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Trayvon Martin case illustrates pitfalls of ‘hate crime’ label

The parents of Trayvon Martin, Tracy Martin (C) and Sybrina Fulton(R), and their attorney Benjamin Crump (L) attend a House Judiciary Committee briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 27, 2012 in Washington, DC.
The parents of Trayvon Martin, Tracy Martin (C) and Sybrina Fulton(R), and their attorney Benjamin Crump (L) attend a House Judiciary Committee briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 27, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The term ‘hate crime’ rings a familiar bell with most Americans. Often the term is thought of as a crime committed against a victim who is a minority or gay. Some activists as well as some in Congress perceived the shooting of Trayvon Martin as a hate crime—a black teen killed by an adult, George Zimmerman, whose father described him as ‘hispanic.’

Media seemed flummoxed by the father’s description of Zimmerman, coining the description of “white hispanic.” That would be rather like calling President Barack Obama “black white.”

Although the ‘hate crime’ label is familiar, less familiar are the criteria the federal government uses to determine whether a crime can be labeled as such. Information at the U.S. Dept. of Justice website generally rules a hate crime as “motivated by hatred, whether directed at the victim because of that person’s actual or perceived race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.”

DOJ has been investigating the Martin crime, although there is no evidence thus far to suggest Zimmerman sought a confrontation because the teen was black. Some pundits claim they hear a racial term on the 911 call Zimmerman made. A careful review of audio currently made widely available on the Web does not reveal audible hate terminology.

There is, however, an abundance of hate terminology applied to Zimmerman at present, including one Twitter account with a ‘KillZimmerman’ hashtag.

Some past crimes have drawn controversy for not being labeled hate crimes. These crimes were perpetrated by blacks against whites.

Among the more high profile crimes were the deaths of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom who were carjacked, kidnapped, raped and tortured by their assailants in Knoxville (Tenn.) in 2007. Local authorities claimed there was no hate crime element, as did journalists and pundits. Newsom’s mother, Mary, begged to disagree, telling The Chicago Tribune, "If this wasn't a hate crime, then I don't know how you would define a hate crime…It may have started out as a carjacking, but what it developed into was blacks hating whites. To do the things they did, they would have to hate them to do that."

The Tribune offered some information that sheds light on hate crimes. It’s important to remember that the public has no control over whether a crime is classified that way (underline added):

‘Blacks are also the overwhelming majority of victims of attacks recorded by the FBI as hate crimes. In 2005, blacks were the victims in 68 percent of nearly 5,000 hate-crime incidents nationwide, while whites were the victims in 20 percent of the cases. Whites accounted for 60 percent of known hate-crime offenders, while blacks accounted for 20 percent.

But on the other hand, when overall cross-racial violent crimes are tabulated—including incidents not formally classified as racially motivated hate crimes—Justice Department statistics show that blacks attack whites far more often than whites attack blacks.

In 2005, there were more than 645,000 victims of cross-racial violent crimes between blacks and whites in the U.S. In 90 percent of those crimes, black offenders attacked white victims.”

Despite figures like those, originating from the DOJ, activist groups like the left of center Southern Poverty Law Center perpetuate a one-sided narrative. Writing about the Christian-Newsom murders, SPLC slugged the article, The Big Lie—Criminal Cases Exploited to Attack Blacks.

The hypocrisy contained within that article is appalling. The writer, Casey Sanchez, begins by saying what a horrible crime the carjackers/kidnappers/torturers/murderers committed.

Sanchez even claims Christian was ‘strangled.’ That claim defies a number of sources, including the fact checkers at Snopes, a site many conservatives view as leaning Left. Even Snopes admitted what most newspapers reported—Christian was bound “inside several plastic garbage bags” and then left to suffocate.

Sanchez then turns her prose to a condemnation of white activist groups—I use that term because media are describing the parallel New Black Panther Party as a ‘black activist group.’ Both of course are hate groups, but that is beside the point.

The flip side of the coverage at the SPLC can be found in an article about Trayvon Martin’s death—Walking While Black Is Still a Crime. The SPLC then has the audacity to blame the entire tragedy on the color of Martin’s skin. Apparently SPLC did not take time to read the reports of calls Zimmerman made about various strangers in his neighborhood. Zimmerman reported white males, females, black males, hispanic males, and kids playing chicken in the street. He even reported potholes.

When the SPLC was interviewed by a Jacksonville area TV station, the SPLC spokesman did not mention the New Black Panther Party is classified as a hate group by his own organization.

Even the current DOJ, in a rare moment of candor, admits there are issues with hate crime classification and statistics. In a backgrounder, the DOJ website informs (underline added):

“[H]ate crimes are notoriously under-reported, which makes small changes in statistics a less than reliable indicator. In addition to reluctance by many victims to report hate crimes for the reasons mentioned above, some law enforcement agencies do not report crime data at all to the FBI, or do not effectively report separately on hate crimes. Hate crimes are defined differently from state to state, which also affects reporting to the FBI. Some states include crimes motivated by the victim’s perceived sexual orientation, for example, and others do not. Finally, because a hate crime by definition involves a conclusion as to the motive of the perpetrator, many crimes in which the perpetrator cannot be found, or his motive cannot be established based on the facts of the incident itself, are not reported as hate crimes.”

Many conservatives believe hate crime legislation was nothing more than political pandering. The net effect is that of placing a higher value on one human’s life than that of another.

One case comparable to Trayvon Martin’s was Christopher Cervini, a teen who was shot by a black adult male resident who saw Cervini and some friends rifling through cars in a neighborhood in the state of New York. The adult went into the street, got into a confrontation with Cervini and two of his friends, and ended up shooting the teen twice. The second shot hit Cervini in the back. The adult male was acquitted on manslaughter charges.

People often use the term hate crime as a means of bringing a political bloc together that might prove a challenge by other means. If we really want to prosecute something as a hate crime, every single rape would be classified that way, including the rape of Christopher Newsom by his assailants in Knoxville in 2007.

As a matter of fact, in the realm of actual morality rather than sophistic justice, all murder might be construed as a hate crime.

Sadly, as politics escalate in crimes involving different races, media often resort to sensationalism. The victims are dehumanized, and the community becomes a loser as well.


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