Hate crimes report shows race still an issue

Despite signs of tremendous racial progress, there remains stark evidence and bitter reminders of persisting racial discrimination that continue to tear at the fabric of our nation. Some of the most unnerving evidence of this discrimination can be found in the 2008 Hate Crime Statistics report recently issued by the FBI. The report documented 7,783 reported hate crime incidents in 2008. More than half of these incidents, 3,992, were racially motivated and included acts of intimidation, aggravated and simple assaults and, in some instances, murder.

Divining clear trends from this data is difficult because they’re based on reports from innumerable law enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, these statistics represent an all-time seven year high and underscore the pressing needed for dialogue about how to eliminate, root and branch, the problem of discrimination and bias in our nation.

Hate crime incidents have certainly not slowed down in the wake of the 2008 presidential election. In fact, some of the incidents are a backlash to the election of President Barack Obama. For example, on the night of President Obama’s election, several men in Staten Island, New York, assaulted African-Americans who they believed had voted for him. One of the victims was attacked with a metal pipe and struck with a police baton. Another victim was hit by a car and remained hospitalized with a coma for several weeks. In Springfield, Massachusetts, the Macedonia Church of God in Christ was set on fire and destroyed just hours after Obama’s election. The men who were indicted for the arson are alleged to have singled out the church because of its all-Black congregation. These particular hate crimes were clearly aimed at intimidating and penalizing African-Americans because of their presumed Obama support.

Many of these incidents stand in stark contrast to the claims of some analysts who have been quick to label this a “post-racial” time in our nation’s history. Just earlier this month, three men in Boise, Idaho, were convicted of hate crime and conspiracy charges in connection with the racially-motivated assault of an African-American man outside of a Wal-Mart store in July 2008. The 24-year-old victim, was ambushed, chased and beaten by three men who shouted racial slurs as they carried out the attack. This past October, a Mishawaka, Indiana man pleaded guilty to burning a cross in the yard of an inter-racial couple and later returning with a knife and threatening them to leave. These are but a few of the many assaults, cross-burnings, arsons and other kinds of racially-motivated hate crimes that leave a stain on the story of race in America today.

Notably, the FBI data reveals other kinds of bias crime. Indeed, some 19% of reported hate crimes were motivated by religious bias, 17% were based on sexual-orientation and 12% were the result of ethnicity/national origin bias. Thus, problems of xenophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism further complicate the story of ongoing bias and reveal the extensive work that needs to be done to free our country from the scourge of discrimination.

Former President Bill Clinton launched an Initiative on Race – the One America in the 21st Century – that proved to be one of the defining moments of his tenure in the White House. This effort propelled a series of encouraging community dialogues throughout the country. Today, the question remains whether our country still stands in need of serious and critical dialogue and debate around the ongoing racial tensions, animosity and divisiveness that seems to have only intensified during these troubled economic times. Perhaps the Initiative on Race is a project worth revisiting – and sooner rather than later.

In the face of these incidents of hate, there are certainly signs of hope. The U.S. Department of Justice, reenergized by new leadership at its helm, is actively investigating and aggressively prosecuting hate crimes and has identified this as one of its top priorities. Moreover, Congress recently passed the long-awaited federal hate crimes bill — the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act — which closes gaps in federal enforcement power and gives the Department of Justice more investigative and prosecutive authority over crimes of violence based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

The hope is that through more aggressive prosecution of these crimes we can silence and render inept the perpetrators of these crimes. At the end of the day, hate crimes not only have a terrible impact on its victims but also a toxic impact on our nation.