Why have we not improved our hate crime responses?

by Monique Kasonga
Image: Jason Leung / Unsplash

Despite the growing awareness and fight against hate crimes, hate-fueled violence is still growing rapidly in Canada and the United States. Increases in racist rhetoric have coincided with increases in racist attacks. Particularly, since February 2020, Asians and people of Asian descent around the world have been subjected to attacks and beatings, violent bullying, threats, racist abuse, and discrimination that appear to be linked to racial prejudices fueled by the pandemic. Over time, the definition and nature of hate crimes have changed, but the ultimate question of what classifies a hate crime and who classifies it at such is still being explored. From 2016 to 2020, the number of police-reported hate crimes in Canada doubled. In 2020, 61.9% of hate crimes reported in the United States were due to race, ethnicity and ancestry. Hate-fueled violence has become so widespread that, Dr. Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at the University of Ontario’s Institute of Technology, said: “If this was any other type of crime, we’d be calling it a national crisis.” So why aren’t we? 

The reason for the lack of responses to hate crimes is due to the inconsistencies in the law, definitions, and police reporting, as well as the complex nature of prosecution, especially when one’s intentions of committing a crime are unclear. Hate crime offences are defined in Canada’s Criminal Code as encouraging genocide, making public words and gestures inciting hatred, intentionally fostering hatred of a group, or vandalizing religious property with hateful mischief. In the United States, at the federal level, a crime motivated by bias against race, colour, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability is defined as a hate crime.

A suggestion to tackling hate crime laws is legislation, and this has been applied throughout recent years. However, with hate crime rates still rapidly rising, the effectiveness of these new statutes is under serious scrutiny. Today, the controversy regarding the effectiveness of hate crime laws is debated, and people question whether this type of legislation is beneficial to society. The fundamental purpose for the codification of hate crime laws, according to supporters, is to send a strong message of tolerance and equality, conveying to all parts of society that hatred and prejudice based on identity will be punished with particular severity. In addition, hate crime legislation could also have the reverse impact of tolerance and equality since they encourage citizens to see themselves as members of a protected group rather than members of a collective society. Consequently, hate-crime legislation has resulted in unforeseen effects and unequal treatment. 

Mass arrests should, in theory, have a chilling effect and deter crime. However, in practice, this claim is false for a variety of reasons; differing hate crime laws from state to state, inconsistent data quality, disparities in police department training and reporting, and a lack of agreement on how to prosecute hate crimes as a separate offence all make deterrence extremely difficult. These confounding variables are particularly prevalent across the United States, rendering current hate crime legislation ineffective and inconsistent.

We can immediately see that the definition of hate crimes can be applied and understood in a variety of ways. How could the assassination of Ahmaud Arbery by white vigilantes be classified as a hate crime if the authorities had no way of knowing their true motives? It’s nearly impossible to tell who has shown motivation based on their line of reasoning. Remember how, in the aftermath of numerous mass shootings, white men, particularly young men, were labeled “troubled” or “lone wolves,” as opposed to the discourse of “radical terrorists”? These examples prove that it is nearly impossible for current legislation to truly and properly classify hate crimes. 

There is much progress needed to work towards reducing hate crimes and keeping minority communities safe. Many organizations and institutions have begun to propose new ideas on how we can reduce crimes. The Canadian House of Commons Heritage Committee, in response to the 2017 Mosque attack in Quebec City, advocated for a national policy to combat racism and hate crimes. Their study included thirty recommendations, including educating the media and the political establishment on how to convey news in a more conscious and careful way to avoid inciting hate and on how depictions of specific groups might contribute to an environment of hate. It urged for stricter enforcement of laws to prevent racist “fake news,” as well as increased educational resources to combat hate crimes. The American organization StopAAPIHate offers resources for victims and encourages people to engage in stopping hate crimes. Some of their proposals include demanding your local members of government to create ordinances or resolutions to condemn hate and to endorse strong civil rights laws at the local and state levels. They also encourage advocating for expanded civil rights protections that would safeguard Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other people from harassment and discriminatory treatment in private businesses.  

All-embracing, a lot of progress needs to be made, but many people seem to be committed to doing so. Educating individuals and children about the material harm that language does in everyday interactions is merely the beginning of a massive burden of caring. The reality is, if proper education regarding stopping hate isn’t necessitated, more people will be targeted and hurt because of their racial, cultural, sexual or gender identities. A consensus on the definition of a hate crime is needed and a national mandate should be implemented in both the United States and Canada. If action isn’t taken soon, more people will continue to get hurt. The fight isn’t over, and this is only the start.

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