I am hoping that this discussion of what hate violence legislation is, and the underpinnings of it, will address the questions (and scoffing) I know are happening across the country as it is once more at the top of the news. I am a survivor of hate violence, and I have friends who have experienced hate violence, two of whom were murdered. My experiences inform me that many people, especially white people, not only do not understand the need for hate legislation, but who actually see it as “special” treatment. It is not, and I hope the following article helps explain why it is important.
In years of teaching I heard repeated times “Why are crimes against some people special? A crime is a crime and they shouldn’t get special treatment.” So I am sure that across this nation, in the wake of a series of hate driven crimes, people are asking the same question. Almost invariably it is white people asking that question because minorities of almost all categories “get” what hate crimes are.
Among the three most recent events – sending pipe bombs to people identified by Trump as ‘enemies’, the execution of two African Americans in Kentucky, and the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh – only two currently qualify as “hate” crimes under the federal designation, the murders in Kentucky and the attacks at Tree of Life synagogue. This is because only certain bias driven speech and crimes are designated under federal law, and those are ones where the victim(s) are attacked because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin. The Act also extends federal hate crime prohibitions to crimes committed because of the actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person. The gender and disability categories are not consistently included under bias crimes, and age (while critical) is only considered at the upper end. Regardless, while the attempted assassinations via pipe bombs were driven by hate, political affiliation is not covered under any bias legislation that I know of.
The real issue that too many do not understand is why there are special penalties assigned to certain crimes and not to others. What makes bias or hate crimes different is two fold. First, the target is chosen because of association (or perceived association) with a specified group or class of people. Second, the message that is sent by the actions has little or nothing to do with the victim or target, but to the group or class. In other words, people or places are targeted because of the perceived group affiliation and that the action is a threat to the entire group. For example, an assumed Hispanic man is attacked at a bus stop and the attackers are yelling “Stay out of our neighborhood you fucking greaser (or other slur)!”. In hate crimes, the attack happens because of identification and it serves as a warning or threat to all folks in that category. It is this feature of bias crimes that takes them beyond the individual victim to an injury to the group.
In the recent events, the attempted assassinations of Trump’s designated “enemies” is a hateful act, but does not qualify as a bias crime – at least not directly. One thing that could change this is that many of these folks (individually and collectively) are accused by Trump to be recruiting, encouraging, coordinating, etc, the entrance of undocumented people into the United States (and other race and origin issues) . He has also tagged the immigrants in both a racist and xenophobic manner. Therefore these ‘enemies’ of Trump are “allies” of these immigrants so by extension the assassination attempts could possibly be covered by hate crime legislation. Thus far I have not heard this argument being made.
For all of the existence of hate violence legislation, it is actually applied very rarely. This is because while in the prosecution of crimes in general there is focus on intent – was it the intent to harm, for example – but with hate crimes motivation must be demonstrated, and that is a much higher bar. Unless there is obvious evidence of bias (for example, Robert Bower screaming something like “All Jews must die!”, or leaving other direct evidence of bias, or confessing to bias, then it is difficult to prove motivation. Simply committing a crime where the individual, group, organization, or place, is clearly within the bias guidelines does not mean that a hate charge will be made.
Why These Categories/Classes?
It is quite reasonable to ask “Why these categories or classes?” When the issues of discrimination came to be adjudicated under federal law, the original classes were race, color, religion, or national origin. It was well demonstrated that both in terms of cultural prejudices, as well as in terms of institution laws, policies, and practices, that people had been discriminated against because of their race or color or national origin (at some points in our history that has been the same thing), and religion (most particularly this has impacted Native Americans, non-Christian Asians, and Catholics). In other words, these social statuses have been (and are) clear components of the social stratification system in the United States. More recently, sex, sexual orientation, gender, and disability have been added to this list. This is not because we just “discovered” that there are structural barriers and cultural prejudices against people based upon their sex, sexual orientation, etc, but because these biases are so deeply embedded that there has been great resistance to formally acknowledging this problem area.
One of the areas that is a major component of our systems of inequality is social class, but there is even greater resistance to looking at structural inequality based on socio-economic status than there was to sexual orientation (which took the torture and death of Matthew Shepherd to move Congress). It is unlikely that class will be added as the myth in the U.S. is that class is tied to individual effort as we purportedly live in a meritocracy, but that is another (series of) article all on its own.
We have systemic and systematic inequality in the United States. This means that inequality / oppression/ prejudice and discrimination, is integrated deeply into our culture and way of life (meaning systemic). That inequality is systematic means it is not random, but follows patterns that are identifiable and even predictable. Part of the system is that certain characteristics have taken on meaning that places us within the system (status). WHAT characteristics are most prevalent at any time or era may vary, and what those characteristics mean may change, but the characteristics as “identifiers” are remarkably persistent. In the United States, race and national origin (which have been intimately intertwined throughout our history), religion (once again, something that has reordered itself over time, but persists), and sex.
Whether we are discussing hate or discrimination or prejudice/bias, they all are grounded within our system of culture (values and rules of interaction, shared understandings) and social structure (our social institutions such as family, political order, economic system, laws and justice, education, etc). Therefore, when we talk about hate violence or speech, discrimination in any form, or affirmative action, it focuses around these same statuses or categories.
Universality and Privilege
It is critical to understand that EVERYONE within our society has these statuses in the “protected classes”. We all have a race and national origin, sex, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation, abilednss and disabledness. Therefore the legislation (such as affirmative action, anti-discrimination, hate legislation) applies to us all – not just to those who are not white, not male, not heterosexual, or not of able bodied and mind. This is the universality of these socially important statuses.
The other critical component to understanding both our system of structured inequality, and legislation aimed at addressing it, is that there are also structured “winners”. Inequality and discrimination occurs in a framework of privilege and disprivilege. If a certain status is the definition of “equal”, then equality is a a myth. Those things we identify as attaching to “equal” are in fact a privilege. They are a privilege that attaches to status and while we may embody that status, the things that attach to it belong to the “group”, or status, and not to us personally. For example, if we say that being treated with respect, dealt with politely, and trusted, is the norm (what it means to be treated equal) – the way that “people” are treated, but only those of certain statuses are the ones who regularly experience this, then we are looking at privilege. Being treated politely and trusted is largely the gifts of privilege given to whites, white males, and white heterosexuals who are able bodied and seem mentally “normal” and “stable”. It is frequently not the experience of everyone else. People with status privilege generally think that they are treated the way they are because of their personal character, personality, hard work, etc. The reality is quite different and that is very hard for people with status privilege to understand – or admit.
Resistance to Dealing with Systematized Inequality
We will consistently be unable to successfully address inequality, and the highly negative outcomes of it, until we understand and accept privilege and what it means. Privilege is the background on which all inequality is painted. People with privilege are all too often in high denial that it exists, or that they benefit from it. A major part of the socialization into privilege is that everything you have, they way you are treated, etc, are all due to your personal character and actions. Further, is the socialization that everyone is operating under the same rules, we have a level playing field, and particularly at this time in our nation, that any inequality or prejudice that exists is personal in nature.
This belief in the myth that we have somehow arrived at a state of “equality” creates a slew of problems. It means that any legislation to address inequality is perceived as actually disadvantaging the privileged, or giving some unfair positive consideration and treatment to those who “don’t deserve it”. Claims of “reverse discrimination” are a prime example of this mentality, and also reflect a complete (and willful) misunderstanding that the privileged are as protected by anti-bias legislation as lower status groups. This can generate anger, and people will feel that their anger is legitimated by this “unfair” situation. They see themselves as “victims” of the constructed system, and in fact, may identify the government as an enemy.
Our inability to deal with our full system of structured inequality also leaves us ripe for the picking for manipulation by fear tactics and scapegoating. We are more likely to believe claims that fit within the stereotype and negative propaganda. Trump, and a variety of groups who support and benefit from his antics, are playing this to the hilt with their attacks on immigrants and claims that they are criminals, disease ridden, and are invading “us”. We therefore are legitimated in our actions to “defend” ourselves. This deliberate manipulation of cultural bias and fears are then linked to other stereotypes. Such as Democrats, or Jews and Democrats, are actually paying the invaders (or protestors), etc.
Frankly, the rhetoric is getting uglier and uglier, and while horrendous, it is not surprising that we are seeing a wild increase in acts of hate.
We are at a critical point in our history, and frankly the history of the world. As people’s general insecurity increases, the susceptibility to the politics of fear, scapegoating and hatred increase. Across the planet right wing, nationalist, fascists are rising. The way to address this is not by falling into armed camps, but by stretching our empathy and working hard to build community. We are at a fracture point. Will we break, or will we work to address the many issue that are driving our insecurity? Will we address the rampant economic inequality where the top .01% is getting 90% of everything? Will we address the fact that money is not truly voice, but that our voices must be heard? Will we deal with both the growing impacts of global warming, but also quit engaging in behavior that is accelerating that warming? Will we acknowledge and address the fundamental inequality and biases of the justice system? Will we address that our foreign policies are driving inequality, war, and destruction across the planet?
We are facing a criticality. Which way will we take?