LeBron James’ home was vandalized with a racial slur – and authorities are investigating the incident as a “hate crime.” While it is important to document violations against “protected” groups, we should still be mindful of the limitations and implications of hate crime legislation.
According to the FBI, a hate crime is a “traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias” related to a person’s “race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”
This definition fails to grasp the fact that oppression is woven into the fabric of American society. When the FBI declares that bias must be an “added element” of the crime, it frames the United States as inherently unbiased. The only way bias can be an added element is if we assume it is absent from the structure to begin with. But if we acknowledge that the hatred of protected groups is systemic, discussing the addition of bias becomes an unnecessary exercise.
Hate crime legislation assumes that attacks on members of protected groups are always conscious, overt, and measurable. This loans itself to absurd conclusions. For instance: someone attacks a black person simply because they are black, but they do not shout a racial epithet in the process. Is this a hate crime? No. The bias cannot be proved, so it is simply a crime with a black victim. We need to realize that since oppression is structural, it shapes our way of life and collective unconscious. This means destruction is often covert and invisible because it is the baseline we operate from: the norm, the status quo.
And that leads me to the issue of reporting. The fact that police departments collect this data should not exonerate the justice system from criticism. Between 2009-2014, 64% of the police departments in Mississippi reported zero hate crimes. So let me get this straight: Mississippi is the poorest state with the largest black population where residents still fly Confederate flags proudly – but we are supposed to believe there were no hate crimes?! That’s not even close to passing the sniff test. The crimes are under-reported. It is up to the police/justice system to determine whether or not an offense is recorded as a hate crime … which is like trusting the wolf with the fate of the sheep.