The dominant story about race in the United States goes like this: in the past, we had troubling racial patterns, including genocide, slavery, and segregation. Then heroic individuals took spontaneous action and showed America the error of its ways. We changed all of our racist laws and became colorblind, evidenced by the election of President Barack Obama. When race is evoked today, it is only by people of color aiming to avoid responsibility and gain “special rights.” If some people still act on extremist notions of White supremacy, then punishing hate crimes is the best we can do about such behavior which seems to be innate to human beings.
In this narrative, racism is defined as individual, intentional, and overt, causing an enormous problem for those of us working on the institutional and structural causes of inequity. If there isn’t a noose hanging, too many Americans think, then there isn’t a racial problem. A similar gap between dominant thinking and the reality of systemic oppression affects LGBT people, immigrants, and people of certain faiths. The issue of hate violence is particularly tricky because it offers both expansions and limits in the fight for justice. Hate crimes are a form–sometimes the only form–of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, or religious intolerance that most Americans will recognize. It has emotional impact that generates action because hate crime violence is indeed taking so many lives. In addition, we can see the need for structural solutions in the criminalizing policies that have been adopted to address it. On the surface, hate crimes legislation appears to join the individual and the structural in ways that few other issues do.
In her insightful discussion paper, Kay Whitlock points out some severe limits of the hate frame, which ultimately amount to the fact that the problem isn’t actually being solved. The criminal justice system on which we’ve pinned our hopes is itself responsible for generating and reinforcing deep bias against the people who are most frequently victimized: queers, people of color and especially queer people of color.
Whitlock’s discussion of the role that police officers play in hate crimes mirrors a similar pattern found in domestic violence. The National Center for Women and Policing notes that “most departments across the country typically handle cases of police family violence informally, often without an official report, investigation, or even check of the victim’s safety.” This “informal” method is often in direct contradiction to legislative mandates and departmental policies regarding the appropriate response to domestic violence crimes.”1 Between 1990 and 1997, the Los Angeles Police Department reported 91 sustained allegations of domestic abuse among its officers, but only four resulting in criminal prosecution.
By relying on criminal justice as our only recourse, we ask the system that puts our very humanity in question to reverse the consequences of such dehumanization. One of the things we should fight for is the implementation of hate crimes legislation that addresses the role police officers play in perpetrating it. Given how difficult it has been to reform police departments, however, we’d better start looking at some other options.
These options might exist in other institutions. The dehumanization of “protected classes”–people of color, immigrants, queers–is generated not just by criminal justice systems. Racial, sexual, national, and religious profiling takes place in our immigration, energy, education, employment, and health care systems, among many others. In June, the Sikh Coalition in New York City announced the settlement of a lawsuit that forces the Metropolitan Transit Authority to abandon its post-September 11 rule requiring employees with headdresses either to put an MTA logo on it or work away from public view.2 If the public transit system of the nation’s largest city thinks it’s okay to “hide” its Muslim and Sikh employees, then many individuals will think it’s okay to send such people into hiding permanently.
Hate crime legislation has been one issue around which LGBTQ, immigrant, religious groups, and native-born communities of color have joined forces. If we want to prevent such violence, we need to seek a broader range of campaigns to engage together. In the Applied Research Center’s “Better Together” report, which focuses on the relationships between racial-justice and LGBTQ-liberation groups, issues, and communities, we argue that people concerned with both issues need to move beyond abstract moral support to concrete, strategic interventions.3
These strategic interventions suggest themselves in every institution of our society. Schools provide a great place to start; we should endeavor, for example, not to replicate the limitations of the hate crimes approach in creating anti-bullying policies. Health institutions and their treatment of victims might be another site of collective struggle. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act offers some options.
There are solutions we haven’t thought of yet, because our collective notions of justice are still oriented toward punishment rather than prevention. We need to begin work, together, on breakthrough agendas that uphold the dignity and safety of all our people, in all our institutions. We have to be able to connect individual pain to systemic rules, not only when violence is the result, but any form of dehumanization. We can do it, but only if we’re completely honest with ourselves about where the current range of hate crimes solutions have taken us, and where they haven’t.
- National Center for Women & Policing, “Police Family Violence Fact Sheet,” http://womenandpolicing.com/violenceFS.asp (accessed June 20, 2012).
- The Sikh Coalition, “Sikh Segregation Ends at MTA,” http://www.sikhcoalition.org/advisories/2012/sikh-segregation-ends-at-m… (accessed June 20, 2012).
- “Better Together: Racial Justice Orgs and LGBT Communities,” Applied Research Center, September 2010, http://www.arc.org/content/view/2244/ (accessed June 20, 2012).