Optimism In The Hate Crimes Debate
Despite a threatened presidential veto, Northeastern University criminologist Jack McDevitt was optimistic. Three weeks ago, the House voted 237 to 180 to expand hate crime laws to include attacks on gay and lesbian people. The 55 percent who voted yes was not yet close to the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. But the ayes did include 25 Republicans."It's a long-term battle," McDevitt said in an interview this week. "We shouldn't step away from doing the right thing just because the president says he doesn't support it. It is more important for the victims of hate crimes to understand that a lot of other people understand their issues and that we take them seriously."
Hate crimes expansion has been proposed since 1998, the year Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, died after he was beaten and tied to a fence in Wyoming. The Senate passed it 65 to 33 in 2004. The House passed it 223 to 199 in 2005. But the Republican-controlled Congress squashed the bill in negotiations.
With the Democrats now in control of Congress, President Bush is all but certain to be forced to sign or veto the legislation. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has introduced a similar bill in the Senate, which was already near a veto-proof majority.
The nation is ready, in veto-proof numbers, to add sexual orientation to hate crimes laws. By 68 percent to 27 percent in a Gallup Poll this month, Americans favor expansion of the laws to help protect gay and lesbian people. This runs parallel to the 63 percent to 28 percent sentiment in a March Newsweek poll that gay and lesbian soldiers should be able to serve openly in the military. Even more Americans, 74 percent in a 2004 Los Angeles Times poll, say there should be no anti gay job discrimination.
The White House, fearful of losing the support of the religious right, refuses to listen. On May 3, in response to the House vote, the White House issued a veto threat saying, "There has been no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement."
McDevitt, who testified in April on Capitol Hill to support the legislation and trains police officers around the nation to recognize hate crimes, said statistics argue persuasively to federalize crimes that target people based on their sexual orientation and gender.
For example, many types of violent crime, such as homicide and robbery, decreased 15 percent and 22 percent, respectively, between 1996 and 2005, according to FBI statistics. Even racial hate crimes have declined from 5,396 reported cases in 1996 to 3,919 in 2005.
But sexual orientation-based crimes remain disturbingly stable. There were 1,016 such crimes in 1996. They rose to a peak of 1,393 in 2001 (some members of the religious far right, including the late Jerry Falwell, blamed 9/11 partially on homosexuals). They declined to 1,017 in 2005. But that was almost exactly the number of such crimes in 1996. As a percentage of all hate crimes, those based on sexual orientation accounted for 11.6 percent in 1996. In 2005, they accounted for 14.2 percent.
"With the decline of crime in so many other areas, you can legitimately argue that hate crimes against gays and lesbians have actually risen," McDevitt said. "People also have to remember that even though these numbers are tiny on a national level, each of these crimes is targeted against not just an individual, but a whole community. These crimes are about messages heard and messages received."
That message has been heard by 26 state attorneys general who wrote their support for hate crime expansions, including 12 from states that voted for Bush in 2004. Attorney General Mark Shurtleff of Utah, where Bush beat John Kerry 72 percent to 26 percent in 2004, wrote in April, "Many people have asked me why, given my Republican political philosophy and religious beliefs, I could support [a bill] including a 'protection for sexual orientation.' . . . It is never OK to assault a gay or lesbian because they are homosexual. It seems we could all agree to that."
That is why McDevitt is optimistic, even if Bush is out of step. "I've seen so many people come around on race, on sexual orientation," McDevitt said. "I've had cops start my trainings turning their backs to me with a newspaper. But eventually most of them, you put a real person in front of them who talks about what it's like to be victimized just for who they are, they say they will protect them."
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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