On Hate Crimes

A couple of posts down, Caleb Das asks:


Could you talk about why you're ambivalent on hate crime laws? 

This particular case gives me the sad. I had a transgender friend who I knew both pre and post-transition. We mostly played video games together. I may have been the first person to know and it really didn't bother me at all that one day, my friend was wearing a dress, while we played Resident Evil. Even went out to dinner with her, no problem, since the first person she told didn't seem to have an issue. 

The first few weeks were sort of a relief for her in that way. Her closest friends were all supportive. Apparently she'd been wrestling with gender identity for years, not that I knew, but still. Then she got jumped. Luckily she knew taekwondo. A month passed and it was all different. What was particularly sadmaking was that the things that I know I'll never have to feel fear about, like going to the laundromat, were fraught with danger for her. I was never more aware of my privilege as a male than doing her laundry for her. Given all that, the courage it takes to live transgender seems immense and if there can be protections built in to society to lessen its weight, why not? I'm speaking from a personal place also so perhaps my argument is chock full of holes but yeah. 

If there's a systemic pattern of abuse towards a particular group, why not favor hate crime laws, especially if the motive is clear as it is in this case?

My ambivalence springs from the following: There are clearly certain groups of Americans who are more vulnerable to certain crimes, because of who they are, then others. James Byrd was killed because he was black. But I generally think that the place for that sort of consideration--for motives or mitigating circumstances--should be in the sentencing phase. My sense is that Byrd's killers should have been charged with violently, and callously, destroying a human life. In the penalty phase, I think it would have been perfectly fine to consider their motivations and other broader historical factors.

I think I've said this before, but the instance that really turned me on this was the infamous Fat Nick case, wherein a group of white kids beat up a black kid, who'd come to the neighborhood to steal a car, and, in the process, used the word "nigger." Fat Nick got fifteen years. The trouble is that, whatever my personal feelings about the word nigger, it's quite clear that in the era of hip-hop, a white person can use "nigger" in a way that's very different then, say, the killers of Emmett Till. 

I get the intent to protect. But I'm much more comfortable with a jury debating this sort of thing, than prosecutors. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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