On Oct. 28, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act. In his remarks, he said he was signing the law “to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray or who they are.”
Hate crimes are a serious problem in our country. FBI statistics show that on average, a hate crime is committed almost every hour of every day somewhere in the United States. Most of those crimes involve victims chosen because of their race, although there are also significant numbers of crimes where the victim was targeted because of religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.
Assault, murder, arson and vandalism are already illegal, of course. What is different about a bias-motivated crime that warrants a separate law?
Hate crimes affect the stability and security of our communities. Whenever a bias-motivated crime is committed, the victim’s entire community is left feeling victimized, vulnerable, fearful, isolated, and unprotected by the law. Such crimes can also lead to reprisals and a dangerous spiral of escalating inter-group tension and violence. Thus, the impact of the crime is far greater than the already terrible impact on the individual.
The new federal hate crime law does two things. First, it allows the federal government to provide assistance in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes — or, in limited circumstances, to investigate and prosecute hate crime cases when a locality is unable or unwilling to prosecute. Second, it ensures that those criminals who target their victims because of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability are all covered by the law.
Hate crimes are message crimes. They send a message to the victim — and everyone who shares the victim’s characteristics. “You are not welcome here,” the perpetrator says. “You don’t belong here, you and everyone like you.”
A hate crime law, like the one Congress just passed, communicates the opposite message, a message that victimized communities need to hear. “You are welcome here,” we say through the law, “and we will protect you. You and everyone like you.”
Indeed, hate crime laws protect all of us. Black or white, Jewish or Christian, Latino or Middle-Eastern, gay or straight — hate crime laws protect us all from those who would target us for simply being who we are.
Some people worry that a hate crime law will punish thought. Not true. However odious it may be, bigotry itself is not against the law. Nor is hate speech, which is, of course, protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Hate crime laws punish only criminal acts where victims are chosen because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or other immutable characteristics.
Wyoming is one of only five states in the U.S. without a state hate crime law, even though the new federal law is named after a victim of a tragic hate crime that occurred within these borders. It is past time for Wyoming to join the U.S. Congress and 45 other states and send its own message of safety and inclusion for all who live here. Let’s make it clear that Wyoming will not tolerate bias-motivated violence.
Bruce H. DeBoskey is the Mountain States Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League.