Eugene Kane links to an interesting piece in the L.A. Weekly about press coverage of a case in Long Beach in which a mob of blacks allegedly viciously beat some white girls while shouting anti-white slogans and epithets. Kane, to his credit, thinks that the media has downplayed the case and its racial element because the perpetrators are black. The article considers how the media should cover this "man-bites-dog" story and quotes several commentators as wondering whether blacks "can" commit a hate crime or whether hate crime laws should be used against blacks.
First, is this really a "man-bites-dog" case? FBI statistics for 2005 show 3200 "anti-black" hate crimes (mostly committed by whites) and 935 "anti-white" offenses (mostly - but less so - committed by blacks). Looked at another way, the FBI identifies 1803 white "anti-black" offenders and 368 black "anti-white" offenders. Although I am just eyeballing the statistics, this strikes me as roughly congruent with the relative proportions of blacks and whites in the population. If we are going to have a thing called "hate crimes" it seems that blacks are at least just as likely to be charged as whites.
Apparently, that bothers some people. One concern, I suppose, would be over inciting white racism. If we publicize stories like the Long Beach attacks, we will be feeding white prejudices. Much of the same attitude can be seen among those who believe that it is problematic to put too much focus on high crime rates in the black community.
I am skeptical that much is ever accomplished by suppressing facts and the hate crime statistics themselves suggest that anti-black violence is not - proportionally - a more significant problem than anti-white violence undercutting the notion that there is a white monster just looking for an excuse to get out. I think this concern hints at a problem with hate crime laws which I will discuss below, but it is not a reason to cover up the wrong type of hate crime.
Another argument, expressed by Fara Chideya, of NPR, sounds like this:
"Some people say black folks cannot be racist because the root of the issue is power. So what do you make of this crime where you've got 12- to 17-year-olds and, you know, black people attacking whites? Is this a traditional hate crime? Should it be prosecuted as such? People in the community are kind of divided about that."
This has always struck me as a nonstarter. What, after all, is the evil in racism? I think that what resonates for most people is the denial of a person's individuality. The racist treats members of the disfavored racial group as things characterized by their race and whatever is associated with it rather than as unique human beings created in the image of God. It is just as bad when members of racial minorities do this as when the majority does it and, as the Sunnis and Shiites are showing us in Iraq, it can be just as deadly.
This brings me, at last, to one of the reasons that I oppose hate crime laws. While I understand the rationale - that an act motivated by race undercuts the notion that we should not act on the basis of race and risks the inflammation of racial tensions - that rationale does not seem to be well served by this kind of law. In deciding what it is or isn't a hate crime, we let considerations of race in through the backdoor. The idea that these laws can be administered and talked about in an apolitical way that is not itself infused with racial considerations seems impossible as suggested by the Long Beach case itself. In singling out racial crimes for heightened prosecution, it seems that we are as likely to inflame as to assuage racial tensions.