Hate: A Historical Look at Hate Crime Legislation

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Any crime perpetrated against a specific group of people is considered a hate crime. Hate crimes can be observed across human history, going as far back as the age of the Roman Empire, during which various religious groups were persecuted. Perhaps the most well-known mass hate crime is the “Final Solution” which saw the extermination of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and Afro-Germans. Hate crimes in recent years tend to be committed independently or by small groups; however, as seen with the Holocaust, and more recently with the Rwandan and Bosnian ethnic cleansings, even in the current era the potential for unchecked persecution remains. A hate crime has the potential to irreparably damage a community, the intention of the offender often being to create a rift among groups, leading to the erosion of community relationships and most noticeably the hindrance of tolerance.

Despite the seemingly alarming proliferation of hate crimes in recent years, there has been a decline in persecution both domestically and globally. Even so, it must be understood that the goal of hate crimes is to alienate groups due to race, sexual, orientation, gender identity, religion, causing the actions of even a single hate crime to reverberate throughout a community, often times permanently damaging the relationship between the targeted group and the general populace. In the United States, hate crime legislation at the state level began in 1984 with California being the first to pass a law that addressed sexual orientation. In the decades that followed, a total of 45 states and the District of Columbia passed legislation to punish crimes motivated by animus against a specific group. The five states that have yet to pass hate crime laws are Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Michigan and Indiana.

A lack of legal precedent in these five states does not imply that their political approach to dealing with an issue like hate crimes is antiquated, but rather speaks to the difficulty of enacting laws that adequately address hate crimes. The importance of legal protection at the state level against premeditated intimidation and violence against a particular group is the extent of the autonomy the Constitution grants states in handling internal criminal activity. In Georgia, the General Assembly passed a hate crimes bill in 2000 that was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court on the basis that it was “unconstitutionally vague”. According to the state jurists, the scope of the bill was excessively broad to the extent that a dispute among rival sports fans could be labeled a hate crime simply because the two parties were wearing different sports jerseys.

The shooting of an Imam and his associate on their way to lead a prayer group in Queens, the vandalism of a synagogue in South Florida on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and the murder of 49 visitors to a club frequented by the gay community of Orlando, are just a few examples of recent hate crimes. These examples represent in microcosm the thousands of hate crimes that are reported and tried annually. Multiple reports of such crimes are consistently observed in the United States, adding to the persistent tensions that plague relationships between minority groups and mainstream America. The desire to achieve justice for the victims of hate crimes is swift on behalf of the community. Members of the church that Imam Maulana Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, attended immediately demanded that the shootings of their religious leader and his associate be classified as a hate crime. Disciples of jurisprudence state that the issue with legislating crimes intended to divide communities and instill civil unrest is the “slippery slope” of monitoring the thoughts of individuals. Opponents of laws aimed against hate crimes claim that such laws are designed to cater to special interest groups; moreover, the difficulty in proving the bias behind a crime remains an issue. However, both federal and state hate crime legislation specifically cite race and national origin as characteristics protected under hate crime law. Since a majority of individuals identify with a specific race and nationality, the goal of hate crime legislation is to curtail crime committed with the intent of intimidation. This makes crimes under federal and state law spurred by anti-white bias as egregious as crimes motivated by anti-black bias.

The methodology behind hate crime legislation is not to empower the criminal justice system to run amok, fabricating evidence of hate bias in as many cases as possible. As America grows ever more diverse, an attitude of genuine tolerance and respectful curiosity must be fostered amongst communities. Regardless of the debate surrounding the validity of local, federal, and global hate crime legislation, the necessity for deterrents speaks to the socially divisive nature of this issue.