Hate crimes have become an integral part of the overall statistics of crimes committed in the USA over the last decades. These felonies are always widely publicized and receive a great deal of attention when they occur. The media have popularized the fight against hate crimes to some extent and have enhanced the public understanding of this issue through a lot of publications and reports concerning the sighing of the hate crimes bill into law by President Obama in 2009. The formal definition of a hate crime states that it is an action that “constitutes a crime of violence; constitutes a felony under the State, local, or tribal laws; and is motivated by prejudice based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim”. The more common understanding of the hate crime is that it is any violence committed out of hatred due to the fact that the person does not fit the conformist societal stereotypes of normality.
The history of the hate crimes goes back to the dawn of humanity as people have always despised and hated something that they could not understand or relate with. However, the official record of combating this crime starts with the FBI’s investigations of the Ku Klux Klan in times of the World War I, though their actions were not labeled as hate crimes then. The first public emergence of this word dates back to the 1980s when various arising hate groups and movements like the skinheads started the onset of a series of hate crimes, or as they are often referred to “bias-related crimes”. Hate crimes are not rare even nowadays in the seemingly progressive and tolerant society. The rate of hate crimes is staggering, yet it has been slowly decreasing over recent years. Thus, in 1995, there were recorded 24 bias-related crimes for every 1 million of the Americans, while in 2006 this figure was 16. It is the statistics on the race-related hate crimes available on the FBI website. Concerning the anti-gay hate crimes, in 1995 there were 5.2 for every million and in 2006 this figure constituted 4.7. Although the drop may seem at a glance insignificant, it is essentially a huge achievement that signals the increase in the tolerance levels of the American multicultural society. Nevertheless, hate crimes still occur as evidenced by the latest releases on the FBI website. For instance, the three most recent hate crimes happened in New Orleans, Dallas, and Columbia on 10.16, 11.08, and 11.13 respectively. Hate crime is a rather broad notion that comprises miscellaneous possible offenses that are united by a common motivation of explicitly declaring hatred towards and rejection of the convictions and practices of another person that differ from the criminal’s ones. Thus, in New Orleans, a man pled guilty to being engaged in writing racial statements and offenses on local church (FBI). In Columbia, the justice system sentenced a man to 4 years of imprisonment for a racially motivated assault of a teenager of the African-American origin. Hate crimes are common in all environments and settings, moreover among all age groups. Unfortunately, a huge amount of bullying in schools may be blamed for the underlying hate crime motivation. Prisons are claimed to be the harshest setting in terms of the spread of hate crimes. There two kinds of hate crimes are especially wide-spread – the ones on the basis of race and sexual orientation.
The most controversial piece of legislation concerning hate crimes was signed into law in October of 2009. Previously, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 was passed by the 111th Congress on the 30th of April. The law has two precedents – the federal hate crimes law of 1968 and the one of 1994. Nonetheless, the jurisdiction of these laws was significantly limited in comparison with the recent bill. Thus, the 1968 law permitted the Federal Government “to prosecute crimes committed on the basis of race, religion and national origin when the victim is engaged in public activities like going to school or eating at a restaurant”. The 1994 law dealt with the enhancement of the verdicts for the bias-related crimes. The 2009 hate crimes law that has been entitled the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act presupposes the extended list of offenses that fall under the legal designation of a hate crime and much harsher punishments for the individuals indicted on the commitment of these criminal acts.
The Act has been entitled this way to commemorate two victims who were brutally murdered in 1998, marking the increase in the public attention towards this kind of crimes. The opinions concerning the law have divided into two opposing groups. The one headed by President Obama views the legislation as a huge achievement of the American society that would benefit all its members and would prevent the surge in the rate of hate crimes. Prior to signing the law, President has stated: “After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we’ve passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray, or who they are”. This way, the law has to guarantee the protection and safety for all American citizens, thereby promoting equality and the supremacy of human rights. However, there is an opposing view that this law is not going to achieve its lofty goals, but rather enhance tensions and controversy within the society. Moreover, there is an extreme opinion that this law is a direct violation of the First Amendment. Nonetheless, the supporters of the act emphasize that it is not violations of the law to voice personal opinions if they are not legally prosecuted; a person may be prosecuted if he/she commits hate acts that are legally forbidden. Prior to passing the bill in the Congress, Christian legal group attorneys urged to pass it as the extended hate crimes bill violated, in their opinion, the freedom of religion and expression instead granting additional rights to the representatives of the homosexual orientation. These rights are not available to the rest of the population, thus promoting inequality and favoritism for certain distinguished groups of the population. However, not all Christians support this opinion as to the example of senior pastor Dr. Joel Hunter vividly shows.
It has been interesting to conduct a survey of the population’s opinion of hate crimes. The research has been conducted through the social network Facebook and comprised anonymous and non-anonymous questioning of 30 people. The majority of the participants are within the age range of 17-25 years (19 people). 2 of the participants are 16 years while the rest come from the age group of above 25. The delimitation of the survey is the confined representation of age groups. This fact has been predetermined by the youth being more inclined to take part in a school survey. The ethnic and racial representation among the participant is diversified. For their convenience, the list contained only 5 questions and they could answer them the way they deemed appropriate. The questions are the following:
- What is your understanding of a hate crime?
- Should the hate crimes be fought on the federal level or is it a social issue that does not have to be legally prosecuted?
- Have you ever been the participant of a hate crime? If yes, have you been a victim or an assailant?
- Have you heard about the Matthew Sheppard Act of 2009? Do you know who Matthew Sheppard is?
- Do you support government policy concerning hate crimes in the USA? (If the participants stated that they were not aware of the policy, they received a brief explanation to be able to answer the question)
The answer to the first question was given by all 30 participants with minor deviations. For instance, 3 of them did not mention gender identity as the reason for a crime being labeled as a hate one. 4 of the participant forgot to mention disability as a hate crime motivation. After having been asked whether they viewed it as a possible reason for a hate crime, they asserted this fact. Therefore, the conclusion may be made that generally young people know what a hate crime is, and their definition coincides with the one from the law.
All of the participants stated that hate crimes should be legally prosecuted, yet they faltered whether these offenses should belong to the federal or state jurisdiction. In this instance, the surveyed understood a hate crime as the one including the infliction of severe physical or psychological damage through violence. It proves that the Americans seek to eradicate the phenomenon of hate crimes from the multicultural society.
The majority of the surveyed (26) claimed that they had never been involved in a hate crime. One participant of 26 years who was a Non-Hispanic White origin revealed that he had bullied in the school years some younger than him boys on the basis of their race and supposed homosexual orientation. He attributed such an offensive behavior to the detrimental influence of the gang he had been engaged in. He had never been legally prosecuted and claimed that he gave up such a behavior after about 3 months. Now, he feels ashamed but feels that this experience has helped him to realize the value of true equality and the villainess of any bias-related offenses. 3 participants acknowledged to having been mocked on the basis of the racial belonging to the African American (1 man) and the Chinese (1 girl) and because of the supposed homosexual orientation at school (1 boy). However, they did not feel that their offenses could have been deemed as hate crimes. They assessed them rather as bullying and mocking.
All the participants have heard about the 2009 hate crime law from the media and the Internet. The majority of them (21) responded that they could not definitely state who Matthew Sheppard was prior to reading articles or watching news concerning the enactment of the new law. Six participants had difficulty in recollecting some information about Matthew Sheppard and the law but claimed that they had definitely met the title before.
On the whole, all the participants support the government policy aimed at the elimination of the hate crime phenomenon from society. The majority of the surveyed have a general idea of this policy and support the enactment of the 2009 hate crime law. They suppose that it will be beneficial for the well-being of the entire society and for the enhancement of tolerance. Nonetheless, they also believe that hate crimes will still exist, no matter how harsh the laws are. It is a matter of personal conscience and social tendencies thus the general public has to be educated about the phenomenon of a hate crime and possible efficient means of its prevention. The fact that all the participants of the survey support the law implies that it has the potential to become effective in the future.