Monday, November 28, 2005

Hate crimes: The big picture

Have you ever noticed how, when libertarians and right-wingers talk about "threats to our freedoms," the only source of those threats is the government?

It's perhaps useful to remember that, over the course of American history, the greatest threats to the liberty of American citizens have come not from the government, but from our fellow citizens. Particularly, those directed by white citizens against nonwhites.

Recall, for instance, that the most egregious example of the removal of citizens' civil rights in America occurred primarily through extralegal means -- namely, during the lynching period, when thousands of blacks were summarily murdered in the most horrible fashion imaginable, often merely for the sin of being successful by white standards (this made them "uppity" and thus marked for extermination).

Lynching was a form of socially sanctioned terrorism against the black community whose entire purpose was to "keep the niggers down." It largely succeeded, until the wellsprings of the civil rights movement began working to tear it down as a broadly accepted American institution.

The legacy of lynching remains with us today, though, in the form of hate crimes -- whose purpose, once again, is to oppress and eliminate targeted minorities. This fact was driven home once again by a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics examining the real state of hate crimes in America:
The real number of hate crimes in the United States is more than 15 times higher than FBI statistics reflect, according to a stunning new government report.

Hate crime statistics published by the FBI since 1992, based on voluntary reports from law enforcement agencies around the country, have shown annual totals of about 6,000 to 10,000, depending on the year. But the new report, "Hate Crimes Reported by Victims and Police," found an average annual total of 191,000 hate crimes. That means the real level of hate crime runs between 19 and 31 times higher than the numbers that have been officially reported for almost 15 years.

"It's an astounding report," said Jack Levin, a leading hate crime expert at Northeastern University. "It's not necessarily completely accurate, but I would trust these data before I trusted the voluntary law enforcement reports to the FBI."

... The report, which inferred hate motivation from the words and symbols used by the offender, found that just 44 percent of hate crimes are reported to police. Other hate crimes don't make it into FBI statistics for an array of reasons: police may fail to record some as hate crimes; their departments may not report hate crime statistics to state officials; and those officials may not accurately report to the FBI.

According to the new report, hate crimes involve violence far more often than other crimes. The data showed 84 percent of hate crimes were violent, meaning they involved a sexual attack, robbery, assault or murder. By contrast, just 23 percent of non-hate crimes involved violence. Other studies have suggested that hate-motivated violence, especially against homosexuals, is more extreme than other violence.

The report also showed that 56 percent of hate crime victims identified race as the primary factor in the crimes they reported. Ethnicity accounted for another 29 percent of the total. Hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation were 18 percent of the total. Given that the best studies indicate about 3 percent of the American population is homosexual, this means that gays and lesbians are victimized at six times the overall rate.

It's likely that, in fact, we're seeing an increase in unreported hate crimes because one of the most significant areas of underreportage involves hate crimes against immigrants. As I've observed previously, the ongoing efforts of the rabid right to "crack down" on these immigrants, particularly in the face of significant demographic shifts in the Midwest and West due to Latino immigration, has made it far more likely that this problem will only worsen.

That is only one front on which American conservatives are measurably deepening the problem. The most significant, of course, is the continuing campaign to ensure that Congress cannot even pass a federal hate-crimes law.

And, as I've also noted, conservatives are not alone in these failures. Many mainstream liberals have capitulated to the right-wing, pseudo-libertarian contention that hate-crimes laws create "thought crimes." As I explained then:
More to the point (and as I also argue at length in Death on the Fourth of July), hate-crimes laws are not about taking away anyone's freedoms -- rather, they are about ensuring freedoms for millions of Americans.

As I point out in the book, hate crimes have the fully intended effect of driving away and deterring the presence of any kind of hated minority -- racial, religious, or sexual. They are essentially acts of terrorism directed at entire communities of people, and they are message crimes: "Keep out."

Rural dwellers' dread of the dark colors of the inner city is something of a cliche, one based nonetheless on reality. What is less observed, however, is the common dread held by many minorities for America's more rural spaces. Black people fear stepping foot in Idaho because of the presence of the Aryan Nations in the state's Panhandle. Gays and lesbians view driving through places like Wyoming and Montana with a palpable anxiety.

If you get out a map of the country and put yourself in the shoes of a person of color or another sexual persuasion, and start looking at the places you would feel safe visiting, you'll suddenly realize that this can be a very small country indeed for people who are not white heterosexuals. This is what Yale hate-crimes expert Donald Green means when he says that hate crimes annually create a "massive dead-weight loss of freedom" for Americans.

That massive dead-weight loss keeps mounting. And our continuing inaction will, someday, be considered a source of national shame.

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