The horrible murders of nine parishioners during a June 17 evening prayer meeting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina seem like a nightmare. But they were real – horrific and senseless. And they were hate crimes. The nature of the shootings, the specific location, the targeted victims, statements allegedly made by the suspect, and a Facebook profile of the suspect wearing white supremacist symbols all indicate this tragedy was motivated by racial bias.
It is noteworthy that these race-based murders happened in one of only five states that has yet to enact a hate crimes law. The time has come for that to change.
Obviously, convicted murderers already face the most severe penalties under the law in every state. But hate crimes laws have a significance that extends beyond the tougher sentences they permit. They are a strong societal response to crimes specifically intended to intimidate the victim and members of the victim's community. By making members of minority communities fearful, angry, and suspicious of other groups – and of the power structure that is supposed to protect them – these message crimes can damage the fabric of our society and fragment communities.
The FBI and law enforcement officials recognize the special impact of hate crimes. The FBI has been collecting hate crime data from the 18,000 police agencies across the country since 1990. In 2013, the most recent FBI data available, almost 6,000 hate crimes were reported by over 15,000 police departments – almost one every 90 minutes of every day. Race-based hate crimes were most frequent, crimes committed against gay men and lesbians second, and religion-based crimes were third most frequent, with anti-Jewish crimes a disturbing 61% of all reported religion-based crimes.
Federal and state hate crime laws are an important demonstration that our society recognizes the unique impact of hate violence. 45 states and the District of Columbia now have enacted hate crime laws, many based on the ADL Model Law drafted in 1981. The only five states without a penalty-enhancing hate crime law are Arkansas, Indiana, Georgia, Wyoming – and South Carolina.
Attorney General Lynch has announced that the Department of Justice has opened its own hate crime investigation of this terrible crime – under federal criminal civil rights laws, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. That essential federal statute is an important bulwark, but it is not a substitute for state hate crimes laws. South Carolina is in mourning now, as we all are. One of the most constructive ways for the state to move forward would be to join 45 other states who already have hate crimes laws.
We need to be realistic. We cannot legislate, regulate, or tabulate an end to racism, anti-Semitism, or bigotry. Complementing federal and state hate crime laws and prevention initiatives, governments must promote early learning and continuing education against bias and discrimination in schools and the community. Strong, inclusive laws, and effective responses to hate violence by public officials and law enforcement authorities, however, are essential components in deterring and preventing these crimes.