A couple of days ago I put up a post on race relations, and got quite a variety of comments. Some people said that things are getting better, while others pointed out (as the post did) that racial tensions are still with us.
Then there were two incidents reported in the national media over the last couple of days that brought the specific matter of hate crimes to light. In the first, a woman who was apparently mentally disturbed, and who was a self-described racist, went on a shooting rampage at a mail processing facility in Goleta, California, killing at least seven people (including a former neighbor) before taking her own life. News reports out tonight suggest that race may well have been a motive, as she did not fire at the white security guard or other white employees but selectively shot minorities. Three of her victims reportedly are black, one Filipino, one Hispanic and one of undetermined race. In the second crime, a teenager entered a gay bar in Massachusetts with a hatchet and attacked several patrons. When the hatchet was wrestled away from him, he pulled out a handgun and began shooting. Luckily, it appears that while several people were injured, some seriously, no one was killed in that incident.
Because of the discussion on the previous board and the news items from the past two days, I decided to examine FBI hate crime statistics to learn what was right and what was baloney. I compared the 2004 statistics (the most recent available) and 2000 statistics (which is on pdf, you will need to scroll down to page 11 to find the table comparable to the 2004 statistics. You can in fact access the FBI report for any year from 1995 to 2004 by linking from this page.
I learned four things:
1) the people who are saying that things are getting better slowly do have a point, although the emphasis is on the word, 'slowly'. The total number of hate crimes declined from 8,063 incidents in 2000 to 7,649 in 2004. Now, this is much too slow, IMO, and the quicker we can reach the neighborhood of zero, the better, but things are slowly getting better.
2) the traditional targets of hate crimes: blacks, Jews and gays still are way out in front of all other targets. There are about 3 times as many incidents in which blacks are targetted because they are black, as there are incidents in which whites are targets because they are white. Jews in 2004 were the victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in 69% of incidents (down from 75% though in 2000, largely due to the increase in hate crimes targetting muslims-- more on that in observation 3). Gay people were the targets in 1,147 of 1,197 crimes in which sexual orientation was an issue. Bisexuals were targets in 17 of the crimes (which I suspect were nearly all also committed by heterosexuals but I have no proof of that) and heterosexuals were the targets in 33 incidents in 2004. What this means is that Pat Robertson's claim from a few years ago that gangs of homosexuals were going out and beating up straight people notwithstanding, for every such incident there are more than thirty incidents involving gay people being targetted due to their sexual orientation. Collectively, blacks, Jews and gays, who together are less than 20% of the population, were the targets in well over half of all hate crimes.
3) What is in the news and heated rhetoric makes a difference. The most obvious example is Islamic people. In 2000, there were 28 incidents where muslims were targetted, while in 2004, this had jumped to 156 incidents (nearly six times as many). And this was three years after 9/11, when incidents targetting muslims spiked off the charts. Of course the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and terrorist incidents around the world may have played into this, but honestly, even if someone is fully of the belief that radical Islam is the biggest threat we've ever faced, how does beating up a muslim man in Pittsburgh do anything to advance America's military situation? Another area where rhetoric seems to have played a role is in attacks against immigrants. Despite the overall decline in hate crimes, incidents targetting people based on their national origin are up. I suspect that rhetoric targetting immigrants has played a role in this.
4) Hate crimes against the disabled have jumped by over 50%. That makes me wonder if, slight improvements in the rates of other hate crimes aside, we are becoming a more mean-spirited society (what kind of scummy human being attacks disabled people out of hatred, anyway?)
Another thing that this post makes clear is that hate crimes laws are still needed. Just consider this: without hate crimes legislation, someone who paints a swastika on a synagogue or Satanic symbols on a church is only guilty of graffitti vandalism, even though the clear intent is to harrass and intimidate. And these numbers are still high enough that we need to be sending a clearer message as a society that you are free to have your opinion, even if it is to hate others, but as soon as you take action and commit a crime because of that, then that is absolutely not acceptable.