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ASA Holds Congressional Briefing on Hate Crimes
by Carla B. Howery
ASA Deputy Executive Officer

A packed house of over 100 filled the room of the Rayburn House Office Building and listened intently to four sociologists knowledgeable about research on hate crimes. The October 21, 1999, Congressional briefing, "Hate in America: What Do We Know?" was held by the ASA's Sydney S. Spivack Program in Applied Social Research and Social Policy.

James F. Short, Jr., Washington State University, moderated the panel comprised of Abby Ferber, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs; Ryken Grattet, University of California-Davis; and Valerie Jenness, University of California-Irvine.

The panelists pressed the point that hate-motivated behavior was not new but that the category of hate as a crime was a more recent construction. Also, they emphasized that such actions have received more recent attention in light of a stream of violent incidents. They noted that the names of the people and places involved remind us of the worst aspects of human societies: James Byrd, Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, Columbine, the Sacramento Synagogue arsons, Jonesboro, and Benjamin Nathaniel Smith. White supremacist organizations have also been on the rise throughout the 1990s.

Jenness positioned hate crimes within a series of social movements. She suggested that the rise of the movements about women, civil rights, and gay rights converged into a greater awareness of victimization of people in these categories. She elaborated on why some social categories are included in hate crime legislation and some are not, given the U.S. history of prejudice and discrimination.

Grattet suggested a growing concern with and public visibility of violence motivated by bigotry, hatred, or bias. There is an increasing acceptance of the idea that criminal conduct is "different" when it involves an act of discrimination. "Hate crime," he emphasized, has clearly secured a place in the American public sphere. In the process, criminal conduct that was once undistinguished from ordinary crime has been parsed out, redefined, and condemned more visibly than before.

In particular, Grattet commented, people of color, Jews, gays and lesbians, women, and those with disabilities increasingly have been recognized as victims of hate crime, while union members, octogenarians, the elderly, children, and police officers, for example, have not. He noted that prior to the collection of "official statistics" on hate crime, civil rights organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Southern Poverty Law Center collected and disseminated data on specific kinds of bias-motivated conduct.

Abby Ferber described the state of knowledge about white supremacist groups, who joins them, how members are recruited, and how the "hate" is fueled. She shared some of the writings and cartoons from supremacist groups' publications, which indicate the belief that white males are victims of discrimination in the U.S. today. Supremacist groups, she observed, have recruited angry young white males in economically depressed areas, especially when there are other dynamics of racial divide in the community. Panelists also discussed the state of pending legislation in light of empirical knowledge. They noted the recency of data on this issue. The major government initiative to collect hate crime statistics began in 1990 when the federal government was ordered to amend the Uniform Crime Report to include "crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, including where appropriate the crimes of murder, non-negligent manslaughter; forcible rape; aggravated assault, simple assault, intimidation; arson; and destruction, damage or vandalism of property" (Public Law 101-275).

Speakers participated in a lively questions-and-answers session with an audience of Congressional staff members, federal agency officials, public and private organizations, and the media. The discussion engaged the audience well beyond the end of the briefing session time.

Those who attended received a briefing packet that included lists of resources, a bibliography, and fact sheets on the topic. The full report of this briefing will be published in early 2000 in the ASA's Issue Series in Social Research and Social Policy.