Explaining Hate Crimes.

Yesterday saw a federal hate-crimes conviction in Scranton, Pennsylvania:

Two men on trial in a Pennsylvania federal court in connection with the beating death of an undocumented Mexican immigrant have been found guilty on all counts, including hate crimes. [...]

"Four people attacked one person because of his race and because they didn't want people like him living in their town," prosecutor Myesha K. Braden said during her closing argument.

Witnesses testified that racist language was used before and during the attack and that Ramirez was kicked in the head repeatedly after falling down. The defendants, they said, didn't want immigrants in their neighborhood and repeatedly ordered Ramirez to leave.

A few nights ago, I was watching The West Wing's season one Christmas episode, In Excelsis Deo. It's an excellent 45 minutes of television -- one of the best episodes of the season -- but it does feature a really terrible plot line about the Matthew Shepherd-style killing of a gay teenager, and the press secretary's push to have the White House come out in favor of federal hate-crimes legislation. The problem is that Aaron Sorkin's writing suffers from the fact that he doesn't know very much about hate-crime legislation. As such, his fast-talking characters spend the episode talking in cliches about how we shouldn't "punish people for their thoughts."

I only bring this up to note that I anticipate a like response to the Pennsylvania verdict and would like to preempt it with a quick point about hate-crime laws as they actually exist in the real world. Simply put, a hate crime is a hate crime because its effect extends beyond the individual to the community to which the victim belongs. You could prosecute a cross-burning as arson or a simple property crime, but it is so much more than that; burning a cross -- or spray-painting a swastika on a public building -- tells the community that "these people" aren't welcome and that they can expect harassment or violence if they stay. What's more, these crimes cause broader injury to the areas where they occur. They spread racial distrust and misunderstanding and isolate minorities within their own communities.

The West Wing notwithstanding, hate-crime laws don't punish "thought." Rather, they account for the broad and disparate effect of bias crimes with harsher punishments. This strikes me as perfectly reasonable.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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