Calling the Atlanta Shootings a Hate Crime Isn’t Enough | #College. | #Students

Despite some conservative backlash to anti-hate protections for LGBTQ people, hate-crime bills historically have garnered enthusiastic bipartisan support. Yet the bills generally do nothing to improve conditions for victimized communities: In cases where they are applied, these laws lengthen sentences for offenses that are already penalized via extant criminal codes, instead of helping prosecute crimes for which perpetrators would otherwise go free. More injuriously, these laws perpetuate a public imagination about violent discrimination that flies in the face of how violent discrimination actually occurs. They do more to narrow the definitions of racism, xenophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, and ableism than they do to expand our legal apparatus and public understanding of what hate crimes are.

Hate crimes are defined as intergroup offenses, typically violent, that are motivated by race, sex, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, religion, or disability. But motivation is a technical legal term that is almost impossible to prove unless an alleged perpetrator is affiliated with a known hate group, is witnessed using epithets during the act, or left physical evidence, such as spray-painted extremist insignia. Both federal and state laws subscribe to this definition, but federal law also holds to a strict “but for” standard, in which the government must prove that the alleged perpetrator would not have committed the crime “but for” the identity of the victim.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the suspect’s motive in the Atlanta massacre did not “appear [to be] racially motivated,” and according to investigators, the suspect denied racial animus once in custody. (Recall the Price case: Even though Love had reported hearing Price go on a homophobic rant during the assault, his simple denial of that accusation helped dismantle the hate-crime charge.) And while it is still possible that officials will label the Atlanta shootings as hate crimes, such a statement from Wray neglects the idea that hate crimes, by definition, also include violence against women and not just racism. Overwhelmingly, intergroup violence in the U.S. is male violence against women. And yet femicide (a term coined by the activist Diana Russell in 1976 to differentiate the killing of women and girls because they are women and girls from other homicides), domestic violence, sexual assault, harassment, and stalking are almost never prosecuted as hate crimes motivated by misogyny.

The term hate crime was popularized in the 1980s and has since been coded into law in nearly every state. But the Dyer Anti-lynching Bill of 1918—pushed by the NAACP and abandoned by Republicans when Democrats threatened to filibuster—can be thought of as its distant ancestor. Lynching terrorized Black people throughout the country, though it was predominant in the South, where white people deployed mob violence to thwart Black political, social, and economic competition. The 4,400 victims of lynching from 1877 to 1950 were mostly men, and the 1918 bill, with its lynching-specific framing, neglected to include how Black women were simultaneously experiencing sexualized racial terrorism. (Black women suffragists organized in support of the bill but were critical of this oversight.)

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