Hate Crimes Research Paper

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1. What Is A Hate Crime?

There is no universally accepted definition of what precisely constitutes a hate crime, nor agreement as to the precise conceptual boundaries that delimit hate crimes from mundane crimes. The sole factor stressed uniformly is the motivation of the perpetrator. In hate crimes the principal motivation is one of negative affect (animus) toward the victim because of his or her skin color, ethnicity, religion, sex, national origin, or sexual orientation, for example. It is this animus that drives the criminal behavior rather than more common motives of pecuniary gain, retribution, jealousy, or status seeking. Thus, any crime may become a hate crime if the perpetrator’s motivation is animus toward the victim based on some socially constructed category.

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Some care must be taken to differentiate two seemingly related circumstances: (a) situations where the fundamental cause of the behavior is hatred; and (b) situations where hatred is coincident, with the primary motivation being something other than hatred. Presumably, it is only a true hate crime if the former condition exists. In other words, having extreme negative affect founded on skin color, ethnicity, religion, sex, national origin, or sexual orientation is both a necessary and sufficient condition for a hate crime.

In terms of behavior, hate crimes range from spraypaint vandalism and verbal harassment to physical assault and murder. The perpetrators may be single individuals, organized or unorganized groups, or entire nation-states. Similarly, the victims may be solitary individuals, small groups, or large aggregates of human population. In fact, a hate-crime universe can be conceptualized in terms of a three dimensional space: along one dimension is the degree of aggregation or organization of the perpetrator (ranging from single persons to nation-states), along another dimension is the degree of aggregation of victims (from single persons to nation-states), and the third dimension is the degree of severity (extending from vandalism to lethal sanctioning). Within this heuristic model, behavior can be located as diverse as a sole actor desecrating a synagogue with swastikas, to nation-states with genocidal policies aimed at despised populations. Yet underlying each is the assumption that the primary motive is negative affect based on a socially constructed status such as race or religion.

While the term hate crime, and the public notoriety it has received, has been particularly discernible during the 1980s and 1990s, the phenomenon is far from recent and has long been a frequent factor in human societies across the globe. This century alone has witnessed the genocide of Christian Armenians at the hands of Muslim Turks (1915–18), the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry and the Roma, the mass murder of Vietnamese and Cham Muslims by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s, the 1994 Hutus inspired genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, and the Serbian ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Muslims from Bosnia. These are but a few examples of mass-hate crimes involving large numbers of perpetuators and with their victims experiencing the most severe levels of sanctioning. Often, however, public attention has been drawn to smaller-scale events involving fewer victims: for example, in 1991 skinheads in Hoyerswerda, Germany attacked several Asians and fire-bombed a hostel used by asylum-seekers (similar attacks were made on immigrants and refugees in many, if not most, Western European countries during the 1980s and 1990s)—the burning of some African-American churches in the American South during the early 1990s—or the 1998 lynching of James Byrd Jr, a 49year old African-American in Texas by three white supremacists.

In sum, hate crimes can range from killing of genocidal proportions perpetrated by a nation state to verbal harassment by a single actor. They are frequent in human societies globally.

2. Why Hate Crime?

Most theories of hate crime involve, implicitly or explicitly, the notion of ‘threat’: that hate crime perpetrators perceive members of the target group as representing danger or peril to their life chances, lifestyles, social status, or belief systems. This threat does not have to be ‘real’ in any demonstratively physical sense—it only needs to be thought to be real to motivate some persons to commit crimes of hate.

Macropolitico-economic theories emphasize the importance of large-scale changes in the economic, political, or demographic arenas in generating apparent threats to the status quo. Typically these theories postulate that social change brings uncertainty, disruption, and competition between dominant and emergent groups for economic standing or political power. That contested terrain breeds fear and motivates some to strike out against members of the perceived threatening group. The effect of intergroup competition (threat) seems to be especially pronounced when the target group is culturally dissimilar from the dominant one. This is a point emphasized by cultural explanations of hate crime. Cultural theories stress threats to traditional or dominant belief-systems. Differences between the dominant culture and the target group subculture are seen as incompatible, if not totally hostile—the culture and belief systems of the victim group may be viewed as contaminating the dominant culture and in that sense, representing a threat to the cultural status quo. It is quite likely, for example, that the hate crime directed at guest workers, asylum seekers, and refugees in many counties was rooted in both the fear that new immigrants would take jobs away or lower wages of the native labor force and in the fear that a ‘foreign’ culture would fundamentally challenge traditional values and beliefs.

3. Hate Crime And Hate Speech Laws

Hate crime laws often take the form of sentence enhancements to penalties for crimes motivated by animus. For illustration, in the United Kingdom the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act provides that the maximum sentence for common assault increase from 6 months to two years if the assault was racially motivated. In the USA, the vast majority of states have enacted legislation providing for sentence enhancements for some hate crimes (but not others). At the federal level, the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act of 1994 increased sentencing by about one-third when a crime is proven to have been hate motivated and occurred on federal property.

In many countries, hate speech, as well as hate crime, is criminalized. In the UK, speech or writings that may provoke racial animosity are prohibited by the Public Order Act. Similarly, Section 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada prohibits deliberately inciting or promoting ‘hatred against any identifiable group.’ There are comparable provisions in the criminal codes of Austria, Poland, Sweden, France, and Ireland. The Indian penal code not only criminalizes racial and religious-hate speech but caste-hate speech as well. In Germany it is illegal to incite violence or racial hatred against groups or minorities, and it is a crime to deny the Holocaust. Likewise, 1995 laws in both Switzerland and Belgium prohibit denying or defending genocide. There are no comparable laws against hate speech in the USA, however.

4. Trends In Hate Crimes

There is considerable rhetoric by advocacy groups that many countries are undergoing an unprecedented wave of hate crime, yet there is little undisputed empirical evidence supporting that claim. All authorities acknowledge that existing data on hate crime are fraught with errors, so any apparent rise in frequency of hate crimes may be due to: (a) a more sensitized public willing to report incidents of hate that had gone previously unreported; (b) the media and advocacy groups more frequently publicizing hate crimes; (c) an actual increase in the incidence of hate crimes; or (d) some combination of these. Where ‘official’ statistics are offered, it is suspected that they too may be seriously compromised because of under reporting of hate incidents by victims, the reliance upon local authorities to recognize and define an incident as a hate crime, and changes and ambiguities in the definition of what constitutes a hate crime. Given the shortcomings of official hate crime data and the unknown reliability and validity of anecdotal data from advocacy groups, it would seem impossible to state definitively whether hate crimes are actually increasing in frequency, decreasing, or remaining the same.

Given that caveat, what meager empirical data exists suggests that in the USA the frequency of hate crime incidents increased from the early 1990s until 1996, and has been declining since. In most of Western Europe, the trend appears that hate crimes may have become somewhat less frequent toward the end of the 1990s than they were earlier in the decade, with the possible exception of the UK.

5. Victims Of Hate Crimes

While time trend data on hate crimes are especially problematic, a cross-sectional inspection of official reports of hate crime can illuminate who were the victims. In many European countries during the time 1970–2000, reported hate crime has targeted immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and guest workers. Additionally, there have been many attacks on Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. In the USA, the situation is somewhat different.

Based on hate crimes reported in 1998 by 10,730 local law-enforcement agencies covering a population of 216,235 million, the US federal government cites 7,755 incidents of hate crime involving 9,722 victims. Of these incidents, 56 percent involved race hatred, and of those over two-thirds were anti-black. While race-hatred incidents were the most common, incidents of religious hatred were frequent, and 78 percent of these incidents involved anti-Jewish activity. Reports of sexual orientation bias were also common, with 67 percent of these incidents targeted at male homosexuals. Of all the hate crimes reported in 1998, 62 percent (4,832 incidents) were incidents that were anti-black, anti-Jewish, or anti-gay male. Of those offenses where the suspected offender’s race was known, whites committed 76 percent of the hate crime offenses.

6. Consequences Of Hate Crimes

Being a victim of virtually any crime extracts a definite psychological toll, but there is some evidence that the emotional mark of hate crimes may be more severe and longer lasting than the impact of normal (nonhate motivated) crime. Furthermore, some argue that when one member of the targeted group is victimized by hate crime, then all members of the group are adversely affected—that is, the negative effect of hate crime permeates the victim community more thoroughly than other forms of victimization. Because of the very nature of hate-motivated crime, a poignant and unmistakable message is delivered to both the victim and his or her community.


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