The lighting quick conviction of white supremacist John William King for the auto
lynching of James Byrd, Jr. brought joy and relief that Southern white jurors and
prosecutors will finally nail whites for killing blacks. But before we cheer to loud
over the verdict let's remember that the case from day one was a prosecutor's dream.
A barrage of physical evidence linked King to the crime. A parade of witnesses called
him a rabid racist. A buddy of his who's also charged with the crime fingered him
as one of the killers. If that wasn't enough he practically self-convicted himself
in a venom spewing racist letter in which he declared himself a folk hero for murdering
Yet even if King and his other two pals who will stand trial pay with their lives
for the Byrd atrocity hate violence against African-Americans still shows no sign
of disappearing. Since the FBI began tallying hate crimes five years ago under the
Hate Crimes Act of 1990, African-Americans have been the run away number one target
of hate mongers, with nearly half the crimes in America committed against them.
The response of state and federal officials and police agencies to the violence still
wildly varies. Under the Hate Crimes Act, 12 states submitted no data to the FBI
on hate crimes in 1997, and a dozen states still have no laws on the books targeting
racially motivated hate crimes. Some states permit the prosecution of hate crimes
only if they are committed in conjunction with another crime. Also, only a handful
of states permit judges to increase penalties when racial bias is proven as the motive
for the crime. Just as disturbing, more than half of all police agencies still have
no hate task force units or specific procedures for dealing with hate crimes. Jasper
is a prime example of that. Local officials seemed clueless at first over whether
to call the Byrd murder a racial hate crime or not.
The Hate Crimes Act of 1998 was supposed to close these loopholes and increase the
types of hate crimes prosecuted and the penalties for them. But the measure hasn't
budged an inch from the Senate Judiciary Committee since it was introduced last year.
The worst thing is that this may not change any time soon. Conservative Republican
hardliners are still so bound and determined to further torpedo civil rights, and
gut social programs that only one Republican congressman has backed a House resolution
that condemns the Council of Conservative Citizens as "racist." Senate
Majority leader Trent Lott has turned a deaf ear to pleas from Congressional Black
Caucus members to introduce a Senate resolution condemning the Council.
Meanwhile the open opponents of tougher hate crimes measures accuse civil rights
groups of trying to panic the public by grossly exaggerating the number of hate crimes,
and the danger of hate violence. But if anything they don't panic the public enough
over hate violence. The number of reported hate crimes touch only the tip of the
iceberg of hate violence in America. Four out of five victims of hate crimes do not
report attacks or incidents out of fear or because they feel police and local officials
will do little or nothing about them.
Even if the number of racial hate crimes is much smaller than the millions of "common"
crimes in America, the social and political damage they wreak is much greater. When
individuals are victimized solely because of their race, this deepens racial fears
and frustration, reinforces the us vs. them divisions between whites and minorities,
and increases the danger of a racial explosion or violence.
This danger alone should be more than enough to spur more law enforcement officials
to take seriously any and all reports of hate attacks. It should prod the states
that drag their feet or flat out refuse to monitor hate crimes or stiffen penalties
for them to take immediate action. And most of all Congress should be far enough
past its Clinton obsession to make passage of the Hate Crimes Act a priority order
The murderers of Byrd were caught and convicted mostly because of their own arrogance,
ignorance, bumbling, and bad luck. But that doesn't mean that in the future other
hate mongers that commit violent acts will get their just due as fast.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:email@example.com
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