Sometime in the early 1980s, a new type of crime was identified. It was called "hate crime." Although the conduct which hate crime laws were
aimed at was already criminal, the new laws targeted the motivation for the crime. Helping to cement hate crime into our lexicon was the belief that the new arena of hate crime was simply an extension of the larger anti-racist struggle.
While all of this may have been undertaken with the best of intentions, the unintended consequence has been the emergence of a cottage industry committed to propagating the view that hatred based on race, religion or sexual orientation is still today a prominent feature of American society.
Since the early 1980s, the American landscape has changed, with organized hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and others thankfully falling on hard times. These groups have been decimated by the death or incarceration of their leaders and a series of well-aimed lawsuits.
But other factors have come into play. The nation's attitudes on race have changed, making racism and other forms of bigotry socially unacceptable, except among the least educated and the most isolated. Wearing pointy hats and sheets and sneaking around burning crosses on folk's lawns or spray-painting swastikas on synagogues lost almost all of the mystique or attraction that it may have once held.
The killing of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard or the occasional vandalism of synagogues have been and are met with nearly universal revulsion and contempt.
In our own backyard, Los Angeles is widely viewed as the most diverse part of the nation's growing demographic complexity. Even here, hate crime is a rare thing. Yet, some officials continually portray the area's human relations as a hotbed of hostility and hate.
That brings us to the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. "Combatting" hate crime is the bread and butter of this taxpayer-funded agency, which enjoys an annual budget of approximately $2 million. Most of its budget is spent in one way or another on the issue of hate crime.
Each year, it produces an annual report on the number of hate crimes committed in Los Angeles County. The commission's latest report tells us that in 2003, there were 692 crimes motivated by hate. (Interestingly, annoying phone calls, disturbing the peace and reckless driving were included in the commission's report as hate crimes.) This is a 14 percent decrease from the previous year's tally. The highest number of hate crimes ever recorded by the agency was 1,031 in 2001.
Many questions can be raised about how the agency gathers its statistics and the accuracy of its count, but one thing is clear -- the size of the hate crime problem in the county is not large. By comparison, as of this past Christmas, the LAPD documented more than 41,000 violent crimes and another 118,000 property crimes. In 2003, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department recorded more than 90,000 violent crimes, which included forcible rape, homicide, aggravated assault and arson among others.
There were another 113,000 other crimes, such as sexual offenses, narcotics, forgery, vandalism and others that were committed in the county. In the context of this crime picture, hate crime is but a tiny fraction of the whole.
Noting the small numbers of hate crimes in Los Angeles should in no way be seen as diminishing the actual harm hate crime inflicts on its victims. But the aberrational nature of hate crime in a county of more than 10 million people begs the question of whether this narrowly defined arena of criminal activity really needs the near full-time attention of an entire department of local government -- especially at a time when every tax dollar is feeling the squeeze.
The proper role of government in this realm is a matter for debate, but until that's settled, isn't there a more productive or creative way to conduct work aimed at influencing human relations and the spending of public dollars?
Since 2000, the county commission has annually divided more than $800,000 among seven community-based partner organizations. The funds are directed at hate crime-related activities and, recently, the green light was given from county supervisors to once again give funds to the seven groups -- splitting nearly $70,000 among them over the next six months.
The money will pay for workshops on "media advocacy" and "technical assistance" for staff from the groups, among other things. This comes on the heels of severe budgetary problems confronting all levels of county government. Exactly what taxpayers get in return is unclear.
The vast majority of Americans already understand that hate crime lies beyond the borders of appropriate behavior (reflected in the low hate crime statistics), so messages aimed at these audiences is just a bit like preaching to the converted. On the other hand, anti-hate messages directed at the dwindling numbers of committed racists, homophobes and anti-Semites falls largely on deaf ears.
Once a hate crime occurs, it becomes the matter of law enforcement to find the facts, arrest the suspects and charge them for their acts. It is then up to prosecutors to do their job -- which is to bring criminals to justice.
However, hyperbole in the realm of hate crime may be symptomatic of a larger problem. As racial or ethnic animus has declined over the years, the groups specializing in anti-hate and anti-racist causes have struggled to maintain their relevancy and to justify their budgets. For human relations agencies and related activists, this has meant making the most of hate crime data -- minimal though it may be.
If documented in a rigorous manner, crimes thought to be motivated by hate arguably might be useful as a barometer of sorts to assess the state of race and human relations. Getting in the way of this is the fact that many groups report hate "incidents" that are extremely difficult to verify, let alone quantify.
Additionally, the political agendas of various advocacy groups place a great deal of pressure on law enforcement to identify crimes as "hate related," even when the facts do not substantiate this designation. Even when annual data show that the numbers of hate crimes are low, advocacy groups, academics and, sometimes, the media spin the information in ways that portray the nation or the city as endangered by an epidemic of hate. When asked about the low numbers of hate crimes, advocates and activists will argue that they are simply "underreported."
The prevailing view of hate crime encourages people to think of themselves as members of identity groups and also requires that they think of themselves as beleaguered and victimized, generating a sense of resentment. This means greater balkanization, not the unification of interests across the lines of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation -- something essential for the best possible human relations in a city like Los Angeles.
Joe R. Hicks is the former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission and currently vice president of Community Advocates. David Lehrer helped draft some of California's early hate crime statutes, was the former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and is the president of Community Advocates.