guest column for the Denver Post wrote,
“In my mind, I can’t reconcile locking people up not just for what they did but for what they were thinking when they did it, and I can’t help but feel that it sets a dangerous precedent.”
In her column, Morin ignores the fact that hate crimes laws, including proposed federal legislation, do not criminalize free speech. Instead they criminalize the action that is motivated by bias, not the bias isolated from the crime. It is no different than enhancing the penalty for a murder that was pre-meditated (i.e. thought out in advance). Simply put, the intent of the perpetrator enhances the crime. Hate crimes should not be judged any differently.
Will federal hate crimes legislation stop all hate crimes? Probably not. But nor do laws criminalizing white collar crimes stop all white collar criminals. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act is an inclusive law that sends a loud message that it is unacceptable to victimize someone because of who they are perceived to be. Hate crime convictions bring justice which helps the healing process for the survivors of the crime, including the community to which the victim belonged.
Opposition to current hate crime legislation is really a debate about who is an American and more importantly who we believe is not. Hate crimes seek to divide communities based on race, religion, sexual orientations, ethnicity and nationality and is a direct assault on the concept of being an American–“out of many one.”