Hate crime laws sow confusion and frustration

The Baltimore Sun

Hate crimes are evil. Hate crime statistics, by contrast, can be whatever you want them to be.

It all depends on how you view the numbers, like the numbers in the FBI's latest report on hate crime incidents.

Reported incidents rose in the United States last year by almost 8 percent, the FBI reported. Also, for a second year, racial prejudice was the motive in slightly more than half of the reported instances.

In television appearances, the Rev. Al Sharpton, leader of the National Action Network, barely concealed his satisfaction. He has been criticized by fussbudgets like me for grandstanding the issue. He led a march last week in Washington to accuse the Justice Department of lax hate-crime enforcement. This week, thanks to the FBI, he had actual evidence to back up his long-held speculation that hate crimes are on the rise.

"The FBI report confirms what we have been saying for many months about the severe increase in hate crimes," said Mr. Sharpton.

Well, not quite. It's true that the FBI data confirm an increase in hate crimes in 2006, but not in a way that confirms what Sharpton and Co. have been saying.

For one thing, reported hate crimes spiked upward in 2001 and have since declined. For another, this year the number of reported attacks against blacks barely budged, according to the new data posted on the FBI's Web site. Although Mr. Sharpton has expressed greatest alarm over hate crimes against blacks, last year's increase in hate crimes came almost entirely as a result of an increase in reported attacks against whites. Reported attacks against blacks stayed relatively flat.

Incidents in which the victim was targeted for being white increased by 7.5 percent last year, while similar hate crimes against blacks increased by only - get out your calculators - four-tenths of 1 percent.

Not that I want to give you the impression that a surging race war is being waged against whites. After all, it is sobering to remember that the reported 3,332 black hate-crime victims numbered three times higher than the reported 1,054 white victims.

Yet, the qualifying adjective "reported" is important. The reporting of hate crime statistics by local police departments to the FBI is voluntary. That always feeds the suspicion that some departments might be shaving their figures a bit, just to make their communities look more hospitable.

Even more frustrating is the manner in which what constitutes a hate crime is often in the eye of the beholder. A good example is the case of the "Jena 6." That's the case in which six black teenagers in Jena, La., were charged with the attempted second-degree murder of a white student who was beaten unconscious in December 2006. The charges later were reduced to aggravated second-degree assault. But civil rights protesters and some Jena residents have complained that three white students, who four months earlier hung nooses in a schoolyard tree, were suspended from school but not charged with a hate crime.

So, were the nooses a harmless prank, as the youths' defenders contend, or a hate crime? Was the beating a schoolyard fight, as the Jena 6's defenders contend, or a hate crime?

The protesters should be careful what they ask for. After all, if federal prosecutors were to charge the white youths with a hate crime, they might well be obligated to charge the black youths, too, which would only compound their misery.

For now, since neither episode was prosecuted as a hate crime, neither shows up in the hate crime statistics that Jena's local and county police reported to the FBI.

That's a frustrating paradox of hate crime law. If your assailants fail to mutter or scrawl an applicable epithet while beating or robbing you, they can avoid the extra hate-crime charge, whether they deserve to escape it or not.

That's why I cringe when I hear hate-crime laws being oversold. It's a lot easier to outlaw blatantly hateful and intimidating acts like the burning of a cross in someone else's yard than to outlaw hate itself.

Instead, we can take some instructive comfort in the progress we have made toward starving institutionalized hate at its roots. In contrast to the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, most of today's hate crimes are committed not by groups but by the sad dimwits that one British writer called "dabblers in hate." We're making progress.

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

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