Can Only White People Hate?

During a recent debate on NPR's News & Notes, a show host suggested that hate crimes can only be committed by white people. His premise was that inherent in any hate crime is a monopoly on power, and thus disadvantaged ethnic minorities cannot by definition perform such crimes. In point of fact, it is a quite logical conclusion. If we are to apply broad societal conditions to individual crimes, it is logical to infer that the criminals' motives result from those conditions, and it's necessary to conclude that "oppressed" minorities cannot commit hate crimes.

It is not, however, an argument that I care to make. Quite to the contrary, I think it is evidence of how dangerous hate crime legislation can be. As hate crimes statutes mandate that the law apply factors based on ethnicity to individual crimes, it forces the law to derive the criminal's motives based on broad societal conditions. As such, it goes a long way toward institutionalizing ethnic preferences in the law.

The beating of three white teenage girls by a several black gang members in Long Beach, California recently brings all the weaknesses of hate crime laws into focus. By traditional application of California's hate crimes statute, this case certainly qualifies as a hate crime. The girls were attacked because they were white. The black boys taunted them with racial epithets and attacked them for no other reason than the color of their skin. Whites are a minority in the area where the beatings took place and anecdotal evidence suggests that both whites and Hispanics live there in fear of black gangs.

But as is noted in this article, few have called for the use of California's hate crime legislation in the case (although it has been). The mainstream press has been strangely silent. The local Long Beach paper has covered the story, but every other traditional media outlet has buried it, or not covered it at all. The media has over the years supported all kinds of hate crimes legislation and seemingly supported their broad application. But in this case, where the victims are white and perpetrators black, few see it as a hate crime.

In stark contrast, the Rodney King or Mathew Shepard cases generated wall-to-wall media coverage and the victims became national cause celebres. In those crimes, the media went so far as to promoted false story lines in order to project "metanarratives" and demand the application of hate crimes statutes. The LA media hyped the King case so much that city wide riots resulted. In the Mathew Shepard case, journalists fabricated a narrative that the robbery and killing was instigated out of malice toward gay men. From all evidence in the trial, it is clear that the criminals had no idea Shepard was gay.

The FBI reports that in twenty percent of hate crimes the victims are white, a fact that is not widely known or often reported. One might suggest, given how the media covers crime and ethnicity, that if hate crimes statutes were applied more evenly across ethnic groups, that number would be higher. But the broader point is that by using hate crimes laws, we not only treat criminals and victims differently based on their ethnicity, but we institutionalize differences between ethnic groups. And that is something that people calling for a color blind society need to confront.