The term hate crime first appeared in the late 1980s in response to a racial incident in the white, working-class Howard Beach section of New York City, in which an African American man was killed while attempting to evade a violent mob of teenagers shouting racial epithets. Originally employed by journalists and politicians, the term was used soon thereafter by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a number of other law enforcement agencies across the United States to characterize any criminal offense motivated either entirely or in part by the fact or perception that a victim is different in socially significant ways from the perpetrator.
The term hate crime can be misleading, because it implies incorrectly that hatred is invariably a distinguishing characteristic of this type of offense. Although it is true that many hate-motivated crimes involve intense animosity toward the victim, many others do not. Conversely, many offenses involving hatred between the offender and the victim are not hate crimes in the sense intended here. For example, an assault that arises out of a dispute between two coworkers who compete for a promotion might involve intense hatred, even though it is not based on any racial or religious differences between them.
Hate Crime Laws
Limited federal legislation exists in the United States, thus leaving it primarily to the states to formulate hate crime legislation. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia presently have some form of hate crime statute; among them, a wide variation in the specifics of the laws exists. For example, in the area of protected groups (i.e., designated groups protected in the statute), most states list crimes targeted toward individuals because of their race, religion, or ethnicity as prohibited. However, a number of states also include sexual orientation, disability, gender, and age. The implication of this lack of uniformity is that members of a particular group may be protected by a hate crime statute in one community but not protected in a neighboring community in an adjacent state.
Another legal distinction among state laws involves the penalty structure of the statutes. In some states, a separate statute exists that prohibits hate crime behavior. In other states the hate crime law is a “penalty enhancement.” Thus, for the commission of a crime motivated by bias, the penalty may increase. Penalty enhancements may also apply to crimes committed with a gun or by individuals with long criminal histories, or crimes committed against vulnerable victims such as children.
Types of Hate Crimes
Some degree of variation exists among the offenses known as hate crimes. Some target particular victims, others all members of a group. Some have an expressive function, in order to provide excitement in the lives of the perpetrators; others are designed rationally to satisfy a specific objective. A precipitating event inspires some; others require no external catalyst to provoke their occurrence. Based on the offenders’ motivations, hate crimes can be categorized as defensive, retaliatory, thrill-seeking, and mission.
In defensive hate crimes, the hatemongers seize on what they consider to be a threatening incident, which serves as a catalyst or precipitant for the expression of their anger. They rationalize that by attacking an outsider they are in fact taking a protective posture, a defensive stance against intruders. Indeed, they often cast the outsiders in the role of those actively menacing them, while they regard themselves as pillars of the community. Such crimes frequently involve attacks on individuals and families who move into, or travel through, a neighborhood where they “do not belong.” From the point of view of the perpetrators, it is their community, means of livelihood, or way of life that is threatened by the mere presence of members of some other group. The hatemongers therefore feel justified, even obligated, to go on the “defensive.”
In a number of communities, the police have recorded specific hate crimes perpetrated against victims because of a perceived previous hate crime against their group. The thinking is “You got one of us; we will get one of you.” In such cases specific victims are seldom targeted; offenders look to attack any member of the targeted group. Another kind of retaliatory hate crime often follows an international incident such as an act of terrorism. For example, many communities witnessed an increase in anti-Arab, retaliatory hate crimes in the months following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Youthful hatemongers sometimes look merely to have some fun and stir up a little excitement, but at someone else’s expense. In a thrill-seeking hate crime, no precipitating incident need occur. The victim does not necessarily “invade” the territory of the assailant by walking through his neighborhood, moving onto his block, or attending his school. On the contrary, it is the assailant (or group of assailants) looking to harass those who are different, who searches out locations where the members of a particular group regularly congregate. In recent years, a common location for thrill-motivated hate crimes has been gay bars, a venue to which hatemongers can travel to locate vulnerable victims. The payoff for the youthful perpetrators is psychological as well as social: In addition to gaining a sense of importance and control, they also receive a stamp of approval from their friends.
On occasion, hate crimes go beyond what their perpetrators consider thrill-seeking, defensive, or retaliatory, at least in the narrow sense. Rather than direct their attack at those individuals involved in a particular event or episode—moving into the neighborhood, taking a job at the next desk, attending the same party— the perpetrators are ready to wage “war” against any and all members of a particular group of people. No precipitating episode occurs; none is necessary. The perpetrator is on a moral mission: His assignment is to make the world a better place to live.
The offenders therefore are concerned about much more than simply eliminating a few blacks or Latinos/as from their workplaces, neighborhoods, or schools. Instead, they believe that they have a higher purpose in carrying out their crimes. They have been instructed by God or, in a more secular version, by the Imperial Wizard or the Grand Dragon to rid the world of evil by eliminating all blacks, Latinos/as, Asians, or Jews, and they must act before it is too late. Mission hate crime offenders are likely to be associated with an organized group such as the National Socialist Movement, the Ku Klux Klan, or the National Alliance.
Organized Hate Groups
Only 5 percent of all hate crimes are perpetrated by the members of organized hate groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, there are slightly more than 800 active hate groups in the United States. Yet most of these hate groups are small; the average has fewer than 20 members. In total, there are probably no more than 20,000 members of hate organizations in the United States. Given a national population exceeding 300 million people, the 20,000 figure represents a minuscule proportion of Americans.
Numbers do not, however, tell the entire story of organized hate. Thanks to the Internet, a small group of hatemongers can now have disproportionate influence in reaching the young people of America. Hate groups have established more than 500 Web sites. In addition, they create and distribute white power CDs that sanction violence against Jews and people of color. Organized hate groups take advantage of local access cable television and shortwave radio. They often provide the propaganda for youthful hatemongers not only in the United States but around the world.
The findings of recent behavioral science research aimed at understanding the causes and characteristics of hate crimes may, in part, reflect a worsening of intergroup relations during the 1980s and early 1990s, as traditionally disadvantaged groups began to make claims for equal treatment. However, such efforts to explain hate crimes probably also reflect a heightened sensitivity to violence perpetrated against vulnerable members of society—especially women, gays, and people of color. Because of the recent convergence of new social movements involving civil rights, women, gays and lesbians, and victims in general, increased efforts are being made to confront the destructive consequences of hate crimes, especially those committed against the most vulnerable.
The research to date suggests that the best approach to combating hate crimes involves a coordinated and comprehensive approach, incorporating federal and state statutory protection for potential victims and an aggressive reaction from law enforcement. Most important, a truly effective strategy includes a grassroots community effort in which residents support targeted groups both before and after incidents of hate violence have occurred.
- Anti-Defamation League. 2005. “Anti Defamation League State Hate Crime Statutory Provisions.” Retrieved March 24, 2017 ().
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1999. Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines: Uniform Crime Reporting.
- Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Levin, Jack and Jack McDevitt. 2002. Hate Crimes Revisited:
- America’s War on Those Who Are Different. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- McDevitt, Jack, Jack Levin, and Susan Bennett. 2002. “Hate Crime Offenders: An Expanded Typology.” Journal of Social Issues 58(2):303-17.
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