Double Standard on Hate Sends Wrong Message
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The arrest of 10 black high school students in Charlottesville, Virginia four years ago sent shock waves through the nation. The shock wasn't that they were young, black or were jailed. The shock was that their victims were white students who attended the University of Virginia. The assaults set off a deep and agonizing debate and soul search over whether blacks can be just as guilty and culpable of committing racially motivated hate attacks on whites, as whites have committed on blacks.
The attacks by the black high school students also put civil rights leaders on the spot. The knock against them is that they rush to the barricades to condemn attacks against blacks, but are virtually mute when blacks are accused of racial attacks. The filing of hate crime charges against 8 young blacks in Long Beach, California for allegedly beating three white women on Halloween night has put them back on the spot again. And it has also renewed the debate over whether black attacks against whites are really hate crimes, and what should be said and done about them.
Whites still commit the overwhelming majority of hate attacks, and blacks are still their prime targets. But blacks do commit hate crimes, and as it turns out are committing lots more of them than generally known. According to the 2004 FBI Hate Crimes report, blacks committed slightly more than 20 percent of the hate crimes in America. In most cases, the majority of their victims are whites. An earlier report from the Southern Poverty Law Center warned that there has been a sharp jump in black-on-white violence during the 1990s.
And there's where the confusion comes in. Did the blacks assault whites solely for their money and valuables, or out of anger for a real or imagined racial insult? That blurred the line between common street crime and hate crimes, and made it easier to ignore or downplay the race aspect of the attacks, and thus not classify them as a hate crime.
Authorities also mindful of potential backlash from black leaders, and dreading inflaming racial tensions, are deeply reluctant to brand black-on-white attacks as hate crimes.
In the Virginia and now Long Beach race attacks, city officials and local black leaders were cautious and guarded in what they said about the cases. They bent way over to look for reasons beyond race to explain the assaults. They cited frustration, boredom, and anger, as possible extenuating motives. That wasn't a bad thing. Black violence against whites can't match the scale and history of white beatings, killings, and verbal physical intimidation, and harassment of blacks. But that still doesn't cancel out, let alone justify kid glove treatment and silence when blacks are the perpetrators and whites are the victims.
Their victims in almost all cases are innocents that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and were beat or killed solely because they were white. From all reports, that was the case in Long Beach. There was absolutely no evidence that the three women taunted, or provoked the blacks.
This is not to presume that the attackers chose their victims solely because they were white. Their attorney warned the public not to rush to judgment in the case. But it's not necessary to presume guilt or make assumptions for civil rights leaders to vigorously denounce racially motivated violence. The great strength of the civil rights movement was that it seized and maintained the moral high ground by never stooping to ape the violence of white racists.
Any double standard on hate violence opens the door wide for some white supremacists and extremist groups to paint blacks as the prime racial hate mongers in America. They can play up black-on-white violence as a scare tactic to oppose expanded hate crimes protections, and strengthen civil rights protections. In the Virginia case, avowed white supremacist David Duke saber rattled prosecutors, screamed that whites are under assault from lawless blacks and the federal government won't protect them. He threatened demonstrations if hate crimes charges were thrown at the students.
The Long Beach assault heightened racial distrust and tensions in the city. Some blacks said they feared whites would blame them for the attacks, and some whites said they feared that blacks would target them. There's no sign that any of this will happen. It didn't in Virginia, and other places where black on white racial violence flared.
But the danger is there. When blacks say or do nothing about these attacks it is taken by some as a tacit signal that blacks put less value on white lives than black lives. That's ironic. For decades blacks have shouted often with much justification that black lives have been shamelessly devalued when they are the victims of hate crimes. And that's even more reason that there be no double standard in condemning hate attacks no matter the color of the assailant.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.