Arguably, society today is in the grip of a remarkable reality; racism seems to be more overtly expressed recently, while opposition to racism becomes increasingly vocal in response. This then relates to hate crimes in general. Ageism, sexism, and other hostile ideologies notwithstanding, racism as embedded in American culture and history dominates the nation, overtly and otherwise. In the following hypothetical scenario, I present myself as a black American physically assaulted by several white young males outside a cinema. This completely conforms to the hate crime definition because the offenders made it clear that my color and race were objectionable to them, and only those aspects of myself. I then consider the effects of this experience in terms of impact on myself, the perspectives of the offenders and the broader public, and what may be done to lessen this specific type of hate crime.
On an ordinary early evening, I was alone and waiting for a friend outside a movie theater in my neighborhood. I became aware that several young white men were staring at me, as I hear them making insulting, racist remarks to one another. I sensed tension growing in them and, when the few others near us left, they rapidly approached me and demanded to know what I was doing there. I began to reply but it was clear that no answer would satisfy them. In the space of only a minute, I was forced into the alley by the theater and roughly slapped in the face by two of the men. One hit me in the stomach, and then they all quickly fled. Based on their comments, it was plain that I was targeted by virtue of my color, just as my being alone rendered me more vulnerable. During the brief attack, I also heard that I was “not welcome” there, despite the theater being in my community. This is not unusual; evidence indicates that a great deal of hate crime centered on blacks occurs in the victim’s neighborhood, and because part of the assault is intended to weaken any sense of security in the home community (Turpin-Petrosino, 2015, p. 141). Ultimately, and in very little time, I was both targeted as black and attacked because of my skin color, and whatever racist attachments the offenders chose to perceive.
Regarding response, I chose to not report the crime, partially because there were no witnesses. The other motivation for this decision was the likelihood that no real action would be taken. It is widely understood in law enforcement that hate crimes, particularly based on race, are grossly underreported. Police are generally reluctant to pursue hate as motive, simply because it complicates processing (Middlebrook, 2017). I had no concerns that my failure to report it would lead to further victimization, but chiefly because my experience informs me that racism is so powerful a force in the society, the crimes will occur in any event. Then, there is the factor of my generating hostility through reporting the attack as a hate crime. A primary objection in the public is that hate crime legislation unduly extends legal protections for marginalized populations; essentially, equality of protection under the law is replaced by emphasis on those most likely to be victimized (Wallace & Robertson, 2015, p. 201). Ironically, hate crime as crime increases the marginalization fueling the criminality. I was, and am, aware that I would face other effects, the primary one being resentment. I was not seriously hurt physically, but racism expressed in this way must generate rage, overt or suppressed, in the victim, and I know this is the case with me.
Lastly, and in terms of how such crime should be addressed, I admit to being conflicted. On one level, I have no doubt that attacks such as I suffered are true hate crimes, if only because no other motive was expressed beyond racist anger. On another level, I question how any legislation may combat the pervasive racism generating the crimes. This concern is apart from the validity of prosecuting motive, which concerns many. In fact, the Supreme Court addressed this issue in upholding hate crime legislation. “Thoughts” are not punished; it is that bias-related offenses are: “More likely to provoke retaliatory crimes, inflict distinct emotional harms on their victims, and incite community unrest” (Wallace & Robertson, 2015, p. 193). Nonetheless, it seems irrational to expect that even carefully developed reasoning in law can effectively impact on that core force of racism. In my estimation, this derives within homes and infuses the lives of young children taught by parents to despise others by virtue of ethnicity. This being the reality, the only possible means of combating racism must be in place equally early, and in the schools. A critical approach is necessary in the youngest grades, by which children understand that racism is a fact of society and no abstract concept (Haltinner, 2013, p. 32). Essentially, and the need for specific law aside, the forces creating hate crime are ideological and beyond the reach of the law.
Placing myself in the position of being a hate crime victim allows for a range of perspectives, and some are unfortunate, as in my unwillingness to report the crime. I would hold to this position in any event, however, and because my reflection in general reinforces what I believe to be the dominant reality of hate crimes. Legal response is necessary, but hate is removed from the law, and so ingrained in the culture, no law may possibly work to lessen the crimes motivated by racist or other types of hatred.
- Haltinner, K. (2013). Teaching Race and Anti-Racism in Contemporary America: Adding
Context to Colorblindness. New York, NY: Springer.
- Middlebrook, H. (14 Nov. 2017). “The fascinating, if unreliable, history of hate crime tracking in
the U.S.” Retrieved from
- Turpin-Petrosino, C. (2015). Understanding Hate Crimes: Acts, Motives, Offenders, Victims, and Justice. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Wallace, H., & Roberson, C. (2015). Victimology: Legal, Psychological, and Social
Perspectives, 4th Ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education