When Terrorism Is Not Terrorism

Senate Republican leader Trent Lott finally came up with a near textbook excuse to oppose a tougher hate crimes law repeatedly proposed by Senator Ted Kennedy. He declared that the terrorism that the government should pay attention to is terrorism committed against America. But does that exclude the numerous documented cases of physical assaults, harassment, and even murders of minorities, gays and Muslims, and the burning of churches, the firebombing of mosques and the desecration of Jewish temples?

And should this also ignore the religious baiting remarks of past Southern Baptist Convention president, Jerry Vines, who, in his recent speech to 9000 delegates at the Convention in St. Louis, branded Muhammad a "demon possessed pedophile," and implied that Islam sanctioned terrorism? The incoming Convention president not only did not repudiate Vines’ remarks, he lambasted gays, and proudly declared there is no place for tolerance toward them. Their ethnic and religious bashing gives a virtual green light to gender and religious hate mongers.

Before Lott and the Republican senators who oppose expanding hate crime protections latched onto the war of terrorism as a foil to scuttle Kennedy’s bill, their excuse was that the bill violates states rights, infringes on free speech, and creates special classes of victims. i.e. gays, and the disabled. The law would permit federal officials to prosecute a hate crimes case when local authorities refuse, and designate crimes motivated by sexual orientation and disability as hate crimes. The wave of hate attacks against Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs following the September 11 terror attacks, and the plea of President Bush, Attorney-General John Ashcroft, and FBI director Mueller not to scapegoat Muslims did nothing to soften their opposition to the Kennedy bill.

The notion that terrorism only comes in the form of Al-Qaeda attacks presumes that gender and racially motivated violence are isolated acts committed by a handful of quacks and unreconstructed bigots, and that state authorities vigorously report and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. This is a myth. In its latest report on hate violence in America, the FBI notes that the number of hate crimes rose in 2000. Nearly forty percent of them were racially motivated, with blacks the most frequent target of hate mongers. But even the number of reported hate crimes barely scratches the surface on hate violence in America.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a public advocacy group which tracks hate crimes, the 8000 or so hate crimes the FBI reports each year is a gross under count. The Center puts the actual number at closer to 50,000. How to explain the gaping discrepancy between the FBI and the Center’s estimates? While the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990 mandated the FBI to collect figures on hate violence, it did not mandate states, municipalities, or police agencies to report them. Compiling hate crime numbers is still left up to the whims of city, state officials, and local police chiefs. Many don’t bother compiling them because they regard hate crimes as a politically loaded minefield that can tarnish their image and create even more racial friction. The murder of Sasezley Richardson in Indiana, and the beating death of Billy Gaither in Alabama in 1999 are tragic examples of this. Richardson was black and killed by a suspected white supremacist. Gaither was gay and killed because of his sexual orientation. Yet neither was initially reported as a hate crime.

Several states and hundreds of police agencies refuse to report hate crimes, or to label racially motivated hate crimes as hate crimes. Even the classification of what constitutes a hate crime varies from state to state, and is often confused, contradictory, and riddled with the political and racial biases of those who compile the numbers. The most glaring example of that is the classification of racially motivated hate violence. In the decade that the FBI has officially reported hate crime statistics, blacks have been the runaway leader in the number of hate crimes committed against them. Yet, according to FBI figures, blacks are also the biggest perpetrators of hate crimes.

The explanation for the seeming paradox is that the states, such as Mississippi and Alabama, where blacks are more likely to be victimized by hate violence, don't report or partially report hate crimes, or the numbers they report are so sketchy and fragmented that they are virtually useless in providing an accurate gauge of the magnitude of hate crimes. This false and misleading picture minimizes hate violence against blacks, and provides grist for the mill of those conservatives who wrongly claim that widespread racially motivated hate violence, except that committed by blacks, is a thing of the past.

Lott is right to finger potential Al-Qaeda-spawned terror attacks as great threats to America. He is wrong to suggest that race and gender terror attacks are no less threatening to many Americans. And that’s exactly why a tougher hate crimes bill is still needed.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:ehutchi344@aol.

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