Hair-splitting over hate

Posted on November 9, 2009. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Even if all the hate crime victims over the past 10 years stood up and applauded President Obama’s signing of the Matthew Shepard Act last week, which added new gender and sexual orientation categories to the federal statute, it wouldn’t equal the roar of an average Razorback football crowd.

Take out the property crime victims, which represented almost half of hate crimes last year, and the decade-long list wouldn’t even fill the seats at Arkansas State’s Red Wolves stadium.

Narrowing even further to Arkansas’ own lineage, the total number of hate crime victims would fail to pack the stands of the smallest high school football field.

In most states the number of hate crime victims in any given year is smaller than the number of state legislators; the FBI reported 38 hate crimes in Arkansas in 2007, the most recent reporting year. Of those, only 14 were violent crimes, and Arkansas was one of 40 states that didn’t register a single offense in the violent categories of forcible rape and murder.

For the entire country, the 2007 FBI report contains only two forcible rapes and nine murders. Only one state reported multiple offenses in either category: California, with two homicides. Not a single state registered an offense in both categories.

A politically inert observer, interested only in a candid analysis of the situation, would be likely to conclude that we essentially don’t have a hate crime problem at all, especially when compared to the FBI’s other tally of annual offenses, the Uniform Crime Report.

Case in point: California reported more hate crimes by a larger margin than any other state—1,789 in 2007. But every individual crime category for California in the UCR had a higher total than all its hate crimes combined. There were 2,260 Californians murdered last year, more than 9,000 raped, another 70,542 robbed and a whopping 109,210 victims of aggravated assault.

Start calculating a 10-year total for California and the disparity becomes even more staggering.

Clearly, while the bark of hate crimes can be pretty ferocioussounding in the media—remember warnings in 1998 of a hate crime epidemic?—it’s a tiny drop in a very large bucket compared to the real bite of violent crime.

Oftentimes, it’s not even that. Wyoming, which was home to the new law’s namesake, who was beaten and murdered after being lured from a bar in 1998, hasn’t registered a hate crime murder or rape in all the years since then.

In most years, the total number of hate crimes in all categories in Wyoming hasn’t risen above single digits.

Even at the time, Shepard’s murder wasn’t the most shocking to locals around Laramie. Writing in Reason Magazine in May 1999, Robert Blanchard noted the murder of a 15-year-old pregnant girl stabbed 17 times in November 1997, and the abduction, rape and murder of a visiting family’s 8-year-old daughter in the summer of 1998.

Neither warranted any national news coverage.

“In Wyoming, there are a few bigots who don’t like gays,” he wrote. “In the media, there are a lot more bigots who don’t like Wyoming.”

That’s not to say what happened to Shepard in Wyoming 11 years ago wasn’t revolting and despicable. It was, but so was what happened to Anne Pressly in Little Rock last fall. And of the two cases, the former is a national rarity. The latter is, tragically, an everyday, almost every hour, occurrence.

So why does Congress posture so pompously over hate crime legislation when there are hundreds of thousands of—what should the term be, “hateless”? “non-hate”?—crimes for every hate crime?

The answer, my friends, is the blowing of the political winds. Hate crime isn’t about hate, or crime, and never was. It’s about politics, plain and simple.

If hate crime legislation, and its associated costs, had to be justified by the numbers, it wouldn’t exist. The reason it exists is perfectly exemplified by its political response. Just look how this latest hate crime law got passed—after 10 years of trying by liberal politicians.

Gay activist groups reportedly have been a little put out with Obama, who hasn’t made his campaign pledge to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy much of a priority. Signing the new hate crime law specifically including homosexuals was an easy way to quell their discontent, especially since it was tucked into a $681 billion defense appropriations bill.

That’s pedantic politics at its best, folks. But please, let’s not confuse it with justice or crime-fighting.

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