The History of Hate Crimes
The History of Hate Crimes — Hate crimes are message crimes. They affect more than the targeted individual; they affect the entire community. When a person of a selected race or ethnicity is attacked simply because of skin color, most minority communities are put in fear.
Hate crime laws have spawned much debate in modern society. They are viewed as essential by some segments of the community as a powerful tool with which to combat violent bigotry, but they are denounced by others as an overextension of governmental power designed to legislate morality. Addressed here are the specifics of hate crime laws, some of the reasons for the controversy that surrounds them, the reliability of statistics, and the different types of hate crime offenders and hate crime victims.
HATE CRIME LAWS
Most states in the early twenty-first century have some form of hate crime legislation. Many such laws create criminal enhancements that increase the level of punishment for crimes with a ‘‘hate’’ component. The wording of hate crime laws often includes numerous protected classes, in addition to race. In California for example, Penal Code Section 422.55(a) defines a hate crime as ‘‘a criminal act committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim: (1) Disability, (2) Gender, (3) Nationality, (4) Race or ethnicity, (5) Religion, (6) Sexual orientation, (7) Association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.’’
Penal Code Section 422.56(d) explains that the phrase ‘‘in whole or in part, because of’’ means that ‘‘the bias motivation must be a cause in fact of the offense, whether or not other causes also exist. When multiple concurrent motives exist, the prohibited bias must be a substantial factor in bringing about the particular result.There is no requirement that the bias be a main factor, or that the crime would not have been committed but for the actual or perceived characteristic.’’
Hate crime laws apply even if the offender mistakenly believes a victim has a characteristic that the person does not in fact have. They criminalize actions committed against a person who belongs to a particular ethnic group, or against a person whom the perpetrator believes is a member of such a group. An assault against an Asian who is mistakenly believed to be a person of Middle Eastern ancestry is no less a hate crime just because the perpetrator’s perception of the victim’s ethnicity was incorrect.
The controversy over hate crime laws is also fueled by the misconception that hate crime laws infringe upon constitutionally protected freedom of speech. Racial slurs allegedly constitute #freespeech in the United States. Such language, unless it qualifies as a criminal threat, is not criminal. The distribution of racist leaflets or brochures is another exercise of free speech and is not subject to prosecution. Hate crimes are criminal acts committed against someone because of their membership in one of the protected classes.
But that does not mean that noncriminal acts of #discrimination such as racial slurs or the distribution of leaflets should necessarily go undocumented. Although not criminally actionable on their own, they may be useful in proving the motive behind a criminal act. Individuals who exhibit this kind of blatant bigotry by engaging in such behavior often graduate to committing crimes against people of the targeted race, much like white supremacist, Dylann Roof. When they do, evidence of their history of intolerance may establish the motive necessary to prove the commission of a hate crime.