Do you hear it?
It's faint. Usually somewhere off in the distance. But it's definitely there. A drumbeat, low but steady, and gaining in intensity.
It's the beat of the '60s. A cadence of criticism, echoing behind the news, in the background of TV shows, quite prominently in some pop songs and music videos: America is a racist society. America exploits its poor, excludes its minorities, ignores its homeless. America is a society filled with hate.
It's a familiar beat. And it rose to a kind of crescendo last week with the passage of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act. President Bush supported--and by now probably has signed--the legislation, which requires the attorney general to tabulate crimes related to prejudice based on race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. (A similar measure is pending in California.)
This is an interesting piece of law-making, not the least for that part about "sexual orientation" (which is what has raised the most eyebrows). This is the first effort to treat crimes against homosexuals--that is to say, crimes committed against individuals purely because they are homosexuals--as a class of wrongdoing that merits special federal attention.
Religious groups have raised the compelling point that, under this legislation, a crime prompted by antipathy toward homosexuals would be viewed in the same way as one prompted by prejudice against followers of a particular faith. That's a distinctly new twist on traditional attitudes about the importance of religion in our moral life and the special position in which churches are held by law.
In a similar way, members of minority groups who don't necessarily see their interests as parallel with those of homosexuals are pondering another unique implication of this law: namely, that being of a particular race or having a particular ethnic background is a condition that equates to preferring sex with a person of one's own gender.
Under the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation all have the same status in the eyes of the federal tabulator.
Be that as it may, what's wrong with keeping statistics? In a government with a budget deficit that's already in the stars, a few extra statisticians on the attorney general's payroll and a new computer or two won't make much difference. Besides, additional data on crime--of whatever type--would probably be useful to police departments, criminologists and prison planners.
As with so much legislation today--especially social legislation--the problem lies not necessarily in what is, but in what could be.
Why do the proponents of this bill want to keep statistics on hate crime? Because they want to do something about it, of course.
OK. Fighting crime is government's job, though these days, the distinction between state and federal jurisdiction has become blurred, to say the least. And admittedly, crimes based on prejudice are especially objectionable. So let's assume Uncle Sam intends to act. What are the crimes he wishes to act against? Lynchings? Church bombings? Unprovoked assaults on immigrants and homosexuals?
Here's the real uniqueness of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, and the key to understanding the true motives behind it. It isn't just concerned with concrete violent deeds perpetrated by klansmen, skinheads, neo-Nazis and other obnoxious types. Rather, the authors of this bill gave broad definition to the words hate crime. Name-calling can be considered a hate crime. Posturing in a hostile way can be considered a hate crime. Making an obscene or provocative gesture can be considered a hate crime.
Ah ha! This opens up whole new categories of "criminal activity," and creates whole new classes of "criminals." It multiplies the numbers of incidents that can be counted as acts of crime. Then, statistics in hand, it can "demonstrate" the existence of a vast crime wave heretofore woefully underestimated. It lays an impressive groundwork of justification for expanded federal power. And it presents the possibility of federal legal action against forms of behavior that have never been criminally liable before.
We shouldn't be naive about the complexities of human relations in our society. Nor should we dismiss the negative impact that abusive (though currently non-criminal) behavior has on those relations. But let's stop for a minute and ask a basic question: Is all this really necessary?
Must we really assume--as the proponents of this legislation would have us--that racism is an intractable problem in a nation that has hundreds of black elected and appointed officials, where even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is black?
Should we really believe that sectarian strife and ethnic bigotry are running wild, when members of virtually every religion and ethnic group are represented at the highest professional levels and are among our wealthiest families?
Are Americans really obsessed with their fears of homosexuality, when individuals who happen to be homosexual receive accolades for their contributions in just about every field of endeavor, sit in high government office and are among our most visible cultural figures?
Certainly, injustice exists. The material benefits of our society are not evenly distributed. There is bigotry in America. Hate crimes are real.
But our nation has made tremendous strides toward the broader assurance of justice for all. And there are laws on the books sufficient to protect the victims of hate, if those laws are enforced properly. No new definition of "crimes" is needed.
The people who are beating the drum for the Hate Crimes Statistics Act are just beating the drum for power.