Massachusetts lawmakers are working to clarify the definition of hate crimes and improve protection against perpetrators.
State Attorney General Maura Healey has filed a legislative proposal, cosponsored by several members of the State legislature, to reform and strengthen the Commonwealth’s current statutes regarding hate crimes.
The bill looks to create a clearer definition of a hate crime in the state and base the punishment of the offense on the severity of the person’s actions, according to an Attorney General spokesperson.
“From racist harassment, violence by white supremacists, and attacks against our most vulnerable communities, what we are seeing across the country and in our state is unacceptable,” Healey wrote in a statement. “We’re working with the Legislature and advocates to update the law so we can better protect our residents and send a clear message that hate and discrimination have no place in Massachusetts.”
A hate crime in the Commonwealth was defined as “any criminal act to which a bias motive is evident as a contributing factor” in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security November 2020 report.
Legislation in Massachusetts — one of 47 states with hate crime laws — protects against assault, coercion, intimidation and threatening of people on the basis of their existence in protected groups, such as religion, race, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or age.
Jack McDevitt, a professor of the practice in criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University, said hate crime laws differ from state to state, depending on who they protect and how offenders are punished.
“As new groups come onto the landscape of victims, it’s hard for them to be acknowledged,” he said. “The numbers switch from state to state of who’s protected under their hate crime statute.”
McDevitt said he and a colleague believe a hate crime should be defined as “a criminal act motivated either entirely or in part by a person’s difference,” but the majority of states have not adopted that definition.
“It’s premeditated,” he said. “If somebody robs you, they want your money … If it’s a hate crime, they want you to be out of this community and out of this country, in many cases.”
McDevitt said police agencies often undercount when they are filing hate crime numbers — 86% of departments submit data that reports zero hate crimes in a year, according to data published by the FBI, which he said is not representative of major cities.
“All crime data in the United States is voluntary,” McDevitt said. “It also ties into the leadership in the police agency and how they value this issue.”
Anti-race bias made up 40.4% of hate crimes reported to Massachusetts police in 2019 — there were 124 acts against Black or African Americans, 17 anti-Asian and 26 anti-white, according to the EOPSS November 2020 report.
Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate reported 96 hate crimes in Massachusetts against Asian Americans from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to the end of February.
Massachusetts saw a 10% increase in hate crimes from 2018 to 2019, and McDevitt said the number of hate crimes in Boston has been steadily increasing in the past five years.
McDevitt said online access has made it easier for individuals to find and interact with groups that partake in these crimes.
“It has been associated with the prior administration, the Trump administration, and the rhetoric that they had, demonizing immigrants and demonizing Asian individuals,” he said. “But it is the case that I think we’ve seen coarsening and emboldening of individuals in the white supremacist kind of groups.”
After residences and public streets, the third most common place for a hate crime to occur is in schools. On college campuses, it’s important to call out hatred, such as slurs or racism, when you see it, McDevitt said.
“We shouldn’t let those small slights start,” he said, “because they feed into larger ones.”
Arielle Sharma is a staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston, an organization that provides legal assistance to people of color and immigrants who experience discrimination in different sectors of life — such as employment and housing.
She said people of color often don’t receive the justice they deserve when reporting hate crimes.
The law also neglects to take microaggressions, racial profiling and general hositility into account, she added, which occurred in the March 16 Atlanta shootings when police officers did not denounce the killings of eight people, six of whom were Asian women, as a hate crime.
“The institutional racism that results in the failure to name hate crimes for what they are is just another way that people of color are victimized by police,” Sharma said, “after they’ve already been victimized by whatever individual it is that initiated the crime itself.”
The Atlanta shootings, she added, highlight the intersectionality of identity and the relationships between minority groups that have been strained by the model minority myth.
“The myth of the model minority, which people of Asian descent in particular face, erases the struggles of Asian Americans and pits people of color against each other,” she said. “It’s this pitting of people of color against each other that has for so long allowed the power structure to distract from the solidarity that we need to dismantle systemic racism.”
Sharma said it is important to identify when acts are a byproduct of racism, white supremacy and white terrorism, instead of “hiding behind pretty words and excuses.”
“When you live as a person of color, the feeling of being othered is part of your daily existence,” she said. “When you’re the active victim of a hate crime, that feeling of isolation, loneliness, fear and shame don’t get combated by calling the police.”
Sharma said the hate crime legislation will not be effective in a system that succumbs to “bias-ridden” court outcomes and enforcement, and they are reactionary: Laws don’t protect people from the crimes, they punish after the crime has been committed.
“It can only punish or deter them from acting on the dark impulses that hatred pushes them to act on,” she said. “Without addressing the systemic bias within all of our systems, we can pass the best hate crime laws or civil rights violation laws in the country and it’s not going to make a difference.”