In the eyes of the U.S. Justice Department, the nine murders this week at a historic South Carolina black church warrant investigation of a hate crime.
The suspect, Dylann Roof, who allegedly shot nine African-Americans Wednesday at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, is white. And media reports say he confessed to the crimes, expressing a racial motive.
While not unique to the U.S,. hate crime laws have become a part of the national vocabulary, starting in the early 1980s.
The U.S. Congress defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) website.
According to the FBI, in 2013, “1,826 law enforcement agencies reported 5,928 hate crime incidents involving 6,933 offenses.”
This number is just the tip of the iceberg, according to professor Jack Levin, a hate crime expert at the Northeastern University citing Justice Department statistics that put the number at around 200,000.
Of those nearly 6,000 hate crimes reported, 48.5 percent were racially motivated, 20.8 percent resulted from sexual-orientation bias and 17.4 percent were motivated by religious bias, according to the FBI.
Changing demographics, attitudes
Changing demographics and social attitudes in the U.S. has required some fine tuning to hate crime laws, which originally focused on incidents targeting specific races.
“We have become vastly more complex with regard to race and ethnicity,” said Levin, citing growing numbers of Latinos and Muslims as well as more openness about sexual orientation. “We used to think in just black and white, and now we think in all different shades.”
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which broadened the definition of hate crimes.
Speaking after the law’s passage, President Obama said it would “finally add federal protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”
“Because no one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love,” he said.“No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are or because they live with a disability.”
According to the National Institute of Justice, Washington and Oregon were the first states to pass hate crime legislation in 1981.Now, almost every state has some kind of hate crime law, but the vary as to who is covered by the laws. Some cover only racially motivated crimes, whereas other states might protect religion or sexual orientation.
Hate crimes usually increase or decrease based on events, said Levin.
For example, after 9/11, there was a spike in hate crimes against Muslims; in 2003, after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, there was a surge in hate crimes against homosexuals.
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights watchdog group, agreed.
“What we’ve seen since 2000 has been a real increase in white supremacist activity in this country,” he said. “And it is driven by a backlash of our changing demographics and dislocation caused by globalization in our country.”
For supremacist ideologies, having an African-American in the White House is symbolic of what they see as the problem, and really a focus of that backlash.
“So in long run, a great strength of our country is diversity, and we can’t go through these demographic shifts and not anticipate a certain level of backlash,” he said. “Really, that is what we are seeing.”
A hate crime, if it can be proved, can stiffen the penalties for the original crime, Levin said.
For example, he said that a convicted murderer might get the death penalty instead of life in prison if it can be proved that the murder was motivated by the hatred of a particular group. For lesser charges, like assault or vandalism, adding a hate crime charge could mean four years in jail as opposed to two, he said.
Hard to prove
But hate crimes are hard to prove, he said.
“Not every hate monger voices his bigotry as he’s committing the offense,” he said. “Without any direct evidence, it may be impossible to provide a decent prosecution.”
There are some who are opposed to hate crime laws. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller penned a column in April arguing against the laws.
He wrote that the laws gave him a “nagging sense” that they resemble “something from an Orwell dystopia.”
“Horrific crimes deserve stern justice, but don’t we want to be careful about criminalizing a defect of character? Because our founders believed that democracy requires great latitude for dissent, America, virtually alone in the developed world, protects the right to speak or publish the most odious points of view. And yet the government is authorized to punish you for thinking those vile things, if you think them in the course of committing a crime.”
“There are some people who don’t like hate crime laws because they think that it gives special treatments to groups,” said Levin. “They’re wrong. Every American is protected by hate crime laws.”