Today I’m going to write about hate crime. This particular post is a bit difficult for me in light of the recent terrible events in Orlando, yet it’s also necessary.
Before I get into particulars, I’m going to plug my own book. I’m currently working on the 4th edition, but if you want to know a lot of details about hate crime, I suggest picking up a copy of the 3rd edition. Obviously, not all the examples will be up-to-date, but it will tell you most of what you’d need to know. The references section is extensive, in case you want to research particular topics in depth.
Okay. So what is a hate crime? Most succinctly, it is a criminal act motivated by the victim’s group. Of course, there are lots of complications involved, and state definitions vary, but that definition is a good place to start. Now for some specifics.
Hate crime requires an underlying criminal act—i.e., something else that is already a crime. Assault. Vandalism. Trespassing. And so on. I know of one case where a KKK member burned a cross on his own property—something that would not ordinarily be a crime—but was nonetheless charged with a hate crime because he violated burn laws (he burned out of season without a permit).
How hate crime laws generally work is by increasing the penalty. This can be done in different ways, depending on the jurisdiction. The hate crime may be charged as a separate crime (meaning the defendant will get two convictions), or it may enhance or bump up the severity of the underlying crime.
If a person expresses hateful ideas without committing a criminal act, that’s hate speech. Examples would include yelling racial slurs, posting hateful content on the Internet, and distributing extremist literature. Hate speech usually cannot be punished in the United States because it’s protected by the First Amendment. There are some fuzzy areas, however, such as when the speech incites violence or amounts to a threat.
States vary as to which groups are protected by hate crime laws. All states with hate crime legislation cover crimes motivated by race, religion, and ethnicity or national origin. Only some include sexual orientation, and even fewer include gender or gender identity. A few include other categories such as age or disability.
Hate crimes are the only crimes that require proof of the offender’s motive. For example, hitting someone because you don’t like their favorite football team is not a hate crime; hitting someone because you don’t like their religion is a hate crime. Both these of these involve the same action–intentionally hitting someone–but what differentiates them is the reason why. Identifying hate crimes is often difficult and prosecutions are rare. California has fewer than 100 hate crime convictions in a typical year.
Hate crime reporting rates are low, especially for certain victims. Such hesitancy might come from those who are undocumented, who fear the repercussions of reporting, or who are from communities that have poor relationships with law enforcement.
The vast majority of people who commit hate crimes—some estimates say 95%—do not belong to organized hate groups. Yes, some are committed by racist Skinheads and members of other groups. But most aren’t, and that’s something you might want to keep in mind when you write.
As the Orlando events illustrate, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish hate crime from terrorism (and other forms of violence, such as gang violence). In fact, I’d argue that there’s probably little meaningful difference in terms of the mindset of the perpetrators. Most offenders fit a basic profile: young men without significant criminal records, many of whom seek to prove their masculinity and/or impress peers. While the specifics may vary, I believe most of these offenders are influenced by similar psychological, emotional, and societal factors. Common factors include feelings of alienation or lack of power, as well as exposure to messages (from family, religion, the media, the government, and from the culture at large) condoning bias against certain groups. There is some evidence that specifically in cases of hate crimes against LGBT people, some perpetrators may be struggling with their own unwanted attraction to members of the same sex and with internalized homophobia. It’s too early to say for sure, but it appears this may have been the case in the Orlando shootings.
Obviously, I could go on at great length. So if you have specific questions, please feel free to ask.