A hate crime may involve many victims such as the mass murder of five Souteast Asian children and injury of 30 additional children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, in 1989 by 23-year-old Patrick PurdyOpens in new window, a man who blamed his inability to get a job on the Asian immigrants in his community. Purdy had attended Cleveland Elementary as a child, when it was predominantly white, and by the time he was an adult, his community had transformed to become predominantly Asian.
Alternatively, a hate crime may involve only one victim, for instance, the 1998 murder of 21-year-old Mathew ShepardOpens in new window, a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death by two classmates.
The actions that constitute hate crimes (e.g., murder, assault, vandalism) are illegal independent of whether the victim(s) belong to any particular ethnic, religious, or other group.
However, nearly every state recognizes hate crimes as a special category of crime and has either created special hate crime statutes or has penalty enhancements to existing statutes if the crime committed is determined to be a hate crime.
The specific groups that are protected under hate statutes vary greatly from state to state. For example, most afford protection for racial groups, ethnic groups, and religious groups, while fewer cover sexual orientation and disability as groups requiring protection; even fewer recognize that protection is required based on age or sex.
Characteristics of Hate Crimes
Levin and McDevitt (1999) discuss four reasons why hate crimes are treated differently than other crimes.
- First, hate crimes have large groups of people as targets, even if only one person is technically the victim of a particular instance of crime. Hate crimes have the potential to terrorize an entire group because they are at least in part motivated by the fact that the perpetrator (or perpetrators) believes that the victim is different from him.
In a way, the murder of Mathew ShepardOpens in new window was not the murder of a person—the perpetrators did not see him as an individual human being with humanity and rights, but rather Shepard’s murder was an attempt to terrorize and harm a whole group. In committing the crime the perpetrators intended to send a message to a group (in this case, gay men) that they were not welcome.
- A second distinguishing feature of hate crimes is that the quality for which the victim is being attacked (e.g., sexual orientation or race) is usually an intrinsic characteristic that cannot be changed, such as race, age, or disability, or that would be extremely difficult and personally disruptive to change, such as religious affiliation. Therefore, if an individual is targeted because she is over 80 years old, there is nothing she can do to prevent being targeted.
Or if an individual us attacked because he is a Catholic, even if he changed his religion (which no one should have to do to avoid discrimination), he still could not change the perpetrator’s perception that he is Catholic. This lack of control that victims have over their own characteristics and the perceptions that others have of them leaves them feeling extremely vulnerable.
- A third distinctive characteristic of hate crimes is that from the point of view of the perpetrator, the victim is typically interchangeable with other victims belonging to the same group; that is, in most cases, the perpetrators do not target a particular individual, or even if they do, another individual from the same group will suffice if they are prepared to commit a crime and the original target is unavailable. Sometimes perpetrators will even find victims belonging to a different group if they cannot find a member of the group they set out to victimize. So if they cannot find a Latino, they may seek out a Jew or someone who is gay.
- A fourth difference is that hate crimes tend to be more aggressive than crimes of the same nature that are not motivated by hate. For instance, Levin and McDevitt (1993) reported that assaults in Boston that were hate crimes were three times more likely to result in hospitalizations for the victims than assaults that were not motivated by hate.
Levin and McDevitt (1999) have identified three categories of hate crimes based on the motivational origins of the crimes: thrill, defensive, and mission.
- The most common types, thrill crimes, are typically committed by teenaged boys or young adult men. They are committed for entertainment value, to impress their friends, to feel a part of a group, or for any combination of these reasons. Many of these crimes are property crimes, such as vandalism, although they may rise to the level of vicious assaults or murder.
- Defensive crimes are committed with the intention of protecting one’s community (e.g., one’s neighborhood, school, or workplace) from people who are perceived to be interlopers or outsiders. One example of this type of crime occurs when a member of a different race or religion moves into a neighborhood or school that was previously all one group (usually white). These could be property crimes or attacks on persons.
- The third category—the least common—is the mission offense, usually perpetrated by an organized hate group such as the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nations.
Many of the organized hate groups have broad networks of people to call on. They train people in intimidation tactics and acts of violence, including the use of weapons. They have clear ideologies that are communicated to members and potential recruits. Their influence extends beyond their official members. Teenagers, young adult men, or others can be motivated by their ideologies and may receive support from the group in various forms, including training and loans of weapons. Usually, mission crimes are committed by groups of people; they are uncommonly committed by a single individual.
The hate crime is a serious social issue, and research and theory addressing hate crimes is voluminous. Levin and McDevitt (2002) have written a book in whicy they describe the different types of hate crimes, motivation for hate crimes, laws, prevention, and other topics.
- Levin, J., & McDevitt, J. (1993). Hate crimes: The rising tide of bigotry and bloodshed. New York: Plenum.
- Levin, J., & McDevitt, J. (1999). Hate crimes. In D. Levinson, J. J. Ponzeti, & P.F. Jorgensen (Eds.), Encyclopedia of human emotions (2nd ed., pp. 331 – 336). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
- SHepard, J. (2009). The meaning of Mathew: My son’s murder in Laramie, and a world transformed. New York: Hudson Street Press.
- Temple-Raston, D. (2001). A death in Texas: A story of race, murder, and a small town’s struggle for redemption. New York: Henry Holt.
- Erhlich, H. (2009). Hate crimes and ethnoviolence: The history, current affairs, and future of discrimination in America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.