At the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, our mission is to eliminate race and national-origin discrimination through litigation, and community and legislative advocacy. Despite our narrowly focused mission we are always working collaboratively with community partners to advance an agenda that supports and affirms expansive hate crimes legislation.
After reading Kay Whitlock’s discussion paper I was moved by the manner in which she touched on the consistent acts of violence and aggression towards the “Other,” whoever that might be, throughout the history of this country. I think she did a good job of documenting that history, similar to Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of the Great Migration of African Americans leaving the oppression of the South only to be meet by the oppression in Northern cities, where groups of White people sought to protect their “entitlements” through threats and acts of violence.
Whitlock’s discussion paper evoked an idea of an “undercurrent” of fear, animosity, and resentment that is directed toward groups that are not identifiable as straight, Christian, White males. This undercurrent is the reason it is difficult to address the larger structural and systemic iniquities that exist along race and bias lines in this country. Attacking the societal and structural existence of hatred is very difficult. Anything that raises questions about the structural and systemic nature of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and any other structural power inequities undermines and calls into question the foundation of many people’s beliefs, and threatens the privileges they benefit from. Therefore, this undercurrent is easily tapped into by many people who feel their position in society is threatened. They need only dip the bucket into the stream of this undercurrent and pull it up to pour out rhetoric that motivates hatred and acts of bias violence.
In my work, I see the impact of that undercurrent played out when I take on police misconduct cases. There are many instances in which Black men speak back to White police officers and the police abuse their power. It’s an ultimate show of authority, by the officer, to send the message that ‘You don’t belong, I am in charge, and any exercise of free speech or expression of dissatisfaction about this encounter is not valuable — and furthermore, I am going to use force against you to insure you know where your place is.’
Another set of examples is the cases that invoke the Massachusetts Civil Rights Statute. I have worked closely with the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General to address neighbor-to neighbor harassment. One case in particular involved a White man creating an unbearable living experience for his Haitian neighbor through racially hostile statements, gestures, and harassment. The ability to provide the victim some protection came through the Massachusetts Civil Rights Statute, because the Massachusetts Hate Crimes Statutes only addresses acts of violence. The latter statute is limited in that it does not afford greater protections to victims of bias-based harassment. Although there are protections through other statutes, bias-based infringements of people’s rights have few remedies. This shortcoming touches on the premise of Whitlock’s article and the need to expand the conversation around hate crimes legislation.
As a former prosecutor I recognize that hate crime legislation that allows for criminal prosecution of conduct that would not otherwise be considered criminal is always a tool that can be used. I recognize Whitlock’s cautionary note about the South Carolina anti-lynching statute that ended up being used against Black men as something to be aware of. However, I do think prosecutors’ ability to leverage the desired outcome is important. Penalty enhancements are useful because they provide additional leverage and help define criminal conduct, and identify the protected status of the victim. Ultimately, this narrow framework is reactionary and will not address the undercurrent that motivates these types of crimes. Nevertheless, even if the existing legislation is limiting, it can still be very helpful.
Realistically, it will take continued advocacy to not only affirm the existing usefulness of the hate crimes legislation that exists, but also to continue to push the envelope about what the conversation regarding hate crimes legislation should be and who the conversation should include. More opportunities for conversation and education are important, but I really think that a dramatic shift will not occur until there are straight, White men in positions of authority, power, and privilege who are able to recognize their privilege and have meaningful conversations geared at reframing the narrative. It’s not that change rests on the shoulders of these influential people, but until there are honest conversations about the “undercurrent” we will continue to see resistance to pushing this narrative forward. We have to get people to separate their individual issues from the larger narrative around structural inequities, bias and violence to see how they impact all of us.