On Tuesday, February 22, a federal jury charged three men with hate crimes for their 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an act the jury found was motivated by racist hatred. Four days earlier, a Brooklyn man was charged with a hate crime for an unprovoked attack on an Asian woman. And that same week, Christina Yuna Lee was followed into her apartment and murdered (Associated Press).
Understandably, people wish to see bigoted violence punished more severely. But it’s important to understand what hate crimes really are. In the Arbery case, for instance, the hate crime conviction only means that the killers may receive another life sentence in addition to the ones they’re already serving (MSN). In other cases, hate crime prosecutions perversely harm the very people we think they’re there to help: members of marginalized communities.
• Read about why we should respond to anti-Asian violence with abolition, not hate crime legislation.
Hate crime charges serve as a sentencing enhancement when someone acts with bias while committing a crime. This bias must be against members of a protected class – such as a specific race, religion, or sexual orientation – and it must be a motivating factor for the crime (Time). It seems reasonable that a crime is more odious if it occurs solely because the victim is a member of an oppressed community.
Except this isn’t how the law is applied. A woman could be prosecuted for hate crimes against men. Queer people could be charged with hate crimes against straight people. In a landmark case, three Black teenagers had years added to their sentence because the courts held that their attack of a white teenager was a hate crime (Vice). Hate crime laws were used to sentence a member of the Black Liberation Army, a successor organization to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, to death for supposed bias against white people (New York Times). According to hate crime laws, an organization fighting for Black liberation and a white supremacist mass shooter are one and the same.
In 2019, Black people accounted for 24% of hate crime convictions though they only make up 13% of the population. While white people make up 60% of the population, they only accounted for 53% of hate crime convictions (FBI). According to the criminal justice system, white people in fact commit disproportionately few hate crimes while Black people commit them at a disproportionately high rate. Since hate crimes are, above all, a legal category, it is not community members but a white supremacist system that decides when they exist.
We also need to remember that as sentencing enhancements, hate crime provisions increase the time someone is incarcerated or cause them to be legally executed. When we expand the prison system and increase its ability to kill, those who suffer first are not white bigots but Black and Brown working-class people.
In the Atlanta example, prosecutors finally decided to charge the shooter with a hate crime as well as domestic terrorism (Yahoo). Domestic terrorism laws are disproportionately used to over-police Black, Brown, and Muslim communities (Emgage Action). Supporting Muslim charities, loaning money to friends for airline tickets, and even going paintballing are all innocuous activities that have led to domestic terrorism charges (Jacobin). We’re enabling an apparatus that overwhelmingly targets people of color when we demand enhanced charges. When we see racist murders go unpunished or armed white people storm the Capitol, it’s not absurd to think harsher penalties are what’s fair. But legitimizing the punitive system and enhancing its repressive abilities harms communities of color in the least equitable and most horrifying ways imaginable.
When we depend on the state for justice, we strengthen all of its parts: legislators and prisons, courts and police. If the American government, the wealthiest and most powerful one in the world, worked for racial justice, this newsletter would not be necessary. The protests of last summer would not have been necessary. Those protests were against the police and courts and prisons and politicians who enable them. The message of the revolts is that we cannot depend on the American government for racial justice because the American government itself created and has profited from racial oppression for centuries. If we demand a stronger carceral system for that same system to protect us from hate, we throw all of those lessons aside.
We need to name racial violence without resorting to the language of a racist criminal justice system. We need to forcefully respond to it without depending on institutions that cause incredible harm to communities of color. We can confront racist bigotry without depending on racist institutions. If we support healthy, well-resourced communities that can defend themselves from racist attacks, we can build justice without promoting the forces that have denied it from so many for so long.
We need to fight hate. We can do it beyond appealing to hate crimes.
• Hate crime charges have been leveled against Black activists “biased” against white people and strengthened courts and prisons.
• Black people are disproportionately convicted of hate crimes.
• When we strengthen courts, police, and prisons, the people most directly affected are working-class Black and Brown communities.