The outrageous killings of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard shine a light on the power of hatred fueled by racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of intolerance that are used to separate and divide us as human beings. Proponents of hate crime legislation and enhanced penalties for hate crimes want to make sure that killings and acts of violence like these provide an opportunity not only to hold accountable those responsible, but to expose and eradicate all violence based on bias, bigotry and prejudice. The goals underpinning this legislation deserve our defense: The lives of those who are often dehumanized, demonized, and marginalized should be valued. Everyone should be afforded protection by our system of justice. Those whose safety has been violated should be free of fear, and confident of redress. Most important, we should seize every opportunity to ensure that these crimes never happen again.
We look to our legal and criminal justice systems to meet such goals. Nonetheless, as Kay Whitlock notes, we are dependent on a criminal justice system that engages in dehumanizing and demonizing the Other. Our legal system emphasizes the differences between us, pitting the monster perpetrator against the less-than-innocent victim, who is often further debased in the course of the judicial process.
Our justice system is not designed to confront crimes or hate crimes in ways that ask people and communities to address the root sources of harm. It is not a system that places as a high value on the importance of the truth as it does on the “win”. This system is good at retribution, punishment, and creating a profit on the backs of the same population that is often victimized. It is not a system designed to ask the questions that can unpack a history and legacy of hate. These questions should include not only what happened but why did it happen? Who, beyond the individual perpetrators, are responsible for these acts of violence? What provided the environment or fertile ground for hate to fester? What is needed in order for the victims/survivors, perpetrators, and the broader community to heal?
Alternative processes are trying to pose some of these questions. In 2004, the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to address the killing of five people, and wounding of ten, by members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979. Tensions had been mounting for years between those advocating for health care, housing, and other social justice issues and the White supremacists who saw these activities as a threat to their well being and way of life. There was no doubt about the identities of the physical perpetrators of the crimes, yet many years later it was unfathomable that more people had not been held responsible for the murders [For more please see “Truth and Reconciliation Comes to the South: Lessons from Greensboro” from the Summer 2007 issue of The Public Eye].
The commission was charged with looking at the “context, causes, sequence and consequences” of the events of November 3, 1979.1 That process revealed that the violence didn’t happen in a vacuum. The perpetrators of the crimes were influenced and aided by some members of the Greensboro community, either specifically or through the perpetuation of an environment of intolerance and hate that sustained White supremacy. Years later, the consequences of hate violence and the continued presence of racism and other forms of intolerance permeated the city in ways that were not always identifiable, but made it difficult for the city to grow and move forward.
The commission provided people who had been silenced for years the opportunity to share their understanding of the events of 1979. More importantly, the process provided people in Greensboro the opportunity to truly heal their divided community.
When people are arrested, convicted and incarcerated for baseless crimes, hate crime legislation can certainly provide a sense of satisfaction to victims, their loved ones, and the community. It can provide momentary acknowledgement that racism, homophobia, and other forms of intolerance exist and continue to be harmful. On the other hand, as Whitlock describes, it can also provide cover for systems, communities, and individuals to separate themselves from the “monsters” who perpetrated those crimes and the conditions that allowed hate and intolerance to foment.
It is not the criminal justice system that will provide the change we seek. If we are serious about the business of eradicating violence based on intolerance, it will require a lot of soul searching about the past, the present, and the future we want. It will also take years and years of outreach, education, building relationships, and working in community with anyone and everyone who is the potential victims of hate crimes and/or the potential perpetrators of hate crimes. That work will never be completed.
- Jill Williams, “Truth and Reconciliation Comes to the South,” The Public Eye, 2007.