Congress passed the first federal statute to outlaw the original hate crime—lynching—in 1968 after 200 pieces of legislation languished in Congress over the fifty preceding years. Since that time, we’ve expanded and updated our laws to reflect law enforcement advancements and societal trends.
Our nation last took decisive action in 2009 to update these laws with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. As a report my organization released at the time noted, the reforms this law contained were desperately needed. Prior to its passage, the only time a hate crime could be federally prosecuted as such was when a victim was engaged in a federally protected activity such as voting. In addition, the 2009 law was the first to recognize bias crimes that targeted people because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, gender, or disability status. It also gave the FBI and local governments more tools to track and prosecute hate crimes.
Three years after its passage, it is appropriate to ask how the law is working. Are we protecting diverse communities, ensuring the law’s full and effective enforcement, and refining our techniques for preventing these crimes from occurring in the first place?
That’s what a Senate panel is asking this week. And given the shifting nature of hate violence over the past three years, senators have a lot to consider.
The fatal shooting last month at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin is only the latest in a string of violent bias-motivated acts that threaten the ability of Americans to worship freely, express affection with a loved one, or simply lead their day-to-day lives.
Sikhs, Muslims, South Asians, and Arab Americans continue to be at high risk for violent crimes. State anti-immigrant laws have fomented a hostile environment for Hispanics across the country. Nearly 70 percent of racially-motivated hate crime offenses involved bias against African Americans. And attacks against transgendered individuals have become so prevalent in our nation’s capital that the District of Columbia recently launched a public awareness campaign to quell the violence.
While passage of the hate crimes act was a historic advancement, there is certainly still room to improve.
Many local and state governments simply choose not to report hate crimes that occur in their jurisdictions to federal authorities, leaving both local prosecutors and the U.S. Justice Department unable to prosecute them.
As Sikhs, Arabs, and Hindus have become increasingly targeted, there still is no separate FBI data collection on bias crimes directed at them.
And of course the simplest solution is often the most effective. The Justice Department has done an exemplary job in adapting to and implementing the new law, but there is still more it can do. The department must aggressively use the hate crimes act to prosecute appropriate cases and educate local law enforcement on how they can use it to prevent violence in their communities.
Certainly, in a nation of more than 300 million people, there will always be a fearful few who can only find self-worth when they disparage and denigrate some individual or group of people they see as different from themselves. We can’t legislate the heart and mind, but we can fully and effectively enforce our nation’s laws so that this fear isn’t translated into violence.
Henderson is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil rights and human rights organizations.