The need for a law against hate crimes

Last April, David Ritcheson testified before a House Judiciary Committee panel about how he had been beaten, burned and sodomized by self-styled skinheads who were shouting anti-Hispanic slurs.

Ritcheson never recovered from the traumatizing attack, and, only two months after his congressional testimony, he committed suicide. He was only 18. His personal tragedy — and the plight of thousands of other Americans who are attacked every year because of their race, religion, gender, disability, national origin or sexual identity — should push the House to vote on a bill now before us to enact national legislation against hate crimes.

Two concerns may cause strong supporters of civil rights to hesitate before supporting this hate crimes legislation. Because of its legislative history, it has become part of the Department pf Defense authorization bill. Therefore, civil rights supporters who fervently oppose the Iraq war may also vote against the entire defense bill, including the hate crimes law. We understand their concerns; one of us was expelled from the Georgia legislature for opposing the Vietnam War. But the fate of the Defense authorization bill will not determine the length of the war in Iraq; it will decide the future of the fight against hate crimes.

On the other side of the spectrum, some have contended that the hate crimes law will prevent religious leaders from preaching against practices they oppose. But the hate crimes law punishes violence that results in death or bodily injury, not the exercise of free speech. Make no mistake — the issue is physical attacks, not religious doctrines.

As the FBI recently reported, nearly 10,000 Americans were the targets of hate crimes last year, an 8 percent increase from 2005.

That’s bad enough, but the real number of hate crime victims is almost certainly much larger. Many state and local governments don’t collect data on hate crimes, and many incidents of violence motivated by bigotry are not reported

That is why it is so important that both houses of Congress pass the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act and place it on President Bush’s desk. The law takes two actions that are long-overdue: Making clear that victims of hate crimes based on their gender, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity should be protected under federal law. And helping states that need more resources to fight hate crimes, including states that have failed to act in the past.

Hate crimes should be something we learn about in history books, but, tragically, we can still read about them in our daily newspapers. The gruesome murder of a young, gay African American man in West Virginia, the appearance of nooses in the nation’s high schools and colleges, and the growing numbers of attacks against immigrants, gays and lesbians all remind us that this is a national problem that requires national action.

Some ask why it is necessary to distinguish between hate crimes and other, equally loathsome, incidents. Here’s the truth — hate crimes don’t just target individuals; they attack the very idea of America as a blessed land with liberty and justice for all. When people are singled out because of who they are, how they worship, how they live, or where their families came from, entire communities can be torn apart by fear and rage. Moreover, hateful words can wound people as much as fists, knives and even bullets. Moreover, imagine an elderly woman who survived the Holocaust being mugged outside her home as her attacker shouts anti-Semitic slurs that bring back terrible memories of the horrors she endured more than 60 years ago; targeted yet again, because of her faith.

For almost 10 years, the Congress has put off taking action against the violence that targets the vulnerable, tears apart our communities, and makes a mockery of America’s finest, founding ideals.

Now is the time for the House to take a stand against the hate crimes that marred our nation’s last two centuries and have no place in 21st-century America.

Bond is chairman of the NAACP, and Henderson is president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.