When prejudice and bigotry boil over from small minds, illegal actions meant to intimidate or destroy those who are different are called hate crimes. Hate crimes are illegal actions inspired by prejudice. Three such crimes, which took place in the U.S. during the last two years of the century, shocked the world.
One occurred in June of 1998 in the town of Jasper, Texas. John William King (23 and the alleged ring leader), high school buddy Shawn Berry (23), and Lawrence Brewer (31, from the neighboring town of Sulfur Springs) were out drinking and driving in a pick up truck when they offered James Boyd Jr. a ride. Boyd was walking home from a family reunion.
Berry was driving when Boyd was picked up. According to Berry’s affidavit (Newsweek, June 22, 1999, p. 33) King became angry and shouted: ” ‘We don’t need to be picking up a f—ing n—–.’ ” King then took the wheel of the car and drove to a clearing, where (according to Berry), King and Brewer beat Boyd up and then ” ‘chained him to the truck by his ankles and dragged him to his death…(next morning) police…turned up the badly mutilated remains of a 49-year-old black man-and a trail of blood. Deputies followed the dark red stains for a mile and found Boyd’s head. Then his right arm. Another mile, and they found tennis shoes, a wallet, even his dentures. And then the trail ended, at a churned-up patch of grass strewn with empty beer bottles and a lighter bearing white supremacist symbols…’ ”
Jasper County Sheriff, Billy Rowles says, ” ‘We have no Aryan Nation or K.K.K. in Jasper County.’ ” (Time, June 22, 1999, p. 38) Attorney Rife Kimler cautions: ” ‘Don’t go reading far more into this than these guys deserve. These are three guys who got mean, got drunk and saw an easy target.’ ” From the nearby town of Vidor, K.K.K. Imperial Wizard apologized. Yet, John Craig, co-author of Soldiers of God (a book about white supremacy), maintains that racism is prevalent throughout East Texas and an all-white militia group has a large training facility in Jasper County. Even Kimler admits ” ‘there is a lot of quiet support for the Klan.’ ” “More worrisome, says this Time article, ” ‘Is the fact that Christian Identity churches have begun springing up around Jasper, including one in nearby Burkeville…Killing in the name of religious and racial purity is within the moral contract (of these churches) according to experts.’ ” (p. 39)
Jasper, a town of 7,500, 45% black and 55% white, has a black mayor and a white sheriff. Mayor R.C. Horn says ” ‘the town has been about loving each other.’ ” This has been born by the deep anguish caused by the incident and by the sincere and on-going efforts to bring about healing and reconciliation that can be a model for overcoming racism, covert or hidden as it exists so widely.
Months later (October, 1998) a second incident shocked the country and world. Two young men were charged with first-degree murder, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping with intent to inflict injury or terrorize the victim. Russell Arthur Henderson (21) and Aaron James McKinney (22) had met Matthew Shepard (21 and a University of Wyoming student) in a bar. Besides robbing Shepard, the victim was chosen because he was gay. Shepard was lured into the car by the two who posed as homosexuals themselves. After a grizzly beating outside of Laramie, Wyoming, Matt was tied to a fence post and left in a near-freezing night. Much later a young bicyclist discovered the slouched, dying body.
Especially offensive was an email message many received applauding the killing. A Topeka, Kansas church, known for anti-homosexual demonstrations, even demonstrated outside Matt Shepard’s funeral. Whatever their opinion about homosexuality, most Americans expressed shock and remorse about such acts of homophobia.
Benjamin Nathaniel Smith (21) has been called a “one-man hate squad.” It seems clear that he was influenced by the World Church of the Creator, a group led by Matt Hale of Peoria, Illinois and advocating a “holy war” against Jews and non-white races although they formally disavow violence. They speak of “crowding mud races off the planet.”
Smith came to Bloomington, Indiana (a city of 67,000) to attend the Indiana University. There, this loner’s white supremacist’s ideas began to take shape. To an interviewer from the student paper, Smith once said, ” ‘I think it’s pretty clear that our government has turned against white people.’ ” And attached to a bust of Hitler he placed at a Jewish center was his note, ” ‘Happy Holocaust Remembrance Day. Thanks to the man who made it all possible.’ ”
In early July, 1999, Smith suddenly went on a three-day shooting spree in which he shot at twenty-some people…all black, Jewish, or Asian. Two were killed, African-American coach and father, Ricky Byrdson, and Korean-American Won Joon Yoon (26 and shot outside his church). Benjamin Smith ended his shooting spree by killing himself as he was being apprehended by officers.
These stories at first shock and appall; then, floods of questions ensue. How widespread are hate crimes? How can such offenses be stopped? Should there be additional legislation against them? How are hate crimes different from other crimes against people? Why are hate crimes committed? These are tough questions that public and private citizens are left grappling with today.
While numerous hate crimes are notably publicized, hate crimes of small and large scale worldwide everyday, and have occurred through the centuries. They are virtually impossible to completely eradicate. And surprisingly, in the U.S., the numbers of hate crimes committed are still relatively small. According to the FBI
fewer than 10,000 bias offenses were committed nationally in 1997 (the last year for which statistics are available). Of those, only eight involved murder and 1,237 involved aggravated assault. Two whites and three blacks were murdered because of their race in 1997, and three male homosexuals were murdered because of their sexual orientation…but these figures represent only about 0.04 percent of all murders and non-negligent manslaughters nationally. (Chavez, L. [1999, July 19]. Hate-crimes law won’t deter murder. The Daily Oklahoman, p. 8].
While the numbers are still relatively few, it is essential to continue to reduce the statistics. There are many suggested and implemented strategies. Tolerance curricula, anger management classes, and community programs complement each other in grassroots efforts to end hate crime. Federal and state governments also actively consider further legislation.
Regarding present and future hate crime laws, an April 7, 1999 article in the Boston Globe (p. A4) notes:
Current hate-crime law bans only crimes based on race, ethnicity, or religion. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999…would add three protected categories-sexual orientation, gender, and disability-and make the prosecution of hate crimes easier by deleting the stipulation that the victim is targeted for engaging in certain federally protected activities, such as serving on a jury, voting, or attending public school.
More than 40 states have laws against hate crimes but only 21 cover sexual orientation, 22 cover gender, and 22 cover disability.
Others believe that existing legislation sufficiently provides victims the protection and offenders the punishment necessary when hate crimes are committed. These people suggest that the answer is not more laws, but more stringent, consistent law enforcement.
There are no logical reasons or excuses for hate crimes. However, several factors may facilitate them. Often, those who commit hate crimes have interacted with or been influenced by hate groups. Those who monitor hate groups suggest that such groups “denigrate categories of people on the basis of characteristics such as race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity with divisive, sometimes violence-provoking language.” (McCafferty, D. [1999, March 26-28]. www.hate.comes.to your home. USA Weekend, pp. 6-7). There are scores of hate groups in America, many thriving under the guise of a church. These groups can be persuasive, marketing even to children and college students, using the most current media and technology available. An angry or lonely person might find acceptance and approval in such groups. Once influenced by the theories and philosophies of hate groups, a person may feel compelled to act upon those values and beliefs. Whether or not hate groups can be held liable for hate crimes varies by each situation.
Hate crimes will continue across the globe. It is a tragedy of the human condition. People learn to hate and antagonize others and succumb to temptations; yet, they also learn to love and accept others and resist temptations. Societies, countries, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, and families must to what they can to encourage acceptance and discourage animosity. While hate crimes will never be eliminated, concerned individuals should act with the diligence as though they must.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How do you respond to this discussion?
What do you know about hate crimes? Have any been committed in your city or town?
Do you know anyone who has fantasized about committing a hate crime? If so, how did you respond to that person? If not, how would you respond?
Are there known hate groups in your area? Do you think they have the right to express such views? Explain.
What do you think should be done to reduce the number of hate crimes?
Do you think that hate crimes are any different than other crimes? Explain.
What does prejudice have to do with this? Can one safely maintain a prejudice against another person or group of people?
Hate crimes are getting a lot of publicity these days. It is an ideal time to educate young people on what can happen when a person or group is prejudiced against another group of people.
Young people often generate fresh ideas as they learn about the tough challenges lying ahead in their adult future. Consider how active youth have been in environmental activism.
Hatred often grows out of ignorance. Seek new ways to understand how and why people are different.
Hate crimes are indeed heinous. Each one that can be eliminated saves hundreds and thousands from senseless agony.