In the last few months, amid a crazy news cycle, some stories have lingered and continue to haunt me. A white supremacist in Oregon kills two men who intervene to stop his racist rants; a 17-year-old girl in Virginia is killed after leaving a mosque with friends; an Indian man is killed at local bar in Kansas; a noose is found hanging at the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture; a pride flag is burned in California. Which of these is a hate crime? Does it matter?
A hate crime is motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, and usually involves violence. Originally, the FBI only investigated hate crimes if the victim was engaged in a “federally protected activity” such as voting or going to school. But in 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act authorized the FBI to investigate these crimes regardless of what the victim was doing when it happened. This landmark law also expanded hate crimes to include those based on biases of actual or perceived sexual orientation, disability, gender or gender identity.
Bias incidents are considered expressions of hate where no crime is committed. They also have negative effects on individuals and communities and can threaten to escalate into full hate crimes.
How prevalent are hate crimes?
Disturbingly, hate crimes and bias incidents seem to be on the rise, such as the hate crime that became a rallying cry to form the Brave Coalition. The FBI reported 5,850 hate crimes involving 7,173 victims in the U.S. in 2015. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests at least half of all hate crimes are not reported. Among the hate crimes documented by the FBI, 57% were motivated by race, ethnicity, or ancestry bias, 21% by religious bias, and 18% by sexual-orientation bias. Of those related to religious bias, 51% were anti-Jewish, 22% anti-Islamic, and 4.4% anti-Catholic.
While the most egregious events get coverage in traditional media, social media has created a venue for spreading hate. Social media is fueling organized hate groups, as well as hate speech and trolling. A recent study from Safe Home, a security organization, reported that “likes” on hate group tweets and comments rose more than 900% between 2014 and 2016. While the actual number of twitter followers for these hate groups is relatively small, they can have a disproportionate effect on targeted groups and our society as a whole.
But why does it matter?
Isn’t a murder a murder regardless of what motivated it? Can’t people on social media just ignore hate speech? Increased penalties for hate crimes reflect that the crime wasn’t just targeted at an individual, but leaves an entire group feeling vulnerable. In addition, hate speech on the internet can reach a relatively large audience very quickly and can be a motivating factor for some to actually commit hate crimes.
What about free speech?
Interestingly, the FBI points out “Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties”. The tension between free speech and preventing hate incidents is at the heart of American values. The Brave Coalition, in collaboration with the Mizel Museum and the Jewish Life Center-Chabad Denver North, invites you to consider these competing values at a unique screening of the incredible documentary Surviving Skokie, taking place on July 30, 2017 from 10am-12pm at the Stanley Marketplace Hangar.
The documentary tells the story of 7,000 Holocaust survivors in an Illinois community who, after years of silence, banded against a neo-Nazi group threatening to march on the town. This special event will include a post-screening question and answer session with the main subject of the film, an incredible man named Jack Adler. It will encourage reflection on hate in our society and contemplation of what individuals and communities can and should do in response.
What can you do?
As the Surviving Skokie event approaches, here are some resources worth exploring:
- The Southern Poverty Law Center's Ten Ways to Fight Hate in Your Community, as well as it's other pages: Fight hate, Teach Tolerance, Seek Justice
- The Anti-Defamation League's movement advocating for stronger hate crimes laws: #50StatesAgainstHate; and encouraging increased reporting of hate crimes: #ExposeHate.
- The Arab American Institute's effort to support the No Hate Act in Congress.