Of Hate Crimes Big and Small

Published as a ZNet Commentary, August 12, 1999

There is no question so irrelevant as the one to which most all can respond in like fashion. Thus, to ask folks their views on child molestation, or whether they’d like better schools would be absurd: like asking if they’d rather be happy than sad. So too, with the discussion of hate crimes, made especially relevant by the recent killing rampage of Benjamin Smith, who over the fourth of July weekend, killed two and injured nine, during a shooting spree against people of color and Jews.

Although folks disagree about whether laws should be passed to enhance penalties for hate-motivated crime, there is unanimity about the horrific nature of the act itself and revulsion at the vitriol spewed by the group to which Smith belonged: the World Church of the Creator. Even the Klan condemned these murders, as with the killing of James Byrd, in Jasper, Texas. So, Americans are officially against hate crimes. That much is clear, though not very relevant, especially when so many other forms of racism, so many other crimes against people of color go unnoticed.

When the extreme act of violence occurs, the nation rises in agony. But when the Centers for Disease Control reports that over 7,500 people of color die annually because of inferior health care relative to whites, few say anything. When Klansmen on talk shows rant about the inferiority of blacks we roundly condemn them. But when social scientists named Murray and Herrnstein write The Bell Curve, which argues the same thing, only with footnotes, we not only fail to condemn them, but whites make their book a best-seller: 500,000 copies sold in the first eighteen months. Furthermore, Murray gets respectfully interviewed on every national news show in the country, and is asked to address the GOP one month after they took over Congress.

And when Ben Smith guns people down in two states, we react with indignation. But we say little about institutional forms of racism, which injure and kill folks in those same states every day. To wit:

— In Illinois and Indiana, white women are twenty-six percent more likely to receive early prenatal care. As such, the percentage of low-birthweight babies of color is double the white rate. Infant mortality rates for black children in both states are 2.5 times higher than for whites;

— The child poverty rate for blacks in Illinois is forty-three percent, for Hispanics and American Indians it’s twenty-five percent, while for whites, less than ten percent. In Indiana, black kids are 3.6 times more likely to live in poverty than whites; Latinos, twice as likely; and American Indian kids 2.7 times more likely to live in poverty;

— And in both states, high-profile cases of police brutality have exposed patterns of bias in law enforcement, which never get termed crimes of hate. In fact, hate crime laws would require enforcement by the very police who mete out much of the racism to people of color in the U.S.

In other words, the problem of racism is not simply or even mostly to be found at the extremes, and it’s not primarily driven by neo-Nazis. The biggest problem is the everyday discrimination, inequity, and mainstream silence about these things by folks who think they can prove antiracist credentials by condemning lynch mobs: an act which ceased to be courageous about forty years ago. To that effect, we have the Southern Poverty Law Center spending their time taking a handful of professional bigots to court, tracking hate groups on the internet, and sending out stamps reading “teach tolerance” to their mailing list so as to raise more money (despite a $100 million dollar endowment), while largely ignoring the everyday racism of mainstream institutions.

What’s most disturbing about the selective way in which so many deal with racism — as an interpersonal phenomenon in need of attitude adjustment — is that the institutional forms of racial mistreatment that they ignore, contribute directly to the overt hostility that often manifests itself in hate crime or hate group activity.

After all, is it hard to imagine that whites, who see police lock up people of color disproportionately, might conclude there was something wrong with these folks? Something to be feared and perhaps despised? Is it so hard to believe that whites who hear politicians bash immigrants of color for “taking American jobs,” or “squandering welfare dollars,” might conclude such persons were a threat to their well being? Is it so hard to imagine that folks taught from birth that America is a place where “anyone can make it if they try hard,” but who looks around and sees that not only are many not making it, but that these “failures” are disproportionately of color, might conclude that they must therefore be either culturally or genetically inferior?

Mainstream social institutions send out multiple messages that people of color are “lesser,” and need to be controlled: messages picked up by individuals in that society. The growth of the prison-industrial-complex is a prime example. Although black crime rates have remained steady or fallen for two decades, their incarceration rates have tripled, thanks to intensified and selective law enforcement in communities of color.

What message is sent when we allow, and even cause the kind of housing segregation, isolation and poverty that confront so many persons of color? When Blacks working full-time, year round are three times as likely to be poor as similar whites, and Latino/as working full-time, year-round are four times as likely to remain poor? When white college grads are 2.5 times more likely to find work than Black College grads?

Why should we be surprised that at least some, witnessing the way the institutions of our society neglect at best, and oppress at worst, people of color, might conclude they were superior and more deserving even of life, than those same persons?

In other words, Ben Smith and others like him don’t simply learn racism at the knee of retail fascists like Matt Hale, and their racism is hardly against the grain of American ideology or culture, despite claims by many that such attitudes are “fundamentally inconsistent with what America is all about.”

Consider the recent flap over whether or not the same Matt Hale should be allowed to practice law in Illinois. Despite passing the bar exam, Hale is being blocked from his chosen profession by those who claim his participation in the legal system would “pervert the process,” and call into question the state’s commitment to “color-blind justice.” Imagine that, in a state that has demonstrated their own lofty adherence to such principle by sending at least six innocent men of color to death row in the past few years: men who have only recently been released after these “accidents” were discovered.

So who’s the bigger problem: Matt Hale, whom we all know is a bigot, or the Cook County DA, willing to send black or brown folks to their deaths so as to proclaim a murder case solved? To ask the question is to answer it. It is the visibility of the former’s racism, contrasted with the invisibility of the latter, which makes the latter more problematic, and worthier of our concern.

The same is true for hate crimes. Which should we punish? The retail versions perpetrated by lone bigots, or the wholesale versions that form the basis of institutional racism, and are the very fabrics that comprise the tapestry of American society? And who makes the decision? Local DAs and federal prosecutors? And who sentences the hate criminals? Juries like the one that thought nothing of the Rodney King beating? Thanks, but surely, there has to be a better way.

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