Hate Crimes Legislation Debate

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Jos, on Feministing, is against hate crimes legislation for several reasons, one being:

“Hate crimes legislation puts the power to bring and pursue such charges in the hands of a law enforcement and criminal justice system that disproportionately targets marginalized communities. As a result, hate crime charges are brought against black folks for allegedly targeting white folks and against queer folks for allegedly targeting straight folks. In fact, as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) points out in their non-endorsement of GENDA, so called anti-white hate crimes constitute the second highest amount reported by the FBI. Self defense in the face of a racist, homophobic or transphobic attack can equal a harsher sentence for the person being attacked in the first place.”

Read entire post here.

The SRLP’s statement includes their assertion that “[hate crimes legislation] encourage[s] us to lay blame and focus our vengeful hostility on one person instead of paying attention to institutional prejudice that fuels police violence, encourages bureaucratic systems to ignore trans people’s needs or actively discriminate against us, and denies our communities health care, identification, and so much more.”

The SRLP’s interpretation of the FBI statistics is misleading. Anti-white crimes may be the second most numerous type of hate crime based on race, but they still only constitute 18.3% compared to the 69.3% of the race crimes that are anti-black. Big difference. Also, the FBI statistics don’t even include a separate category for transgendered individuals.

Jos’ objection, “the fact that hate crime legislation does not have any quantifiable positive impact makes it a very poor reason to go against my larger belief about prisons” is a legitimate one. But I don’t understand a view that is willing to let hate crime perpetrators off the hook. Ideally, laws reflect the values of a society but sometimes they help to bring about change in those values. Hate crime legislation is both. There are still a lot of people in this society who think it is all right to commit crimes against persons and property base on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/nationality and disability. They need to be shown in no uncertain terms that our society will not stand for that behavior.

Meanwhile, I agree that other means to change people’s attitudes should be employed. But that kind of change can be slow in coming. Jos’ assertion that “harsher sentencing does not decrease the amount of hate crimes being committed” may be true, but not making laws against them implies a tolerance that our society cannot afford to exhibit.

The Matthew Shepard Act that is now going through Congress is an example of the attempt to tighten hate crimes laws. It seeks to achieve three objectives:

1) Expand the law to authorize the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute certain bias-motivated crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Current law only includes race, color, religion or national origin.

2) Eliminate a serious limitation on federal involvment under existing law which requires that a victim of a bias-motivated crime was attacked because he/she was engaged in a specified federally-protected activity such as voting, serving on a jury or attending school.

3) Add “gender” and “gender identity” to the Hate Crimes Statistics Act*

This does not seem to be too much to ask.

*Source: Matthew Shepard Foundation

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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