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Definition: hate crime from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1984) : any of various crimes (as assault or defacement of property) when motivated by hostility to the victim as a member of a group (as one based on color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation)

Summary Article: HATE CRIMES
From Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society

Hate crimes or bias crimes are incidents in which the offenders have selected their victims because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or other innate characteristics. These incidents are unlike other crime categories because the offenders target victims largely because of who they are (e.g., African Americans) or because of a group they choose to belong to (e.g., Catholics) rather than because of what has occurred, for example, a protracted incident between neighbors or family members. Like terrorists more generally, these offenders often randomly choose their victims and do not care who they assault or harass so long as they connect the victims to a particular group. Their mission is often to convey a message to an entire group, such as “Leave—your kind isn’t wanted in our neighborhood,” or to let the group know that they will not tolerate “your behavior.” This entry reviews government attempts to address hate crimes, especially in the United States.

U.S. Response

Although crimes motivated by hatred have existed for centuries, there was no push in the United States to distinguish them as a special type of criminal offense until the early 1980s. Advocates from several special interest groups argued, using three general reasons, that hate crimes needed special attention from law enforcement agencies. First, because hate crime offenders target innate characteristics of a group, victims may have greater difficulty in coming to terms with their victimization. Second, some hate crimes appear to have contagious effects on the victim’s community that could lead to a backlash against the offender’s community. Third, although racially motivated crimes occasionally receive national media attention, most hate crimes are not serious in terms of the penal law and, therefore, will receive only modest police attention. Accordingly, many have argued that, without special law enforcement programs and laws, these incidents will not receive the resources necessary to sanction offenders proportional to the harm they caused to their victims, nor will they significantly deter future perpetrators or satisfactorily address community fears and victim needs.

To address concerns raised by advocates and others, nearly every U.S. state and the federal government have, over the past 30 years, formally addressed hate crimes in one way or another. Yet despite these widespread legislative activities, there is neither a consistent definition for what constitutes a hate crime nor a standard policy for how law enforcement should respond effectively. States legislatures and the federal government do not agree on which groups to include, what activities represent incidents, or what incident attributes are necessary to label a crime as hate motivated.

Federal Activity

For these latter two issues, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recommends that police officers consider several factors when suspecting a hate crime, including whether (a) the victim perceived the offender’s actions to have been motivated by bias; (b) there is no other motivation for the incident; (c) the offender has made remarks directed at a protected group; (d) the crime involves the use of offensive symbols, words, or acts that represent a hate group or suggest bias against the victim’s group; (e) the incident occurred on a holiday or other day of significance to the victim’s or offender’s group; and (f) the area’s demographic characteristics suggest bias.

As for defining hate crimes, after debating for several years, the U.S. Congress codified, in the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, the first national definition of a hate crime. Although this act did not criminalize any behaviors or expand sanctions for current offenses, Congress required the attorney general to use the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program to collect from local and state law enforcement agencies (but not from federal agencies) data about crimes showing evidence of “prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, including where appropriate the crimes of murder and non-negligent manslaughter; forcible rape; aggravated assault, simple assault, [or] intimidation; arson; and destruction, damage or vandalism of property.” By 2005, 12,417 state and local agencies from forty-nine states and the District of Columbia voluntarily sent information about their hate crimes to the FBI. During the first 10 years of data collection (1992–2001), these agencies collectively reported 78,390 hate crime incidents.

In 1994, Congress again responded to concerns about hate crimes by using the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to amend the definition, adding disabilities to the list of factors to consider when deciding whether a crime is a hate crime. Within the same act, Congress also added gender as a protected group when it directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to enhance sentencing for hate crimes. Yet the FBI states that limitations in federal statutes prevent the bureau from investigating crimes motivated by gender, disability, or sexual orientation.

Nevertheless, in 1995 the Sentencing Commission established a sentencing enhancement of a three-level increase for offenses when the court determines, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the offender selected a victim or a victim’s property because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. Thus, at the federal level, hate crimes do not represent separate or distinct crimes but rather are traditional offenses that deserve harsher sanctions when the offenders are motivated, in whole or in part, by their hatred of a protected group.

Differing Definitions

Besides these varied codified definitions, various federal agencies and their sponsored research also define hate crimes somewhat differently. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service defines these incidents as “violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability,” whereas the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) states that an “ordinary crime becomes a hate crime when offenders choose a victim because of some characteristic—for example, race, ethnicity, or religion—and provide evidence that hate prompted them to commit the crime.”

In 2003, the BJS began collecting data to capture the occurrence of hate crime victimization across the United States. Using its annual National Crime Victimization Survey, the BJS asked respondents whether they suspected that the offenders targeted them because of their race, religion, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality, or association with people of certain characteristics or religious beliefs or because of the offenders’ perception of their characteristics or religious beliefs. Between July 2000 and December 2003, the BJS reported finding 210,000 hate crime victimizations per year.

Although the decision to include these categories is nearly universal, there was nevertheless some dispute about who should be included, even among those supporting the adoption of hate crime legislation more generally. Some scholars argued that victims belonging to the racial majority should not be considered victims of hate crimes given that legislatures originally conceived hate crime bills to protect minority communities. Thus, some questioned whether laws primarily intended to protect historically victimized groups should also be used to prosecute them for criminal offenses believed to be motivated by hate.

Although the inclusion of racial, ethnic, and religious groups led to some scholarly debates, the movement to include additional groups, such as gays, women, the disabled, and the aged, created widespread substantial and material controversies. Of these categories, the drive toward including sexual orientation probably generated the greatest controversy at all levels of government. For instance, during the late 1980s, for several years Congress could not pass the Hate Crime Statistics Act, largely because of the desire of its sponsors to include sexual orientation. Although the bill eventually passed, the opposition inserted language that explicitly limited the act’s authority requiring data collection.

After nearly 20 years, the same issue continues to arise when Congress debates additional hate crime legislation. Some legislatures and advocacy groups argue that inclusion of sexual orientation will only further legitimize an immoral act. Lawmakers also raised these concerns at the state and local levels. For example, a concern that the legislation may also protect child molesters stopped Texas from enhancing penalties for hate crimes. Similarly, a city council repealed its hate crime ordinance after the African American community protested against the inclusion of gays and lesbians in its hate crime legislation. They argued that the inclusion of gays would equate the gay minority status with the struggles of the African American community. Nevertheless, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that thirty-two states, and in some areas the federal government, specifically included sexual orientation in their legislation by 2006.

State and Local Activities

Besides steps taken at the federal level, nearly every state legislature and many municipalities across the United States have also passed hate crime legislation. The ADL reported that since the states of Washington and Oregon passed their hate crime statutes in 1981, forty-five states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of legislation codifying bias motivation and intimidation. Forty-four of these states specifically protect race, religion, and ethnicity. Utah, the only state that does not explicitly state any categories, does permit its sentencing judges and Board of Pardons and Parole to consider the “degree to which the offense is likely to incite community unrest or cause members of the community to reasonably fear for their physical safety or to freely exercise or enjoy any right secured by the Constitution or laws of the state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

Besides legislative changes, many law enforcement agencies have placed greater importance on attaching hate as a motivation for criminal acts. The Police Executive Research Forum, the Police Foundation, the National Black Police Association, and the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice have supported legislation mandating the collection of information on hate crimes. For example, during the 1980s several large U.S. police departments, including those in Boston and New York City, established hate crime investigative units. By 2003, an estimated 8% of the nation’s law enforcement agencies reported having a bias crime unit, and only 6% reported having no capacity to address this problem.

Police departments assign these units with the responsibility for investigating incidents that the responding officers believed were motivated by hate, and these units are often given the responsibility for showing that their agencies give priority to these crimes by maintaining links with populations at risk for hate crimes through community meetings and activities. Some prosecutors’ offices have likewise established bias crime units consisting of trained investigators who help police or conduct their own investigations.

International Response

Outside of the United States, definitions of and responses to hate crimes also vary geographically. For instance, the United Kingdom’s Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, pertaining to England and Wales, states that a racially motivated crime occurs when an offender demonstrates hostility toward the victim based on the victim’s membership in a racial group (defined by reference to race, color, nationality, or ethnic or national origin) or when the offense is motivated by hostility toward members of a racial group based on their membership in that group. However, the British Home Office defines a hate crime more broadly as any criminal offense where the victim or any other person perceives that the incident was motivated by prejudice or hate.

Besides Great Britain, many other European countries have some type of hate crime legislation, including Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. However, besides Europe, North America, and Australia, there is no similarly concerted effort among countries across Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East to codify and formally respond to hate-motivated crimes.

  • Appendix B

    See also
  • Anti-Defamation League; Discrimination; Ethnoviolence; Hate Crimes in Canada; Holocaust; Ku Klux Klan; Lynching; Prejudice; Victim Discounting; White Supremacy Movement; Xenophobia

Further Readings
  • Jacobs, James B.; Kimberly Potter. 1998. Hate Crimes: Criminal Law and Identity Politics (Studies in Crime and Public Policy, edited by Michael Tonry and Norval Morris). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Jenness, Valerie; Ryken Grattet. 2001. Making Hate a Crime: From Social Movement to Law Enforcement. New York: Russell Sage.
  • Levin, Jack; Jack McDevitt. 1993. Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed. New York: Plenum.
  • Maxwell, Christopher; Sheila Royo Maxwell. 1995. Youth Participation in Hate-Motivated Crimes: Implications for Research and Policy. Boulder: University of Colorado, Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.
  • Shively, Michael. 2005. Study of Literature and Legislation on Hate Crime in America [final report submitted to the National Institute of Justice]. Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates.
  • Wessler, Stephen. 2000. Addressing Hate Crimes: Six Initiatives That Are Enhancing the Efforts of the Criminal Justice Practitioners [Bureau of Justice Assistance monograph]. Portland: University of Southern Maine.
  • Christopher D. Maxwell
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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