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May 3, 2001

Pitt expert calls current hate crimes laws too narrow

A year ago, Pittsburgh was racked by two apparently racially motivated fatal shooting sprees, calling attention locally to so-called hate crimes.

Richard Baumhammers and Ronald Taylor, who have been charged in the separate incidents, are back in the news, with Baumhammers currently standing trial and Taylor awaiting trial.

The 1998 headline-grabbing murders of Matthew Shepard in Colorado and James Byrd Jr. in Texas, both believed to be bias-driven, dominated the national news and prompted calls for additional laws directed toward hate crimes.

More than half of the states, including Pennsylvania, and the federal government have adopted some form of hate crimes legislation.

But both critics and supporters of bias crimes laws share an unduly narrow, conventional view of the problem the laws seek to address, according to a Pitt law school expert.

Lu-in Wang, associate professor of law, is one of the nation's few experts in bias crimes law, that is, legislation covering crimes involving prejudice based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

Author of the first legal treatise on the subject, "Hate Crimes Law" (Clark Boardman Cal-laghan, 1994, updated annually), Wang said hate crimes must be placed in the context of society in general, instead of looking at them as an isolated form of deviant behavior, something legal scholars and legislators tend to do.

Whether a case qualifies as a bona fide bias crime ought to depend on whether it causes those greater harms the laws want to address and not on how closely it resembles the prototype, according to Wang. "When it is understood that the perpetrator discriminated in the selection of the victim, the crime will produce those greater harms regardless of whether the perpetrator's true motivation was pure and simple hate or something else."

Legislation against hate crimes is in its infancy, first crystallizing in the mid- to late-1980s, Wang said. Such legislation continues to stir controversy among legal scholars, legislators and society at large.

Wang's research has convinced her of the need to rethink the definition of hate crimes in considering the appropriate legal response. "By magnifying the perpetrator's hostility and focusing only on animus, the conventional view masks the range of other motivations that propel bias crimes, some of which are quite mundane. Personal rewards might include excitement, recognition or approval of others, social bonding with peers or, even, money."

She said her first research into hate crimes legislation left her "feeling that something was missing. And that's what led me to the social sciences, because it seemed like the legal writing was so one-dimensional and the social science literature was so much richer: in terms of the questions they were looking at, in terms of how these forms of more deviant discrimination fit in with more everyday forms of discrimination."

Wang said that taking into account the social situations and psychology that govern behavior broadens the perspective of what hate crimes are, something legislation has yet to address.

Her treatise and subsequent writing on the subject focused on two prototypical forms of hate crimes, lynching and gay-bashing.

"There are certain contexts in which committing a hate crime is actually socially approved," according to Wang. "There was a period of time in this country's history between 1880 and 1930 that's called the lynching era because it was so common. Lynching was a social activity. As gruesome as it was and as horrible as it was, it was actually an event that people would get together and celebrate."

While lynching is harder to relate to in today's society, Wang sees parallels in gay-bashing.

"I think the one that we see today that can be viewed as either deviant behavior or conformity is gay-bashing, which is even encouraged in certain circles. Young men, traveling in groups, view this as a way of bonding together and of affirming their manhood. And they actually get approval from their peers when they do it, the police often look the other way and a lot of authority figures minimize it as a part of growing up."

Even more troubling, Wang said, is the way in which the conventional view of hate crimes obscures the role played by a social environment that portrays members of certain groups as "suitable victims" and thereby encourages perpetrators to use violence against them and influences the behavior of victimized groups who live in fear for their safety.

"In other words, a cultural and social 'feedback loop' runs between the harms of the victim and the motivations for committing hate crimes — a reinforcing relationship that has been overlooked by those who approach hate crimes based on the simplistic conventional assumptions."

Another issue facing legislators is whether expanding the definition of hate crimes or increasing the penalty for them acts as a deterrent, Wang said.

"We don't know. We don't have enough experience, because these laws are relatively new. If you publicize an act as a hate crime, does that actually encourage some people to do it? Normally, we view additional punishment as a deterrent, but it's just unclear what the effect of the additional punishment is."

She added that hate crimes legislation can be self-serving for legislators. " 'Look at us. We've done something,' they say. But they've done very little, really, under the current definitions that are applied."

Regardless of how legislators and legal scholars resolve that issue, Wang maintained that the narrow definition of bias-motivated crimes is not adequate to cover criminal acts that are victimizing targeted groups independent of the motivation.

"The discriminatory victim selection model better accomplishes the asserted goals of bias crime legislation — to enhance punishment for acts that cause special harm — by covering crimes that produce the harmful effects associated with bias crimes on victims targeted for their social grouping. We should not oversimplify the complex phenomenon we call 'hate.'"

–Peter Hart

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