Monday, November 17, 2008

"Hate Crimes" Up Since Obama Victory

I'm annoyed when I have to read an English newspaper to read stuff like this:

Barack Obama’s election as America’s first black president has unleashed a wave of hate crimes across the nation, according to police and monitoring organisations.

Far from heralding a new age of tolerance, Mr Obama’s victory in the November 4 poll has highlighted the stubborn racism that lingers within some elements of American society as opponents pour their frustration into vandalism, harassment, threats and even physical attacks.

The article lists a number of crimes, but many of the instances don't exactly measure up to a reasonable standard of "hate crime." Of course all of these incidents are revolting, but some bigot writing "nigger" on a wall isn't worthy of federal law enforcement intervention, which is often the rhetorical reaction to so-called "hate crimes."

The Dems have been pushing to get tougher hate crimes legislation through but have thus far failed. It remains to be seen whether the hunkered-down Republicans in the Senate would be willing to stand-up to a new bill which will probably be making its way through the committees sooner rather than later--especially if incidents such as these continue to happen or, God forbid, escalate. I don't think the GOP is going to rediscover their federalist roots overnight and, I would guess, they will be unlikely to use the filibuster on such a sensitive issue--even though it would probably be the right thing to do.

Anti-lynching legislation made a lot of sense in the mid-20th century because, very often, lynchings had the tacit or even explicit support of local law enforcement officials. In spite of the still existent Good ol' Boy networks in police departments across the country, the notion of police collusion with lynch mobs is--happily--a thing of the past. Today, even in the most recent federal hate crime bill hearings on the Hill, local law enforcement was time and again proven sufficient in dealing with the vicious attacks on minorities. The guilty were caught and, quite rightly, punished severely. (Sitting in one of the pre-'Jena 6' hearings, I had trouble understanding why they were holding them to begin with, given that the perpetrators discussed were all caught and brought to justice.)

I don't take a definite position on enhanced local sentencing for "hate crimes"--I'm inclined to agree with it, provided they don't include mandatory minimums and the offenders clearly violate hate crimes laws. Problems arise, however, when these laws federalize assault charges and local governments rent-seek to get federal money to prosecute suspected hate crimes as prosecutors tack on a "hate crime" tag to a simple assault and battery cases.

For example, I would agree that a group of skinheads attacking a kid for being gay qualifies them for enhanced (local) sentencing. However, I would not condone upping a sentence for someone who got in a fight with a gay man at a bar just because he had used the term "fag" on previous occasions. If you can clearly tie the bigotry directly to the crime as the primary factor, then I'd be hard pressed to argue against it. Yet, very often, it's more a matter of fairness of application and trying to determine what someone had in mind, especially in rent-seeking situations as I described. The wider the door is opened for subjective assessments of motive that are tied to federal incentives, the greater the risk for abuse of the system and further injustice.

I was criticized on Culture 11 for being alarmist when I wrote that hate crimes could spike and bring federal intervention. As I said there, I hope they are right.

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