Chicago Tribune | July 16, 2000
IS THERE an undercount of white hate-crime victims? It is easy to be skeptical about the charge. After all, it tends to be voiced most often and loudly by those who never wanted hate-crime laws to be passed in the first place.
Nevertheless, I, for one, take the charge seriously. As a member of one of the groups hate-crime laws were written to protect, I have a vested interest in making sure everyone, including white people, is equally protected by the laws.
No group has a monopoly on hate and no one is immune to it. If everyone doesn't feel they are getting a fair shake from laws designed to enhance penalties for hate-motivated crimes, such laws lose their moral authority and only the haters win.
Unfortunately, a cursory look at recent high-profile hate-crime cases fuels the fears and suspicions of skeptics like Louis Calabro, a retired San Francisco police lieutenant who now lives in San Bruno, Calif. He was so concerned about bias against his fellow whites, who he prefers to call "European-Americans," that he founded the European/American Issues Forum.
As humor columnist Dave Barry likes to say, I am not making this up.
During a telephone interview with me, Calabro did not want to discuss how many people are members of his group, which was born on the heels of the battle over California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209. Nevertheless, Calabro has raised some thought-provoking points in his recent letter-writing campaign to the White House and Congress, including whether there may be an undercount of white victims and an overcount of white hate-crime perpetrators.
For example, the FBI's annual hate-crime reports list Hispanics among the victim categories but not among the perpetrator categories. As a result, Calabro pointed out, "A Hispanic victim is counted as Hispanic but a Hispanic perpetrator is counted as white."
Maybe. Or, as I pointed out, a Hispanic perpetrator might wind up being counted as black, if the label fits. Hispanics come in all colors. It is hard to be precise about something so imprecise as race and ethnicity in a mulligan-stew nation like this one.
Nevertheless, Calabro's complaint led me to think about some of the larger biases the police, press and politicians may have about who commits hate crime.
For example, a white immigration lawyer went berserk and killed five people--a Jewish woman, an Indian man, two Asian men and a black man--on a shooting spree in Pittsburgh in April. The media labeled the killings a possible hate crime within 24 hours.
But the media and police seemed much less eager to attach the hate-crime label to a very similar killing spree two months earlier by a black man, Ronald Taylor, who shot five white people, killing three, in a Pittsburgh suburb. In Taylor's apartment, police found "hate writings" aimed at Jews, Asians, Italians and the media, news reports said. The term hate crime was omitted from most reports. I had to call the county prosecutor's office to confirm that Taylor had indeed been charged under Pennsylvania's version of laws that enhance penalties for hate-motivated crimes.
Talk shows and Web sites have been buzzing more recently regarding the fatal stabbing of a white 8-year-old boy by a black man while the child was playing in front of his great-grandparents' home in Alexandria, Va., in April.
Witnesses said the man made comments about killing white people during the attack. A note was later found with the phrase "Kill them racist white kids" in broken and misspelled English in a hotel room where the prime suspect had stayed.
Yet more than a week after the note was found authorities were reluctant to call the crime a hate crime. Given how hypersensitive issues of race and ethnicity can be, I am not quick to fault officials who want to downplay the issue when it is not germane. But in cases of hate crimes it is the whole point of the law. Suppressing the race angle may cool tensions for a while but ultimately it can heighten stereotypes that hate crimes are for whites to commit and other crimes (unhateful crimes?) are for everyone else.
Opponents of hate crimes may not have found their smoking gun. But they have found enough smoke to make a reasonable observer wonder whether there might be a fire somewhere.
Significantly, the 1993 case under which the U.S. Supreme Court first upheld hate crime laws was a Milwaukee case involving black defendants who had attacked a 14-year-old white boy. Nevertheless, the myth persists that the laws were directed against whites to protect minorities. The sooner we eradicate that myth the less reasons anyone but the haters will have for hating hate-crime laws.