Legal Affairs May 2007

'Hate Crimes' and Double Standards

The House-passed hate crimes bill is an example of feel-good legislation likely to do more harm than good.

So it was that most of the media, the NAACP, and leftist Duke professors continued to smear the supposedly "privileged" Duke lacrosse players even in the face of ever-mounting evidence that the charges were false and the players innocent, as North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declared last month.

And so it was that national media and other out-of-state outlets uttered not a peep this February about a new interracial-rape allegation at Duke with striking similarities to the lacrosse case. Again the accused was a Duke student. Again the locus was a drinking party in an off-campus house. Why the media silence? Because the accuser was white, the accused was black, and the house was rented by an African-American fraternity.

Other examples.

  • The horrible murder in 1998 of James Byrd, an African-American, by three white supremacists who dragged him behind a truck for three miles near Jasper, Texas, became a national sensation and a rallying cry for more hate crimes legislation, even after two of the defendants got death sentences for plain old murder.
  • But the national media ignored the hauntingly similar murder in 2002, also near Jasper, of white hitchhiker Ken Tillery by three black men. They beat him, drove a car over him, and dragged him by the undercarriage for more than 20 feet. Ho-hum, said the media. Nor has this been treated as a hate crime. The supposed reason is that it involved a dispute over money. But had the races been reversed, I suspect, it would be high on the hate crime lobby's list of examples.

  • The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was savagely beaten, lashed to a fence, and left to die near Laramie by two homophobic men, also became a media sensation and a rallying cry for extending hate crime laws to include those motivated by bias against gays.
  • But the media were far less interested when two gay men abducted and drugged 13-year-old Jesse Dirkhising in 1999, bound him with duct tape, gagged him with his own underwear, sodomized him with foreign objects, repeatedly raped him, gave him an enema of urine, and left him to die of suffocation. The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times failed to cover the case at the time, and The New York Times and many other media outlets have never mentioned it, a situation that gay journalist Andrew Sullivan (among others) has denounced as a double standard.

    As John Leo recently wrote in The New York Sun, "The Shepard case was legitimately a huge story.... But there is something odd about the standard press defense [that] the Shepard story was news in a way that the Dirkhising story wasn't because it 'prompted debate on hate crimes and the degree to which there is still intolerance of gay people in this country,' according to a Washington Post editor. This comes pretty close to advocacy.... Before long, more news consumers will conclude that even crime news is in effect being politicized. Is this any way to protect an industry in trouble?"

    One reason for the double standards at work in these cases may be that many journalists, interest groups, and academics assume (incorrectly, in my view) that it would fan the flames of white racism and homophobia to paint a true picture of race and crime in America.

    The deeper reason is that a true picture would undermine the same politically correct mythology that fuels the push for "hate crime" laws. This mythology also increases the large risk that such laws will be enforced very selectively, with evenhanded justice being eclipsed by politics, fanfare, and interest-group lobbying.

    This risk may be the most important reason to oppose the House-passed bill.

    The bill might be worthy of support if anyone could point to a single bias-motivated crime that it would have prevented. But nobody has. And such proposals have a lot more to do with political posturing than with ensuring that such crimes are adequately punished.

    The Washington Post editorializes that we need this bill because hate crimes "terrorize whole communities." Bosh. It would be one thing if the KKK were on a violent rampage unchecked by local and state authorities. But that is not the case. The reality is that only a minuscule percentage of violent crimes are motivated by the targeted biases. And people murdered over money are just as dead as those murdered out of bias.

    That's why one leader said in 1993: "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." The leader was Jesse Jackson. Passing another hate crime law would make him no safer.

    Presented by

    Stuart Taylor Jr., a contributing editor for National Journal, is teaching a course on the news media and the law at Stanford Law School.

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