In the News Series
Copyright 2009 by the Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
Age Level: Middle School
Chapter 1: What Are Hate Crimes?
Hate is a universal human emotion. It is an extreme rejection of another person, the desire to have nothing to do with that person, and sometimes, the desire to hurt or kill that person. Everyone feels hate at some point in their lives, but most of us choose not to lash out, or are taught that it is wrong to use violence against others.
Hate crimes arise when a person or a group decides to act on their hatred of another person or a group in a criminal way.
Why Create Laws Against Hate Crime?
Some groups oppose the existence of hate crimes, maintaining that regular laws against assault and violence protect all citizens, regardless of their color, ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, or sexual orientation. Therefore, they believe, a special category of crime is not needed as further protection.
However, when it enacted the Hate Crimes Act of 2000, the New York State Legislature found that:
Hate crimes do more than threaten the safety and welfare of all citizens…Hate crimes can and do intimidate and disrupt entire communities…Current law does not adequately recognize the harm to public order and individual safety that hate crimes cause. Therefore, our laws must be strengthened to provide clear recognition of the gravity of hate crimes and the compelling importance of preventing their recurrence. Accordingly, the legislature finds and declares that hate crimes should be prosecuted and punished with appropriate severity.
In 1993, the Supreme Court upheld the value of hate-crimes laws in Wisconsin v. Mitchell, a case involving a white youth beaten by a group of African Americans because of his race. The Supreme Court ruled that a state may consider whether a crime was committed or initially considered due to an intended victim’s status in a protected class, such as race.
The IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police) defines hate crimes this way: “A hate crime is a criminal offense committed against persons, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by an offender’s bias against an individual’s or a group’s race, religion, ethnic/national origin, gender, age, disability, or sexual orientation.” But that is only one definition. In U.S. federal law, in state laws, and in international laws, hate crimes will vary in who they include. Some differ in whether or not they include groups such as gays and lesbians, women, or the disabled, among other distinctions.
U.S. Hate Crime Law
U.S. Title 18 U.S.C. Section 245 makes it “unlawful to willfully injure, intimidate or interfere with any person, or to attempt to do so, by force or threat of force, because of that other person’s race, color, religion or national origin.” This law also protects against discrimination or harm to anyone who goes to a public school or college, travels around the country, uses government programs, works for the government, applies to a labor union or employment agency, is a juror, or goes into a public place like a movie theater or hotel. Punishment can range from imprisonment up to a life term, or the death penalty, depending on the circumstances of the crime.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Civil Rights Program Web site, a hate crime is not considered a distinct federal offense. If it is racially motivated, however, it can be considered a civil rights violation, which does fall under the FBI’s jurisdiction. While state and local authorities handle most hate crime cases, FBI investigations can often provide extra weight and authority to local cases. A 1994 federal law also increased penalties for offenses proven to be hate crimes.
Federal statutes do not allow the FBI to investigate crimes of bias motivated solely by gender, disability, or sexual orientation. In the U.S., whether those are prosecuted or not varies by state. However, in 2007, H.R. 1592, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (also known as the Matthew Shepard Act), passed both the House and Senate. If it reaches the desk of the President and is not vetoed or altered, it will require the U.S. Attorney General to provide assistance for the criminal investigation of felonies motivated by prejudice based on the perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim.
European Hate Crime Law
The European Union has been in existence only since 1993. It does not yet have one overriding hate crime law for all its members, although negotiations have been ongoing for seven years as of 2007. Many of the member states, especially France, do have very strict hate crime laws of their own. However, the E.U. does have a “Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia,” dated April 19, 2007, that states that certain acts should be punished by a maximum of one to three years of imprisonment, including:
Publicly inciting to violence or hatred,against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.
Publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes
Crimes directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.
These rules set the minimum standard for EU states and do not rule out adding other protections, such as those for gay and lesbian citizens, to a country’s laws.
Hate Crimes versus Hate Speech
One of the biggest conflicts in writing hate crimes laws is in drawing the line between speech and action. For example, if someone sets up a giant swastika (a Nazi-era symbol of hatred towards Jews and other groups) in their own yard, it is free speech. But it can also be seen as a way of intimidating any Jews or other minorities who live in that neighborhood.
In some European countries, free speech is less of a protected right than in the U.S., affecting how their hate crimes laws are written. In the U.S., the Constitution sets up strong protections for all speech, even objectionable or offensive speech. But if speech is used to harass, intimidate, or ruin a reputation with false accusations, then it can be restricted. Deciding when hate speech crosses the line into hate crime can be difficult for judges and lawmakers.
Hate Crime and Genocide
When a country or a region dissolves into chaos or civil war, hate crime usually rises as well. Sometimes, it will mushroom into full-blown genocide, or the attempt to massacre an entire group of people. The slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwanda by the Hutu in 1994, the murder of Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s and the ongoing attempt by the Sudanese government to wipe out the non-Arab peoples of Darfur in western Sudan are all attempts at genocide.
Of course, sometimes it is not chaos but calculation that makes a government choose genocide. The Holocaust of World War II was carried out through a highly organized government agenda. But although anti-Semitism had existed before the war broke out, the stress of war made it easier for the German government to justify imprisoning and murdering the Jewish population. As we will discuss in later chapters, crimes of hate also increase during times of stress , upheaval, and social change.