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Michelle Chen

Do Unto Others: the Moral Slope of Hate Crimes Laws


Sometimes, it just feels good to punish someone.

That emotional impetus has colored our criminal justice system, and some of the clearest examples are laws that enhance penalties for crimes deemed especially heinous. But the eye-for-an-eye mentality can also aggravate endemic inequalities in the legal system. So how should activists work within an unjust legal infrastructure to deal with injustice perpetrated against their communities?

On Alternet, Liliana Segura explores the politics of hate crimes laws and reaches conclusions that put many human rights advocates on a moral precipice.

First, hate crimes laws don’t seem to have a significant deterrent effect, challenging the notion that cracking down on perpetrators makes targeted groups safer in the future. Second, they’re often wielded as a political talisman by officials who don’t dare take on other, structural and cultural factors that drive hate and its violent manifestations. And third, generally speaking, critics have argued that criminalizing the motivations behind illegal activity doesn’t do much to make the world a happier or less violent place.

Segura surmises:

Human rights groups that lobby for tougher sentencing may believe that, despite all its ugly dimensions, the criminal justice system can be used for more noble ends, to force bigoted elements within society to change and to protect vulnerable communities. But at the end of the day, it amounts to the same classic "tough on crime" canard, just tailored to more liberal sensibilities.

The ethics of hate crimes laws are hardly clear cut. Many advocacy groups see at least some role for law enforcement and other public safety measures. Some are pushing new legislation in Congress that would expand federal authority to prosecute hate crimes and extend protections to LGBT people.

But is there something paradoxical about redressing human rights violations through a system so often used to strip those rights away? From Jim Crow to mandatory minimums to Death Row, the skewed application of the law has helped codify institutional racism under the rubric of public protection and “zero tolerance."

In a statement opposing proposed hate crime-related legislation in New York, an LGBTQ rights coalition (the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, FIERCE, Queers for Economic Justice, the Peter Cicchino Youth Project and the Audre Lorde Project) warned that the dynamics of punishment can be manipulated to bolster more global forms of oppression:

In many cases, incarceration may worsen prejudices and make people more likely to be alienated and violent when they are released. Worst of all, when our society incarcerates someone who truly hates trans people, we provide them more opportunities to commit anti-trans hate crimes while incarcerated. Our many transgender community members in prison face intimidation, harassment, and violence on a daily basis.

Hate crime laws are an easy way for the government to act like it is on our communities’ side while continuing to discriminate against us. Liberal politicians and institutions can claim “anti-oppression” legitimacy and win points with communities affected by prejudice, while simultaneously using “sentencing enhancement” to justify building more prisons to lock us up in. Hate crime laws foreground a single accused individual as the “cause” of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or any number of other oppressive prejudices. They encourage us to lay blame and focus our vengeful hostility on one person instead of paying attention to institutional prejudice that fuels police violence, encourages bureaucratic systems to ignore trans people’s needs or actively discriminate against us, and denies our communities health care, identification, and so much more.

Anger, and even the visceral desire for retribution, can be justifiable. But do the police deserve more excuses to comb our neighborhoods and draw their weapons? Does it matter that they'd supposedly be targeting those who hate us, rather than loved ones? Is there something about hate crimes—as defined by a malleable mainstream political consensus—that gives communities a reason to trust the same law enforcement apparatus that has historically trampled the rights of the most vulnerable?

If activists seek to confront hatred in all its forms—both structural and individually motivated—on the spectrum of human rights, then shouldn't they also seek integrity in their treatment of all humans, even those who would do us harm?

Image: Stonewall Riots, 1969 (Joseph Ambrosini / New York Daily News)

Posted at 10:07 PM, Aug 04, 2009 in Criminal Justice | Police | Politics | Permalink | 0 Comments

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