A Jarring Reminder on Hate Crimes

Muslim and civil liberties groups repeatedly warned that they would be scapegoated for the September 11 terror attacks. They were right. A recent report from the L.A. County Human Relations Commission confirmed that hate attacks against Muslims have surged in the past year. The big jump in L.A. County hate attacks is no aberration. The FBI noted that there has been a noticeable rise in hate violence against Muslims across the nation, and with war fever against Iraq building, this could trigger an even worse surge in hate violence.

Despite the danger, many police agencies still bury their heads in the sand and deny that hate violence is a serious threat, or even exists. The murder of an Egyptian-American grocer, Adel Karpas, in his store was a troubling example of the mixed uncertainty and confusion of police on hate violence. L.A. County sheriffs found no evidence that hate was the motive in his slaying.

But even if sheriff's officials are right, and the murder was nothing more than a vicious, stupid, and bungled robbery attempt, the fact that Karpas was slain four days after September 11, and no money was taken at least raises a good possibility that his ethnicity, and not a grab at the store's cash register, was the reason for his murder. However, it's simply often easier for police officials to treat crimes, such as the Karpas tragedy, as a common crime, rather than a hate crime. This avoids the sticky and potentially volatile risk of inflaming racial tensions. But the L.A. County Sheriffs Department, which has one of the more active hate crimes units in the nation, initially at least did not reflexively discount hate as a possible motive in Karmas' killing. Many other police departments would have.

There are still hundreds of them that refuse to report hate crimes, or to label racially motivated hate crimes as such. If President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft hadn't publicly pledged to crack down on hate attacks against Muslims, police officials in the cities where Muslims and Sikhs were murdered, assaulted and their mosques burned after 9/11, would not have automatically labeled these attacks as hate crimes, and FBI officials might not have directed their local agents to vigorously pursue them as hate crimes.

The ignoring or downplaying of hate crimes by many police agencies gets worse each year. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, fewer police agencies reported hate crimes to the FBI in 2000 than in 1999. And the number that reported them in 1999 dropped from those reporting in 1998. The indifference by many police agencies to hate crimes insures that federal officials can't accurately gauge the magnitude of hate violence. This lulls the public into thinking that hate crimes have diminished or are non-existent.

While the police agencies bear some of the blame for this laxity in reporting, so do federal officials. When Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, it compelled the FBI to collect figures on hate violence. However, it did not compel police agencies to report them. Record keeping on hate crimes is still left up to the discretion of local police chiefs and city officials.

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. They see no need to allocate more resources to enable police to recognize and combat hate violence. And unlike the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, many police agencies in America haven't established hate task force units, or set specific procedures for dealing with hate crimes.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1998 was supposed to close these loopholes and increase the types of hate crimes prosecuted and the penalties for them. But the measure has been repeatedly stonewalled in the Senate. With Congress fixated on passing and bank-rolling Bush's homeland security bill, and much of the public more willing than ever to green light racial profiling and soft pedal, if not scrap, civil liberties protections, as long as the target is Arab-Americans, expanded hate crimes legislation is dead in the water.

Even as Bush and Ashcroft talked tough and condemned the hate attacks against Muslims, they did absolutely nothing to prod Congress to pass the bill. They have given no indication that they will change.

The surge in hate violence is a jarring reminder that some, in their bigoted and misguided zeal, see it as their right and duty to attack Muslims, and anyone else who doesn't fit their definition of what a patriotic American is. FBI and police agencies should make nailing them the same high priority they make nailing foreign terrorists in America.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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