Jonathan A. LLoyd

Doctoral Candidate in Sociology

Blog Post

Hate Crime History

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Hate Crime. A phrase so upsetting it might just be easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. News of more and more disturbing incidents continue to flood our news feeds, and arguments over whether or not something “counts” as a hate crime or not, you might find the idea of just ignoring the term altogether quite tempting. Likewise, merely talking about an incident might provoke the question “aren’t all crimes hate crimes?”.

Well, no. Hate crimes are different from other forms of violence, not only in their intent but in their impact. They present such a grim danger to both victims and democracy itself that their very existence demands both attention and action. Still, to really understand what makes something a hate crime, you need to learn the history behind hate crime itself. That process starts with defining the term.

Image of a battered plain white banner with all-caps marker writing held by four strings, two of them attached to a tree next to a brick house. Writing reads "TRUMP NATION, WHITES ONLY". Caption: Donald Trump's election brought about a rise in hate crimes. Photo courtesy of CBS News.
Donald Trump’s election brought about a rise in hate crimes.
Photo courtesy of CBS News.

So, what is a Hate Crime anyway?

Simply put, it depends on who you ask and what you’re looking at. So, for this entry, I’m going to offer three different definitions of hate crime. Each one shows how the phrase reflects the person (or group) using it.

Definition One

To the FBI, a hate crime is ” a criminal offense committed against a person or property which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin”. This definition works for both general understanding and for those people and organizations who work in contemporary, individual-focused practices or in criminal justice. Not so much for those who need to talk about hate crimes as a wholly different kind of crime or focus on its social nature.

Definition Two

Luckily, help is available. Hate crime researchers Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt define hate offenses as those “directed against members of a group simply because of their membership in that group…The basis for an attack may be a victim’s race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender–indeed, any physical or cultural characteristic which, in the mind of offenders, separates the victim from themselves”.

Levin and McDevitt, along with researcher Susan Bennett, have provided a hate crime typology. They break hate crimes into four categories: Thrill, Defensive, Retaliatory, and Mission-Based.

  • Thrill crimes are those where offenders are after a sense of excitement or power, looking for an easy target to attack. This is the most common hate crime.
  • Defensive crimes happen when offenders react to some threat (which doesn’t have to be real or related to the target) against themselves, their community, or some related resource.
  • Retaliatory crimes happen in response to some attack (again, doesn’t have to be real or related to the target) against the offender or their greater community.
  • Mission-Based crimes are those directly related to hateful ideology. These offenders are totally committed to their criminal careers and view themselves as crusaders against evil. Despite a rise in offenses linked with hate crimes, mission-based offenses are still thankfully, the rarest type.

However, neither of these definitions help much in looking at hate crime’s evolution, which ties directly into the history and nature of law.

Definition Three

Laws change based on what rule-makers decide. What we call hateful murder today, a government might have once called “development”. As Criminologist and civil rights attorney Brian Levin says,“…in early America, status distinctions in law, particularly racial ones, were intended to restrict the exercise of civil rights”. Historian John Legg illustrates this idea in his essay on the U.S. Government’s uprooting of the Minnesotan Dakotans in 1862.

Today, psychologists Linda Woolf and Michael Hulsizer note that hate groups remain relatively unchallenged in some places since public figures such as senators or policemen can hold beliefs which are “grounded in hate”. In other words, hate crimes relate to power.

Professor Barbara Perry, a widely-recognized hate crime scholar, defines hate crimes as “…mechanisms of power” which offenders use to help insecure power bases. They do this either through violence or threatening violence. She argues that the threats mainly emerge against people who already live in dangerous or scorned situations.

So, which one do we use?

I’m not calling any of these definitions right or wrong. They just reflect the needs and interests of the groups that use them. The definitions I’ve talked about are tools to help in that effort. Each offers different findings and ideas. They may contrast with each other, but they don’t outright deny each other. So, again, it depends on who you ask and what you’re looking at.

That said, I’ll draw upon all three of these definitions as we go forward. Next time, I’ll be taking a look at a few key events in American history and using these tools to determine if they would considered hate crimes today and why they might not have been a few years back.

Thanks for reading!

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