Why Hate Violence and Hate Crimes Are ‘Special’

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.

Religion and hate

Religion Fanning Hate. Westboro Baptists Picketing a Jewish Community Center. By Arizona Lincoln, 2010).

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?

Silent Witness, violence

Silent Witness
Behind closed doors she hides – herself and what she has become, the cuts, the bruises, the angry words said that should never be undone.
But luckily she lives and so forgives “Him” that “He” may go on to do the same again to “Her” another day.
And so on she goes broken like a fallen doll in this distress, in this godforsaken mess.
(A silent witness by The Naked Ape)
















  1. ridana says

    If a certain status is the definition of “equal”, then equality is a a myth. … 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.

    This is a way of looking at it I hadn’t heard before, but I think it’s valuable in trying to explain to people about “privilege” and “hate crimes.” Thank you for providing it.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Thus far I have not heard this argument [ that ‘enemies’ of Trump are “allies” […] so by extension the assassination attempts could possibly be covered by hate crime legislation] being made

    I proffer this reason you’ve not seen that argument: political affiliation isn’t something you are, it’s something you do.

    “Protected” categories are, in general, things over which the person has no control. The state has, historically, offered people additional recourse against attack specifically targeting something they ARE as distinct from something they’re DOING.

    • cobsweb says

      When physical attacks have taken place against a white person who is defending a person of color, then that counts as a hate crime. If you read though virtually any of the white supremacy sites, whites are only “good whites” when they embrace supremacy. Whites who do not stand with them are seen as race traitors and actually more despicable than those they refer to as “mud people”.

      This is why I put forward the argument that it would not be a stretch for the pipe bombs sent top Dems and critics of Trump’s policies could be considered hate crimes. The entire party has been painted as traitors and enemies of the state. Therefore, “legitimate” targets.

  3. says

    The way to address this is not by falling into armed camps, but by stretching our empathy and working hard to build community.

    With the people who vocally, unabashedly, and demonstratively want, no, intend to kill us? What kind of privileged nonsense is this?

  4. cobsweb says

    I don’t consider it privileged to believve that escalating violence will not get us anywhere. Therefore, deescalation is a strategy worth trying. Modeling sanity perhaps would be appreciated by those not already polarized.

    • says

      It does seem like you missed the bit about “they intend to kill us”. How much civility are we supposed to show while being beaten to death? And no, that’s not hyperbole.

      • says

        “De-escalation”, aka “appeasement”, does not work on Nazis. There’s some historical precedent for that, Mr. Chamberlain. You cannot find common ground with someone whose stated central goal is multiple genocide, and it is an act of privilege to choose to keep trying that and platforming them instead of working to protect the people they intend to murder.

  5. Martin Zeichner says

    This is a difficult issue. It deserves to be dealt with seriously. Questions and opinions about how justice should be administered have existed for millennia.

    I feel that, on the one hand, to designate a class of crimes as ‘Hate Crime’. Is to do a disservice to a system of justice that relies on due process and ‘the presumption of innocence until shown to be guilty in a court of law”. It means that the accuser is claiming the power of mind reading. It amounts to claiming expertise without credentials; emotionality, not criticality.

    Who is it that hates who? The accuser or the defendant? Or both?

    On the other hand, ‘hate’ may be a valid reason to accuse someone of committing a crime, It isn’t just credentialed experts that have experience reading people. I don’t envy either the person that has to make a snap judgement or the person that is facing death or injury.

    There can be reasons for such accusations. It’s just that many accusations can be used or abused. It can be difficult to tell use from abuse.

    In general I think that our current justice system can deal with these issues. It’s people’s impatience that is distracting us. It’s a judgement call. Hate has to be judged on a case by case basis; not with blanket accusations. There is no ‘one size fits all’ justice.

    • cobsweb says

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment Martin. My apologies for taking a while to publish it. I missed that it had been submitted.

      You are correct, in my opinion, that justice is not cookie cutter. Unfortunately, people seem to want everything to be “one size fits all” (unless it is them and then they yell for personal considerations). Part of this ties to laziness (IMHO), and part ties to the fact that as a society we do very little discussion of things like justice or equality. In part because we don’t want to acknowledge that there is inequality (and privilege), in part because we want it all to be “individual bias” and don’t want to or know how to look at system issues. I’M not prejudiced and so prejudice doesn’t exist. I get tremendously frustrated by the blind headedness that seems “baked in” to our cultural worldview.

  6. ridana says

    #5 Martin Zeichner:

    It means that the accuser is claiming the power of mind reading.

    More evidence than simply “I think they hated me for being _____” is required for something to be prosecuted as a hate crime. People leave evidence of their motives along with their violence, in the form of shouted slurs, “go back to ____,” “we won’t tolerate your kind around here,” graffiti, etc. Someone who beat and robbed a victim who happened to be gay is unlikely to be charged with a hate crime unless they stated during the attack that the person was targeted specifically for being gay. The authorities making that decision tend to be fairly conservative in applying it.

    Hate crimes are terrorism. But Americans don’t want to call anything terrorism unless Muslims do it, so we end up with a wishy-washy term that sounds like people just really dislike each other. And terrorists want to make it clear why they targeted whomever they went after, or what’s the point? So, no mind reading necessary.

  7. cobsweb says

    I agree that hate violence is terrorism for it is meant to terrorize those who share whatever characteristic with the victim. I also agree that people (and policy makers) are incredibly resistant to acknowledging this, in part because they don’t want to admit to a larger message in the violence, or that the problem is rooted in the system and not just the individual.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.