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An Englishwoman in Washington: The hate debate

The 1990s has acquired the status of the 'decade of hate'. Crimes such as the murder of Matthew Shepard in a brutal anti-gay lynching in Wyoming, the dragging to death of James Byrd junior by so-called white supremacists in Texas, the Columbine school shootings and the 4 July weekend shootings of members of religious minorities in Illinois and Indiana are cited as recent evidence of this trend.

But a more accurate description of the 1990s would be the less-catchy 'decade of war against hate'.

Hate crimes legislation began in earnest at the state and federal level after 1990. Now, talk about hate crimes is everywhere. A recent survey of the national press noted that the term 'hate crime' was used more than 7000 times in the first six months of 1999, in contrast with 1000 mentions throughout 1990 and a meagre 11 mentions in 1985. It has become de rigeur for 'right-thinking' politicians to declare a war on hate at every opportunity. Throughout 1999 President Clinton tried repeatedly to beef up federal hate crimes legislation. Republican presidential hopeful John McCain uses campaign speeches to denounce the 'hate' that is poisoning America. And New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani regularly denounces hate as a vicious evil. Apparently it was his opposition to hatred that caused him to attempt to shut down the Britart exhibition Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Celebrities have also signed up for the war against hate. Viewers of the ABC network are treated to commercial-time homilies from soap stars like Dr Elizabeth Corday from ER, who sanctimoniously informs us that if we tell prejudiced jokes in front of our children we are teaching them to hate and damaging them for life.

Yet the war against hate is not driven by an escalation of bigotry and prejudice in the USA. The FBI has been mandated to collect statistics on hate crimes since 1990, and currently records between 8000 and 9000 hate crimes per year. There is little evidence of this figure increasing. Spectacular murders may grab the headlines, but those who talk of the escalation of hate crimes cite the same four or five incidents as evidence. In 1997 only eight of the 8000 recorded hate crimes were murders. That can hardly be called an epidemic in a country that has one of the highest murder rates in the world. And as the prominent gay writer Andrew Sullivan argues in the New Republic, despite all the discussion about anti-gay hate crimes generated by the murder of Matthew Shepard, 'the chance of a gay American meeting the same fate...is about one in a million'.

So what is the war against hate really about? Calls for more stringent legislation on hate crimes are always prefaced by the need to 'send a message' to society. So when the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990 was discussed in Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee stressed that the bill would send an 'important signal to victimised groups everywhere that the US government is concerned about this kind of crime'. In a speech earlier in 1999, President Clinton urged Congress to strengthen existing hate crimes laws by stressing that 'America will not be able to be a force for good abroad unless we are good at home. When somebody dies in a horrible incident in America or when we see slaughter or ethnic cleansing abroad, we should remember that we defeat these things by teaching and by practising a different way of life'. And right on cue, when Aaron James McKinney was found guilty of murdering Matthew Shepard, gay rights activists repeated the mantra that the verdict 'sent a message that these crimes won't be tolerated'.

A recent study by James B Jacobs and Kimberley Potter points out that, despite the demands for more hate crimes legislation, there have been few convictions under existing hate crimes laws. The killers of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard were convicted of old-fashioned murder. Jacobs and Potter conclude that the primary purpose of hate crimes legislation is to send messages to a society where identity politics has come to dominate the political landscape. These laws reassure the victims of bigotry that that their suffering has been recognised, and tell the rest of us that our politicians are morally correct in their concern for society's victims.

The apparent concern with hatred is unlikely to do anything to reduce the real divisions that exist within American society. If anything, it will make matters worse. Hate crimes legislation has become a battleground, on which society's victims fight to ensure that their particular suffering is recognised and their persecutors given special punishment by the courts. As the law is expanded to include new protected victims like homosexuals, disabled people or people on low incomes, it is hard to see where the whole thing will end.

The trial of Matthew Shepard's murderer gave an ominous indication of where it is leading. Aaron James McKinney's lawyers argued that he should be acquitted because he too was a victim who deserved special recognition. They argued that McKinney was sexually abused as a child, had developed a profound fear of homosexuality and was sent into a 'gay panic' when he encountered Shepard, rendering him not responsible for his actions. The judge kicked out this defence, and McKinney was found guilty of kidnapping and second-degree murder and locked up for life. But when a bigot can present himself as a victim of others' hatred, what kind of 'message' does this send?

Helen Searls

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000



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