August 12, 1999 - By Tim Wise

Of Hate Crimes, Big and Small

There is no question so irrelevant as the one to which all or nearly all can respond in like fashion. Thus, asking people their views on child molestation, or whether or not they'd like the schools to be "better" has always seemed absurd: like asking if they'd rather be happy than sad. So too, with the discussion of hate crimes, made especially relevant by the recent killing rampage of Benjamin Smith, who, over the July 4th weekend, killed two and injured nine, during a shooting spree against people of color and Jews.

Although folks disagree about whether laws should be passed to enhance the penalties for hate-motivated crimes, there is virtual unanimity about the horrific nature of the act itself, and revulsion at the vitriol spewed by the group to which Smith belonged: the World Church of the Creator. Even the Klan quickly condemned these murders, much as with the dragging death of James Byrd, in Jasper, Texas.

So, Americans are officially "against" hate crimes and hate groups. That much is clear. But that much is also not particularly relevant: especially when so many other forms of racism; so many other "crimes" against people of color tend to go unnoticed.

When the extreme act of violence occurs, the nation rises in collective agony. But when the Centers for Disease Control reports that about 6,500 African Americans and a few thousand more Latino/as and American Indians die annually because of inferior health care relative to whites, few say anything.

When Klansmen or skinheads on talk shows rant about the inferiority of black and brown people, we roundly condemn them. But when two social scientists named Murray and Herrnstein write The Bell Curve-which argues the same thing, only with footnotes-we not only fail to condemn them, but whites make their book a best-seller: half a million copies sold in the first 18 months. Furthermore, Murray gets respectfully interviewed on every national news show in the country, and is asked to address the GOP delegation, one month after they took over Congress.

And when we see Ben Smith spray "mud people" with bullets in two states, we react with indignation. But how do most folks respond to the following institutionalized forms of racism, which injure and kill people of color in those same states every day?

In Illinois and Indiana, white women are 26% more likely to receive early prenatal care than women of color. Largely as a result, the percentage of babies of color with low-birthweight is double the white rate.

Infant mortality rates for black children in both states are 2.5 times higher than the white rate.

The child poverty rate for blacks in Illinois is 43%. For Hispanics and American Indians it is 25%, while for whites it is under 10%. In Indiana, the gaps are smaller, but black kids are still 3.6 times more likely to live in poverty than white kids; Latinos, almost twice as likely to do so; and American Indian children, 2.7 times more likely to live in poverty.

And in both states, high-profile cases of police brutality have brought to light patterns of institutional bias in law enforcement, which rarely, if ever, get termed crimes of hate. In fact, hate crime laws would require enforcement by the very police who have been involved in much of the racism meted out to people of color across the nation.

In other words, the problem of racism is not simply, or even mostly, to be found at the extremes, and it's not primarily driven by neo-Nazis. The biggest problem is the everyday discrimination, inequity, and mainstream silence about these things by folks who think they can prove antiracist credentials by condemning lynch mobs: an act which ceased to be courageous about forty years ago.

To that effect, we have groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center spending their time taking a handful of professional bigots to court, tracking hate groups on the internet, and sending out stamps reading "teach tolerance" to folks on their mailing list so as to raise more money (despite an endowment in the tens of millions of dollars), while largely ignoring the everyday racism of mainstream institutions.

What's most disturbing about the way many folks selectively deal with racism-as an interpersonal phenomenon in need of attitude adjustment-is that the institutional forms of racial mistreatment which they tend to ignore, contribute DIRECTLY to the overt hostility which often manifests itself in hate crime or hate group activity.

After all, is it so hard to imagine that whites who see police locking up people of color disproportionately might conclude there was something wrong with these folks? Something to be feared, and if feared, perhaps despised? Is it so hard to believe that whites who hear politicians bash immigrants of color for "taking American jobs," or "squandering welfare dollars," might conclude such persons were a threat to their well-being? Is it so hard to imagine that folks taught from birth that America's a place where "anyone can make it if they try hard enough," but who looks around and sees that not only are many not "making it," but that these "failures" are disproportionately of color, might conclude that they must therefore be either culturally or genetically inferior?

The mainstream institutions of our society send out multiple messages that people of color are "lesser," and need to be controlled: messages that are bound to be picked up by individuals in that society. The growth of the prison-industrial-complex is a prime example. Although black and brown crime rates have remained roughly steady for two decades, their incarceration rates have tripled, thanks to intensified (and highly selective) law enforcement in communities of color.

What message is sent when we allow, and even cause, the kind of housing segregation, isolation and poverty which confront so many persons of color? When Blacks working full-time, year round are three times as likely to be poor as similar whites, and Latino/as working full-time, year-round are four times as likely to remain poor? When white college grads are 2.5 times more likely to find work than Black college grads? Why should we be surprised that at least some, witnessing the way the institutions of our society neglect (at best), and oppress (at worst) people of color, might conclude they were superior, and more deserving, even of life, than those same persons?

In other words, Ben Smith and others like him don't simply learn their racism at the knee of retail fascists like Matt Hale; and their racism is hardly "against the grain" of American ideology or culture, despite the claims by many that such attitudes are "fundamentally inconsistent with what America's all about." (Oh really??)

I know for some that last comment is hard to take. But consider the recent flap over whether or not the same Matt Hale should be allowed to practice law in Illinois. Despite graduating from law school, Hale is being blocked from his chosen profession by those who claim his participation in the administration of justice would "pervert the process," and call into question the state's commitment to the administration of "color-blind justice." Imagine that, in a state that has no doubt taught Hale about their lofty adherence to such principle by sending at least nine innocent men of color to death row in the past few years-men who have only recently been released after these "accidents" were discovered.

So who's the bigger problem: Matt Hale, whom everyone knows is a bigot, or the Cook County D.A. and some overzealous cops, willing to send black or brown folks to prison just to proclaim a big murder case solved? To even ask the question is to answer it. It is precisely the visibility of the former's racism, contrasted with the invisibility of the latter, which makes the latter so much more problematic, and more worthy of our concern.

And the same is true for hate crimes. Which ones should we punish? The retail versions perpetrated by lone bigots, or the wholesale versions which form the basis of institutional racism, and are the very fabric comprising the tapestry of American society? And who makes this decision? Local D. A.'s and federal prosecutors? And who sentences the hate criminals? Juries like the one that thought nothing of the Rodney King beating? Thanks, but surely, there has to be a better way.

Tim Wise is a Nashville based activist and writer, and the Director of the newly-formed Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE). He can be reached at

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