Black community leaders define hate crimes too narrowly

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Here's one from the "Taste of His Own Medicine" department: When the Rev. Al Sharpton led a recent Washington rally to protest what he called lax federal prosecution of hate crimes, at least one local black resident was waiting with a protest of his own.

Amid recent reports of noose hangings and other racial incidents, Mr. Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and other activists rallied outside the Department of Justice on Friday to call for tougher federal prosecutions of hate crimes.

Shane Johnson, 32, a social worker by day and blogger on the side, staged a nearby dissent with a few sympathizers. He supported the prosecution of hate crimes, he said, but thinks Mr. Sharpton's definition of "hate" is too narrow. Mr. Johnson didn't draw much attention, and he wasn't surprised. "Most people view me as taking on the black establishment," he told me in a telephone interview. "They think I am going to embarrass our leaders. My view is that they should be embarrassed."

I share Mr. Johnson's outrage. Why, I often have wondered, do we black folks get so much more agitated about white-on-black insults than the black-on-black assaults that constantly terrorize certain neighborhoods?

Mr. Johnson is part of a new "netroots" movement of black-oriented Web sites that has created a virtual civil rights movement. Aided by black talk-radio hosts, they stirred the national protests that led to a march that the mainstream media could not ignore in Jena, La.

Mr. Sharpton wants tough federal prosecution of hate-related crimes, like the hanging of nooses. Fine, says Mr. Johnson. But Mr. Johnson also asks why national black leaders have paid so little attention to a more recent campaign in the black netroots: the beating and rape of a 35-year-old Haitian woman and the beating and sexual assault of her 12-year-old son by up to 10 assailants in West Palm Beach, Fla.

In June, armed attackers broke into her apartment in Dunbar Village, a public housing development, allegedly to retaliate for the woman's complaints about their noise and litter. They repeatedly raped and sodomized her and forced her to perform oral sex on her son, according to a grand jury indictment. They also poured household chemicals on the woman's eyes and threatened to set the two victims on fire, according to police and news reports.

Was that a "hate" crime? It certainly wasn't about love.

"Why is it that we can make bold statements of outrage about a few nooses," Mr. Johnson said. "But not about this 35-year-old woman who is trying to make a life for herself and her son in Florida?"

Why, indeed? State and federal hate-crime laws are not written to include such traditional varieties of hate-filled violence. The term "hate crime," coined in the 1980s, usually describes crimes clearly motivated by racism, anti-Semitism and other biases against racial or ethnic minorities. Mr. Johnson took a public stand for the inclusion of hate-filled violence against women, although he didn't expect many to stand with him - at least not in public.

Instead, civil rights leaders and those of us whom they purport to represent often seem to be so benumbed by black-inflicted terrors that we have given up trying to fight.

Sadly, those who seek deliverance from such horrors are increasingly isolated from those who might best be equipped to offer hope. That message comes through loud and clear in a new Pew Charitable Trusts poll of American attitudes about race. Sixty-one percent of the black Americans surveyed said values between poor and middle-class blacks are moving too far apart to be viewed as their having a common black experience. Only 41 percent expressed that view in a similar 1986 poll.

Differing values are a natural consequence of America's growing class divide. Yet that divide comes across more sharply in black America, where poverty is more concentrated and a colorful "gangsta" hip-hop culture receives widespread and highly lucrative promotion by major entertainment media.

That gangsta culture punishes those who don't "stop snitching," even when the victims are innocent neighbors. A lot of us black Americans would like to take back our streets. We could use a little more help from our leaders.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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