During her interview on KQED’s Forum yesterday (http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201109210900), Patrice O’Neill, executive producer of “Not in Our Town” fielded a call from a listener questioning the differentiation of certain crimes as “hate crimes,” essentially wondering, why aren’t they just crimes?
To paraphrase, O’Neill responded that hate crimes target and terrorize whole groups of people, and thus victimize entire populations in an act directed against one individual. Thus, they are not like other crimes.
I thought O’Neill handled the question well, and she got me thinking more about why it is legitimate, and even critical, to make the legal distinction when a hate crime has been committed. If we as a society intend not just to dole out punishment but to prevent crime, it is imperative that we understand the etiology of criminal acts. If the motivation for a violent act is hatred for an entire group of people, is it adequate to lock up the perpetrator? Does that deliver justice to the population that the victim represented, and to society as a whole?
While a particular individual or group must be prosecuted for a crime, identity-based hatred is usually more diffuse: we learn bigotry from the people around us who would never raise a fist against another person (and who preface prejudiced statements with a wink, “I know this is politically incorrect, but…”), we absorb fear and disdain for others from cultural biases and stereotypes, and we study intolerance every day from jokes and derogatory names “that don’t mean anything, really.” In order to address a hate crime then, we must think and act beyond just who is being prosecuted.
What if we acknowledged bias as human and, recognizing everyone’s potential to discriminate, teach all children how to handle the impulse to put down an entire identity group just because they’re women, Latino or transgendered? What if we recognize the environmental, synergistic circumstances that fertilize potential hate crimes, and commit ourselves to interrupting intolerant speech and action before it crosses the line to criminality? Perhaps then we would put a real and permanent dent in hate crimes. But first, we need to acknowledge that these are not individual, isolated incidents. These are hate crimes, and hate is a socially engendered and perpetuated motive.