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Maryland makes strides to address racism past and present

At least 44 men in Maryland and thousands nationwide lost their lives to lynchings. Now activists are shining a light on the gruesome practice hoping to start an honest and healing conversation. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)

A series of bomb threats in 2017, including one where the unknown perpetrator warned about “tomorrow’s bloodbath,” shook the Jewish community in Baltimore. But there was nothing the police could do to the culprits because they didn’t follow through with their promises to shoot people dead and kill the “non-human Jewish children first.”

Despite the use of hate-filled rhetoric, a building wasn’t destroyed and no lives were lost in the name of hate. So, therefore, no crime was committed.

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But in an attempt to rein in a growing culture of hostility toward people because of their race, religious beliefs or gender identity, Maryland lawmakers have expanded the definition of a hate crime. Now even the threat or attempt of such a crime can result in as many as three years behind bars and as much as a $5,000 fine for a misdemeanor. The bill, which Gov. Larry Hogan has signed, will go into effect Oct. 1.

The law will go a long way toward holding more people accountable for spewing hate and hopefully cut down on such incidents. At least one Jewish center received more than one threat in a sign of how comfortable people feel to intimidate others. We hope some will think twice now that there are legal consequences for their actions.

Concerns about such threats exploding into actual hate crime events are very real. And even the threat can have a ripple effect through a segment of society, spreading fear that can be paralyzing by itself.

“We discovered that a threat to commit any hate crime is a step removed from an attempt,” Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, told The Sun.

We are glad state officials have made hate crimes a priority in Maryland, a state that like the rest of the nation has seen exponential growth in such incidents since President Donald Trump took office and began validating incivility, intolerance and loathing of people’s differences with his own hate-filled rhetoric. The stories of Klu Klux Klan fliers passed out in neighborhoods, death threats, offensive graffiti and racist taunts on social media have become too common. At Towson University last week, protesters carried signs that disparaged gays.

Police in Maryland reported 693 hate crimes and incidents in 2016 and 2017, nearly twice that of the previous two years. Federal data show there were 7,175 reported hate crimes in 2017, an increase from 6,121 reported the year before. The crimes targeted people of many religions, ethnic backgrounds and races. Anti-Arab crimes doubled to 102. Anti-Jewish hate crimes increased 37 percent to 938. Most of the crimes were against African Americans, and those rose 16 percent to 2,013.

Even the smallest changes can make a difference. Another piece of legislation would update language in state public safety law which instructs Maryland State Police to collect data around hate crimes to match the elements of hate crimes in the state criminal law.

But it is not enough just to tackle present-day hate. To that respect, lawmakers also passed legislation that would help the state come to grips with Maryland’s lynching past.

Legislation sponsored by Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk calls for creating a 17-member Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission to research lynching that took place in Maryland. The commission would be made up of civil rights leaders, historians, faculty from the state’s four historically black colleges and the Maryland Attorney General’s office. The commission would come up with ways to reconcile the harm lynchings inflicted on communities in Maryland, where it is believed that at least 44 men were lynched between 1865 and 1933.

We know that some people don’t want to dredge up the past and think we need to focus on the race crimes of today. But we have to address the past if there is ever true racial reconciliation. As the legislation states, “various state, county and local governments colluded” in the crimes and protected perpetrators. No victim’s family ever received a formal apology or compensation. The government played a role in the injustice and should play a role in reconciling it as well.

We laud the state for its meaningful strides in addressing hate this legislative session, but there is much more work to do. A bill that would have made it unlawful to draw a swastika or hang a noose passed the house, but not the Senate. Del. Mark Chang, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, first introduced a version of the bill last year after a county judge found a man not guilty for placing a noose at Crofton Middle School and revived it this session.

These symbols of hate are used to intimidate and should be treated like any other hate crime. We look forward to lawmakers addressing this issue next year.

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