Hate crimes: Categorizing the darkness within us

By Tom Baxter

“Authorities are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime.” Television reporters and anchors slip naturally into italics every time they say those words.

If they were speaking to three-year-olds, emphasizing the words in this way would be a signal that hate crimes were very important. So what, exactly, are hate crimes?

I’ve seen no polling on this, but because of the gravity with which the words are used, it wouldn’t be surprising if many Americans thought the designation implied a big increase in punishment, but in most cases it doesn’t. The federal statutes to which most news reports are referring only require the Justice Department to keep track of crimes involving bias based on race, sexual orientation, disability or ethnicity. Some states do set more severe penalties for bias-based crimes, but in most cases this adds two or three years to a longer sentence. In the eyes of the law, the commission of a crime, not its motivation, remains the central concern.

There are reasons for these laws, but the repeated elevation of the obvious into italics in news reports actually diminishes the seriousness of what we see going on around us, by raising the category over the act itself, while the acts multiply. When somebody walks into a bar in in Kansas, yells “Get out of my country,” at two Indian-American men and returns with a gun to shoot them, it’s probably going to be designated a hate crime. But the tragedy of this killing is beyond categorization.

Kansas is a state where you sense the emptying out of rural America particularly sharply: the Census Bureau has changed the classification of several counties from “rural” to “frontier.” In recent years, the state government’s approach to the economy has been chaotic. Gov. Sam Brownback has held his ground on the nation’s deepest tax cut, even as the predicted windfall of new businesses has failed to materialize. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week that the state couldn’t continue to underfund its educational system, and the Republican-majority Kansas House passed a Medicaid expansion bill in a desperate effort to find money to keep the state’s hospitals afloat.

So was it a hate crime, when somebody who thought he was shooting at Iranians killed an engineer at a high-tech plant pumping critically needed dollars into the state’s bleeding economy? People who know the shooter said he was upset about the death of his father, and showed none of the ethnic hostility that surfaced in the bar. It was a crime against Kansas, for sure.

The shooting in Kansas has been followed by the murder of a Sikh man in Kent, Washington, and an Indian man in Lancaster County, S.C., last week. Were these all hate crimes? That’s how they’re being reported in India, which like most of the world is paying very keen attention to what’s happening in the United States right now.

Should members of the nation’s Jewish community feel relieved when police say several of the recent threatening calls to Jewish community centers around the country came from a discredited journalist with a grudge against his former girlfriend, and not a dedicated anti-Semite? Is a copy-cat hate crime still a hate crime?

Would the disgruntled boyfriend have chosen this form of payback if not for a larger climate of which these anti-Semitic incidents are a part? Maybe that hints at something about the way we talk about hate crimes. Sometimes this attention to the designation of the crime may have as much to do with the climate around it as the crime itself. That climate has worsened, however any individual act is classified.

Georgia is the only state which has had its hate crime statute overturned by the state Supreme Court as “unconstitutionally vague,” but Clayton County Superior Court Judge William McClain used the term when he sentenced Kayla Rae Norton and Jose Ismael Torres to long prison sentences and permanent banishment from the county. The young couple was part of a group which went on a drunken two-day tear through Douglas and Paulding counties in pickups festooned with Confederate flags, generating dozens of 911 calls, many of which, he noted, reported their antics as hate crimes. Norton was said to have fetched and loaded Torres’ shotgun, who brandished it at the birthday of an eight-year-old African-American child.

One can’t be opposed to long prison sentences and rest entirely comfortably with with McClain’s judgement on the young couple, who have children of their own. Torres will serve 13 years of a 20-year sentence in prison, and Norton will serve six of 15. But the judge, who also blistered police for their handling of the incident, clearly meant to send a message. However they are categorized, crimes motivated by anger and hate can have fateful consequences.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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