Hate Crimes – Past, Present and Future


The United States is one of the most successful multiethnic, multireligious and multiracial societies in the world. However, these differences have also proved to be negative sentiments in society leading to violence, such as anti-Semitic, anti-black, xenophobic, homophobic, and anti-Catholic. “Hate crime” as a term and as a legal category of crime is a product of increased race, gender, and sexual orientation consciousness in contemporary American society. The FBI began investigating what is now termed as “hate crimes” as far back as the early 1920s when they opened the first Ku Klux Klan case (FBI 1).

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A hate crime is a criminal act directed at a person or persons which is motivated because of someone’s prejudice or hatred of a person’s or group’s race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or another characteristic (CU 1). It is more about bias or prejudice than hate. Hate crime thus refers to criminal conduct motivated by prejudice. The victim is selected because he belongs to a certain race or community or has a certain characteristic.

Hate crimes are not only dangerous to the safety and welfare of the citizens; they also cause immense physical and emotional damage (CU 2). They create an insecure environment in society by sending powerful messages of intolerance and discrimination to all members of the group to which the victim belongs. It is sad to note that current laws do not adequately recognize the threat of hate crimes to public order and individual safety. This is mainly due to a lack of clarity when it comes to defining hate crimes within European countries.

Physical violence based on bigotry takes many forms. Consider the following example: In Raleigh, North Carolina, two white men beat to death a twenty-four-year-old Chinese-American man, Jim Loo, with the butt of a gun and a broken bottle, and explained later that they attacked him because they did not like ‘Orientals’ (Jenness and Broad 3). Hate crimes dominated the national stage through the 1980s and the 1990s. In his 1990 State of the Union Message, President Bush (1990) acknowledged and addressed the problem when he said, “Every one of us must confront and condemn racism, anti-Semitism, Bigotry and hate. Not next week, not tomorrow, but right now” (Jenness and Broad 3).

Hate Crimes – The Past

American history is sadly filled with crimes of hatred and prejudice – from lynchings to cross burnings to vandalism of synagogues; but the term “hate crime” did not enter the nation’s vocabulary until the 1980s when emerging hate groups like the Skinheads launched a wave of bias-related crime. Hate crime, then, is seen as an instrument of intimidation and control exercised against those who seem to have stepped outside the boxes that society has carefully constructed for them.

“Hate crimes” became increasingly reported in newspapers from 1985 onward. In 1990, there were 511 stories about hate crimes, and three years later, more than 1,000. Most of these articles either asserted that the United States was experiencing a hate crime epidemic, or reported that politicians, advocacy groups, or academics had declared such an epidemic to be at hand. Legal scholars began using the terms “hate crime” and “bias crime” in the early 1990s.

An article titled “Hate Violence: Symptom of Prejudice,” was published in the spring 1991 issue of the William Mitchell Law Review. In this article, the author, Lester Olmstead-Rose, a gay rights advocate, argued that a national atmosphere of intolerance had caused an increase in hate crimes directed at homosexuals, resulting in “the universal victimization of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.”

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American society passed hate crime laws in the 1980s because of various historical factors such as the civil rights movement and the subsequent triumph of identity politics. Since the middle of the twentieth century, bigotry based on race, ethnicity, gender, and–more controversially–sexual orientation has been increasingly condemned by American society, especially its political leaders (Jacobs and Potter 5). Many laws were created to prohibit discrimination and many institutions and organizations have created affirmative action programs to promote educational and employment opportunities for members of historically disadvantaged groups (Jacobs and Potter 5).

In the past groups, such as the Neo-Nazis, skinhead groups, and the Ku Klux Klan were integrated with and engaged in the larger society. Such groups tend to generate literature and internet communications that encourage and applaud violence against minorities.

The severity of the psychological trauma of being a hate crime victim is well brought out by the words of Delgado (1993) who had this to say regarding verbal abuse on race: “The psychological responses to such stigmatization consist of feelings of humiliation, isolation and self-hatred…” Delgado also said that when a person is racially labeled, it denies him the possibility of neutral behavior in cross-cultural contexts, and impairs his ability to form close interracial relationships.

He also warned that the psychological responses of self-hatred and self-doubt can affect all kinds of interpersonal relationships that the victim has. Other psychological ill effects of racism include mental illness and psychosomatic disease which in turn can lead to substance abuse and antisocial behavior. Weisburd and B. Levin (1994, p. 26) report that aside from low self-esteem and depression, victims of hate crimes suffer from “profound sadness; lack of trust in people; withdrawal; excessive fear of personal and family safety; sleep problems; headaches; physical weakness; increased use of alcohol and drugs; excessive anger and suicidal feelings”.

Hate Crimes- The Present

Hate crimes have existed long back but awareness of hate crimes is higher in recent times. There is a long history of bigoted violence against Native Americans, African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, Mexicans, Asians, women, homosexuals, and many other groups; indeed, even white males, typically characterized as the offender group, have often been the victims of racist violence. However, there is no reliable evidence from which to conclude that the incidence of such crimes is greater now than previously, or that the incidence is increasing. Indeed, behavior today, even that of criminals is probably less prejudiced than in past generations.

The current anti-hate crime movement is generated not through increased bigotry but by heightened sensitivity to prejudice and, more important, by society’s emphasis on identity politics (Jacobs and Potter 5).

The term “identity politics” refers to a politics whereby individuals relate to one another as members of competing groups based upon characteristics like race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation (Jacobs and Potter 5). According to the logic of identity politics, it is strategically advantageous to be recognized as disadvantaged and victimized. The greater a group’s victimization, the stronger its moral claim on the larger society.

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The ironic consequence is that minority groups no longer boast about successes for fear that success will make them unworthy of political attention. For example, some Asian-American advocacy groups reject the label “America’s model minority,” insisting that Asian-Americans are disadvantaged and victimized. Even white males now portray themselves as victims. The new hate crime laws extend identity politics to the domain of crime and punishment. In effect, they redefine the crime problem as yet another arena for conflict between races, genders, and nationality groups (Jacobs and Potter 6).

More recently the U.S.-born concept of hate crime has spread across international borders. Australia for example has outlawed at the federal, state, and territory level words and images that incite hatred toward particular groups of people. Unlike the United States, other countries focus primarily on hate crimes related to racial, ethnic, and religious violence (Gerstenfeld p. xii).

Presently there is a law against racist, sexist, homophobic, and other genres of offensive speech. This has generated lively debates. Several incidents involving university students who were disciplined for using racist and sexist language have excited a lot of controversies (Jacobs and Potter 7).

Advocates of multiculturalism have been pitted against First Amendment purists in these cases. State and federal courts have struck down hate speech codes as unconstitutional, and critics have attacked them as extreme examples of political correctness. Hate crime laws enhance the punishment of an ordinary crime when the criminal’s motive manifests a legislatively designated prejudice like racism or anti-Semitism. But if the offender is motivated by prejudice not covered by the hate crime law such as gender bias, then punishment is not enhanced (Jacobs and Potter 8).

In the last few years, a great deal of attention has been paid to geographically dispersed groups whose members profess strong, even intense, anti-government sentiments, and sometimes also espouse white separatist ambitions and anti-black and anti-Semitic prejudices. Not all of these groups are ‘hate groups’. Because of their eccentric and confusing ideologies and rejection of mainstream society, such groups are infrequently involved in violence against members of the larger society. However, it must be noted that the great majority of reported hate crimes under the new hate crime laws have been committed by “unaffiliated” individuals, many of them juveniles.

In addition to providing more severe punishments for hate crime offenders, the states and the federal government have passed hate crime reporting statutes that seek to make the collection and presentation of statistics on the number and type of hate crimes a regular feature of our national crime statistics. Hate crimes can be seen either as a limited problem involving a small number of bigoted criminals or as a social indicator, both of prejudice in the entire population and of the state of inter-group relations. One must be very careful in the latter case because the collection of data of hate crimes as a state of inter-group relations can exacerbate the conflict they mean to prevent.

Further, the prejudices and conduct of criminals cannot be used to measure the intolerances of society. Highlighting criminals’ racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia also have the inherent danger of redefining the crime problem along society’s major fault lines.

Attributing hate crimes to prejudice is fraught with difficulties because of the complexity of defining prejudice and establishing motivation for individual crimes (Perry 1). Second, there is a problem as to what are the prejudices should be included in the hate crime laws. There are prejudices such as ageism, anti-gay bias, bias against the physically and mentally disabled, etc. that are not generally included in hate crime laws. Third, hate crime laws transform criminals into equal opportunity offenders. Fourth, processing hate crimes through the criminal justice system poses challenges for the police, prosecutors, jurors, and criminal court judges; throughout the process, various audiences win be quick to see double standards and hypocrisy and to charge that those who bring hate crime charges are themselves racists, sexists, and so forth. Fifth, the splintering of criminal law into various offender/victim configurations based upon characteristics like race and gender may backfire and contribute to the balkanization of American society (Perry 1).

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Research shows that hate crimes are embedded in the structural and cultural context within which groups interact (Kelly, Maghan, and Tennant, 1993). It is a socially situated, dynamic process, involving context and actors, structure, and agency. Hate crimes are also known as ethnoviolence emerges within a network of enabling norms, assumptions, behaviors, institutional arrangements, and policies, which are structurally connected in such a way as to reproduce the racialized and gendered hierarchies that characterize the society in question. It is one of the five interrelated “faces of oppression” by which Iris Marion Young (1990) characterizes the experiences of minority groups (Perry 2).

Oppressive violence is nested within the complex of exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism (Perry 2). The first three factors reflect the barriers that restrict opportunities for minority groups to express their capacities and to participate in the social world around them (Perry 2). It is the processes and imagery associated with cultural imperialism that supports these practices ideologically. Thus structural exclusions along with cultural imaging leave minority members vulnerable to systemic violence, and especially ethnoviolence (Perry 2).

Hate Crimes – The Future

Conceptually, hate crimes are associated with violence, victimization, race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and differences. Former black slaves suffered at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan when they exercised their newfound rights in the antebellum period (Perry 3).

Their descendants risked violent reprisal for their efforts to win and exercise additional rights and freedoms in the civil rights era; women who demanded the right to vote on the eve of the twentieth century suffered the same ridicule and harassment as those who demanded equal rights in the workplace later in the century. While the politics of difference that underlie these periods of animosity may lie latent for short periods of time, they nonetheless seem to remain on the simmer, ready to resurface whenever a new threat is perceived—when immigration levels increase, or formerly powerless groups are suddenly empowered, or when relationships between groups shift for other political, economic, or cultural reasons (Perry 3).

According to Carolyn Petrosino’s research article titled “Connecting the Past to the Future – Hate Crime in America” (1999), hate crimes are not a modern-day phenomenon but extend throughout the history of the United States.

By examining the conditions surrounding hate crime dynamics, Petrosino makes the following conclusions: racism is a primary predictor of hate crime through time; the efficiency and degree of harm potential in hate crime is a function of opportunity and technology; hate crimes will occur more frequently and be more difficult to prevent; notwithstanding the repugnant nature of hate crime, many Americans are becoming more sympathetic to the hate crime perpetrator’s cause; and hate crime, on some levels, is becoming indistinguishable from domestic terrorism (Petrosino 1)

Restorative justice is today seen as a way to handle hate crimes. The restorative justice vision requires the criminal justice system to delve beyond the surface of crime and to examine closely the harm it causes to real people. Victim-offender mediation is seen as a maximum healing process for hate crimes (Gerstenfeld and Grant 308). Thus, the only way to ensure that hate crimes do not continue into the future is to establish an effective method of prevention. This lies in a well-integrated system that provides for both the application of hate crimes legislation as well as the inclusion of the victim-offender mediation process.

Works Cited

CU (Coalition Europe) (2007). What is a hate crime? Web.

Delgado, Richard (1996). The Coming Race War? And Other Apocalyptic Tales of America after Affirmative Action and Welfare. New York University Press. New York.

FBI (2007). Official Website. Web.

Gerstenfeld, B. Phyllis and Grant, Ruth Diana (2004). Crimes of Hate: Selected Readings. Sage Publications.

Gerstenfeld, B. Phyllis. Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls, and Controversies. Sage Publications. 2004. p. xii

Jacobs, B. James and Potter, Kimberly (2001). Hate Crimes: Criminal Law & Identity Politics. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Jenness, Valerie and Broad, Kendal (1997). Hate Crimes: New Social Movements and the Politics of Violence. Aldine Transaction.

Kelly, Robert, Jess Maghan, and Woodrow Tennant (1993). Hate Crimes: Victimizing the Stigmatized. Office of International Criminal Justice. Chicago.

Perry, Barbara. In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes. Routledge Publishers. New York. 2001.

Petrosino, Carolyn (1999). Connecting the Past to the Future – Hate Crime in America. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol. 15, No. 1, 22-47.

Weisburd, Bennett & Levin, Brian (1994). On the Basis of Sex: Recognizing Gender-Based Bias Crime. Stanford Law & Policy Review. Volume 5: Issue 25.

Young, Iris Marion (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.

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