Hate crimes—offenses stemming from hatred of persons based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation—continue to be an affront to the national conscience. Their incidence among some groups, moreover, has been rising. Such is the case with Asian Americans. Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, spoke to America of an increase in bias-related incidents. “Largely because of increased immigration,” she said, “our own population has been growing over the past few decades.” A number of the bias-related incidents that have taken place, she believes, are a reflection of anti-immigrant sentiment as the presence of Asian Americans becomes more visible. Last year alone saw the murder of three Asian Americans, together with numerous other bias-motivated encounters ranging from beatings to harassment. Nor are they directed only toward newly arrived immigrants, whose language difficulties may put them at greater risk. Ms. Fung observed that they affect people whose families have been here for generations.
Bias crimes against Asian Americans are part of a larger web of attacks against people of color. The hardest hit are African Americans, who remain by far the largest group of targeted people. The most brutal example in recent years was the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Tex. Tied to the back of a pick-up truck, he was dragged to death by three young white men. Equal in ferocity was the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard the same year. Lured from a campus bar, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student was taken to a remote rural area outside Laramie, beaten, bound to a fence post and left to die. Crimes against gays and lesbians constitute the third largest group of bias crime victims. As in the case of Matthew Shepard, the perpetrators themselves are usually young. A study of hate crimes by the American Psychological Association points out that crimes targeting sexual minorities are “the most socially acceptable, and probably the most widespread form of hate crime among teenagers and young adults.”
Some victims of hate crimes do not report them. Ms. Fung said that in the case of Asian Americans, police have traditionally not been very ready to receive complaints or acknowledge that the crimes may be racially motivated. “Consequently,” she said, “if the matter is not investigated fully, people in our community have tended to believe that no benefit can come from reporting these incidents.” And this, she added, “represents a breakdown in the criminal justice system, if people who are victims of hatred feel there is no official response from the government agencies that are supposed to help them.” A similar reluctance to report victimization is sometimes found in the gay and lesbian community. For them, in addition to a sense—especially in rural areas—that a police response would be minimal, there is fear that since reporting would mean revealing their sexual orientation, such a step could harm their careers and family relationships.
Most states now have hate crime laws, but less than half include issues of sexual orientation, gender and disability. Some that do, like New York, which passed its comprehensive statute in October 2000, include so-called penalty enhancement provisions—in recognition of the fact that hate crimes victimize not just individual members of a group, but the group itself as an entity. At the federal level, anti-hate crime advocates—ranging from the Anti-Defamation League to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign (an organization that focuses on gay and lesbian rights)—continue to press for passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Introduced in both the House and the Senate, it would allow federal authorities to investigate all hate crimes. Currently, federal law applies only when the hate crime victim was engaged in a federally protected activity, like voting. In addition, it would expand the category of hate crimes to include sexual orientation, gender and disability. While it is the states, not the federal government, that have jurisdiction over crime in general, Congress needs to take hate crimes seriously and find a constitutionally appropriate response to this terrible phenomenon.
If prevention of hate crimes, rather than punishment, is the goal, the most effective long-term approach would be through education—starting in elementary school. As a melting pot of many cultures, part of the process of learning to be a good citizen in the United States is learning to understand and respect others in terms of their diversity and cultural differences. We are still far from achieving this understanding and respect, but assuredly it is the goal to aim for.