Rethinking hate crimes: The hard work of creating social equity

Friday, May 14, 2010

Lucas Crawford and Robert Nichols, University of Alberta
Guest Contributors

Monday, May 10th was Alberta’s inaugural ‘Hate Crimes Awareness Day,’ an event that raised more questions than answers.  Offered as an opportunity to ‘celebrate’ the successes of the past few decades, many in those communities supposedly most protected by such legislation—racialized minorities, Indigenous peoples and the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer] community, for instance— took this as an opportunity to challenge them as a vehicle for promoting safe, just communities.

A recent Statistics Canada report on hate crimes shows that white people reportedly suffer more instances of chargeable hate crime than Aboriginal people. In the United States, white people are apparently the second-most likely demographic to experience race-related hate crimes. In New York City five years ago, four lesbians of colour were charged and convicted with “gang assault” (and are variously serving time) after defending themselves from a homophobic and assaultive man who threatened them with rape and grabbed for their bodies. He would later characterize the incident as a hate crime committed against him – for his heterosexuality.

By isolating incidents of such violence from their social and political context, the hate crime framework simultaneously obscures the background field of systemic oppression while relying upon it.  The ‘successful’ use of such legislation often depends upon the careful discrimination of instances of specific, intentional hatred and more general, nearly all-pervasive discrimination and derision.

Rather than working to eliminate such discrimination, hate crimes actually require it as a norm against which the particular case can be established as unique, exceptional and a function of the intent of the perpetrator. 

This requires, in other words, a background of ‘ordinary’ violence, in which the articulation of violence through homophobic, transphobic, racist and misogynist language and actions are not ‘especially’ hate-motivated but merely trading on the currency of our day.  This ‘ordinary’ violence is normalized and used as material to be sifted through in search of the supposed ‘real’ danger: the intentional, malicious, targeted homophobe or racist.  But, of course, it is precisely this ‘normal’ state of affairs that enables such attacks in the first place, by making some bodies seem less worthy than others, some more ‘attackable’ and by rendering some populations more vulnerable to premature death.

Needless to say, then, hate crime legislation has broken its promises. In Canada, hate crime law simply lengthens offender sentences. This legislation marks an uneasy political marriage: the right’s “tough on crime” stance gussied up as an ostensibly left-leaning concern with marginalized groups. In the wake of the now-farcical Alberta Hate Crimes Awareness Day, it’s little wonder that some are asking: why have we put our faith in the justice system to do the hard work of creating social equity and meaningful accountability for violence?

Thankfully, many people have not. In Canada and abroad, hopeful community activists from a variety of social justice and academic communities have been creating alternatives to the hate crime laws championed by large, well-funded, and often predominantly white gay lobby groups. Citing the lack of evidence that stricter punitive measures are successful to any degree in “reforming” anyone, groups such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Queers for Economic Justice, and the Audre Lorde Project have vehemently opposed these laws. Numerous members of the LGBTQ community in Alberta are vocally joining these innovative efforts to rethink accountability and justice – outside prisons.

There are many reasons to look beyond prisons for justice. As we saw above, hate crime laws make no distinction between assailants from majority groups who specifically target marginalized people and those who defend themselves daily from discrimination. Moreover, there’s no evidence to suggest hate crime legislation is either a deterrent or a useful measure. Quite the contrary: there is evidence suggesting that longer prison sentences increase rates of recidivism. It is a soothing myth that this legislation protects anyone: as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project puts it, “It is hard to imagine that someone moved to brutally attack a trans[gender] person would pause to consider that they might get a longer sentence.”

Even if harsher sentences were effective, they rely too heavily on sentencing as a tool to “dis-incentivize” violence. As a consequence, supporters of hate crimes legislation may end up reproducing the hateful logic of vengeance they purportedly seek to question: to combat “message crimes,” these laws advocate “message sentences” in which individuals are made scapegoats for a complex social world that legalizes and condones so much prejudice and bigotry. Don’t we have more innovative ways to communicate than this indirect “message” cycle of punishment and harm?

In Edmonton, we’ve already witnessed positive work made possible by inventive definitions of justice. Most notably, the family of Robert Stanley (the bus driver killed in 2002 by a boulder pushed from an overpass) adopted a restorative justice approach to the sentencing of one youth. At the family’s request, he was not imprisoned, but instead given alternative sentences.

A number of Edmonton groups undertake similar work, including a range of Aboriginal organizations, as well as the innovative Youth Restorative Action Project, a committee comprised solely of youth (including former young offenders) who consult with individual young offenders to help determine sentencing.  Although restorative justice isn’t always feasible (its use in family violence contexts has been critiqued), it shows that there are models of justice that refuse increased imprisonment and pursue more meaningful ideas about safety.

Finally, we have been forced to ask: when we horde disproportionate resources to campaign for harsher punishments, who benefits? Resources are better devoted to supporting marginalized communities – for whom unequal social conditions put individuals at higher risk of entering the criminal justice system. Right now 60 percent of the prairies’ federal inmates are Aboriginal people, and LGBTQ people – particularly transsexuals of colour – are victimized by the criminal justice system in great number.

Hate crime advocates promote a lazy entrenchment of further inequality through retaliation sentencing, while others choose hope, change, and support.  The events of the past week show that we can look for justice beyond mere prisons, even as we continue the long social justice struggle against hate and violence.

Lucas Crawford is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies and Robert Nichols is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.


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