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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Confronting the New Faces of Hate: Hate Crimes in America 2009. LCCR Education Fund.

Executive Summary

For many, the election of President Barack Obama appeared to close the book on a long history of inequality in America. But the spate of racially-motivated hate crimes and violence against minorities and immigrants that occurred before and after Election Day makes clear that a final victory over prejudice and racial hostility remains elusive. It is time for our nation to redouble its efforts to combat the commission of hate crimes in America.

Violence committed against individuals because of their race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation remains a serious problem. In the nearly twenty years since the 1990 enactment of the Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA), the number of hate crimes reported has consistently ranged around 7,500 or more annually — that's nearly one every hour of every day. However, and of particular concern, the number of hate crimes committed against Hispanics and those perceived to be immigrants has increased each of the past four years for which FBI data is available, and hate crimes committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation has increased to its highest level in five years.

These data almost certainly understate the true number of hate crimes committed in our nation. Victims may be fearful of authorities and thus may not report these crimes. Some local authorities may not accurately classify these violent incidents as hate crimes and thus fail to report them to the federal government. Other local authorities, including at least 21 agencies in cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000, did not participate in the FBI data collection effort in 2007 — the most recent national report available.

The marked increase in hate violence against Hispanics correlates closely with the increasingly heated debate over Comprehensive Immigration Reform and an escalation in the level of anti-immigrant vitriol on radio, television, and the Internet. Warned an April 2009 assessment from the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), "in some cases, anti-immigration or strident pro-enforcement fervor has been directed against specific groups and has the potential to turn violent." As inflammatory rhetoric targets immigrants at the same time that the number of hate crimes against Hispanics and others perceived to be immigrants steadily increases, a heightened sense of fear has gripped Hispanic and other minority communities around the country.

In one of the most disturbing developments of recent years, some groups opposing immigration reform, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA, have inflamed the immigration debate by invoking the dehumanizing, racist stereotypes and bigotry of hate groups. While these seemingly "legitimate" advocates against illegal immigration are frequently quoted in the mainstream media, have been called to testify before Congress, and often hold meetings with lawmakers and other public figures, their virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric veers dangerously close to — and too often crosses the line beyond — civil discourse over contentious immigration policy issues.

The inflammatory anti-immigrant messages of these groups have successfully infiltrated mainstream media, including shrill anti-Immigration reform commentaries from high profile national media personalities such as CNN's Lou Dobbs and Talk Show Network's The Savage Nation host Michael Savage. The unintended consequence of "media celebrities" vilifying immigrants as "invaders" who poison our communities with disease and criminality has been — and will continue to be — an atmosphere in which some people will act on these demonizing screeds — violently targeting immigrants and those perceived to be immigrants.

Fear and vilification of immigrants has combined with the worst economic downturn in decades and the election of the first African-American president to cause a surge in the activity of white supremacist groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the number of hate groups operating in the United States increased more than four percent in 2008 and has grown by 54 percent since 2000. "Barack Obama's election has inflamed racist extremists who see it as another sign that their country is under siege by non-whites," said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report published by the SPLC. "The idea of a black man in the White House, combined with the deepening economic crisis and continuing high levels of Latino immigration, has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit."

Extremists have taken advantage of the Internet and new technologies to recruit new members and promote their bigoted ideology. Whereas hate mongers once had to stand on street corners and hand out mimeographed leaflets to passersby, extremists now use mainstream social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook to access a potential audience of millions — including impressionable youth. Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tennessee and Paul Schlesselman, 18, of West Helena, Arkansas, the two white supremacists arrested in the fall of 2008 for plotting an assassination attempt on Barack Obama followed by a plan to engage in a multi-state racist shooting spree, were reportedly introduced to each other by a mutual friend on a social networking website. After Obama's election victory in November, white supremacist online activity spiked, with people posting hundreds of messages to online forums. Don Black, a 55 year-old former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, claimed more than 2,000 people joined his website on the day after Obama's election, up from 80 on an ordinary day. Started in 1995, Black's website is one of the oldest and largest hate group sites, now claiming 110,000 members.

Several examples from 2008 illustrate the ongoing hate crime crisis in our nation:

  • In July 2008, in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Luis Ramirez, a 25 year-old Mexican and father of two, was murdered because of his ethnicity in a brutal beating allegedly by four teenagers who repeatedly punched him, knocked him to the ground, and then kicked him multiple times in the head. As Ramirez lay unconscious, convulsing and foaming at the mouth, one of the assailants reportedly yelled "Tell your fucking Mexican friends to get the fuck out of Shenandoah or you'll be fucking laying next to them." Fourteen months earlier, 20 miles from where Ramirez was murdered, Lou Dobbs had held a special "Broken Borders" town hall meeting edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight to spotlight and praise a neighboring small town's passage of an "Illegal Immigrant Relief Act" that sought to suspend the business permits and licenses of employers who hired "unlawful workers" or landlords who rented to illegal aliens.

  • On Election Night 2008, Ralph Nicoletti and Michael Contreras, both 18, and Brian Carranza, 21, of Staten Island, New York decided shortly after learning of Barack Obama's election victory "to find African Americans to assault," according to a federal indictment and other court filings. The men then drove to a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Staten Island, where they came upon a 17 year-old African American who was walking home after watching the election at a friend's house. One of the defendants yelled "Obama!" Then, the men got out of the car and beat the youth with a metal pipe and a collapsible police baton, injuring his head and legs. The men went on to commit additional assaults that night. Their hate crime spree culminated with crashing their car into a man who they mistakenly believed to be African-American, causing his body to shatter the windshield.

  • On February 12, 2008 in Oxnard, California, 15 year-old Lawrence King, an openly gay student, was sitting in a computer lab at his junior high school when Brandon McInerney, 14, shot him twice in the head as their fellow students watched in horror. In McInerney's bedroom, investigators discovered a "trove" of white supremacist literature and drawings, depicting a "racist skinhead philosophy," according to the prosecution. McInerney is being tried as an adult on a murder count, plus a hate crime allegation.

Eliminating the prejudice that underlies hate crimes requires that Americans develop respect for cultural differences and establish dialogue across racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious boundaries. Education, awareness, and acceptance of group differences are the cornerstones of a long-term solution to prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry. Hate crime laws and effective responses to hate violence by public officials and law enforcement authorities can play an essential role in deterring and preventing these crimes, creating a healthier and stronger society for all Americans.

All Americans have a stake in reducing hate crimes. These crimes are intended to intimidate not only the individual victim, but all members of the victim's community, and even members of other communities historically victimized by hate. By making these victims and communities fearful, angry, and suspicious of other groups — and of the authorities who are charged with protecting them — these incidents fragment and isolate our communities, tearing apart the interwoven fabric of American society. Thus, the damage done by hate crimes cannot be measured solely in terms of physical injury or dollars and cents. For these reasons and more, hate crimes demand a priority response from governmental authorities.

Hate crimes are by no means just an American phenomenon — they are on the rise in many countries in Europe and the former Soviet Union, where government responses in most countries across this region have been inadequate. Beyond tackling hate crime at home, it is incumbent upon the United States to demonstrate international leadership at intergovernmental bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as in other public and private international organizations and through its own bilateral relationships, in order to promote the adoption and effective implementation of hate crime laws, improve the response of governments to hate violence, and help to build the capacity of civil society organizations to complement and support these government efforts.

Recommendations

Every sector of society has an important role to play in helping to ensure that no person is targeted for violence on the basis of his or her personal characteristics. We offer the following recommendations for action (international policy recommendations are available in the section of the report on "Hate Has No Borders"):

Set the Tone for a Civil National Discourse on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Civil rights organizations have become increasingly concerned about the virulent anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric employed by a handful of groups and coalitions that have positioned themselves as legitimate, mainstream advocates against illegal immigration in America. Leaders from every sector — including government, media, business, labor, religion, and education — have an essential role in shaping attitudes in opposition to all forms of bigotry. These leaders must moderate the rhetoric in the immigration debate. It is vital that civic leaders and law enforcement officials speak out against efforts to demonize immigrants — and use their bully pulpits to promote better intergroup relations. They must use their power of persuasion and political clout to condemn scapegoating, bias crimes, racism, and other hate speech and hate crimes, and to press for fair and workable immigration reform.

Ensure a Strong Law Enforcement Response to Confront Violent Bigotry

Although bigotry cannot be legislated out of existence, a forceful, moral response to hate violence is required of us all. Enactment of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act will give local law enforcement officials important tools to combat violent, bias-motivated crimes, and facilitate federal investigations and prosecutions when local authorities are unwilling or unable to achieve a just result. Importantly, the LLEHCPA would also amend the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 to mandate additional Justice Department hate crime data collection reporting requirements for bias-motivated violence directed at individuals on the basis of their gender and gender identity, and for crimes committed by and against juveniles.

Complement Tough Laws and Vigorous Enforcement with Education and Training Initiatives Designed to Reduce Prejudice

The federal government has a central role to play in funding anti-bias education and hate crime prevention initiatives, as well as promoting awareness of effective anti-bias education initiatives. The Justice Department, the Department of Education, and other involved federal agencies should institutionalize and coordinate their response to prejudice-motivated violence and fund programs and initiatives developed for schools and for youth violence prevention programs. The federal government should make information available regarding effective hate crime prevention programs and resources, successful anti-bias training initiatives, and best practices. The FBI should receive funding to update and expand training and outreach to ensure the most comprehensive implementation of the Hate Crime Statistics Act.

Next Section: The Nature and Magnitude of the Problem

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