is no question so irrelevant as the one to which all or nearly all can respond
in like fashion. Thus, asking people their views on child molestation, or
whether or not they’d like the schools to be "better" has always
seemed absurd: like asking if they’d rather be happy than sad. So too, with the
discussion of hate crimes, made especially relevant by the recent killing
rampage of Benjamin Smith, who, over the July 4th weekend, killed two and
injured nine, during a shooting spree against people of color and Jews.
folks disagree about whether laws should be passed to enhance the penalties for
hate-motivated crimes, there is virtual unanimity about the horrific nature of
the act itself, and revulsion at the vitriol spewed by the group to which Smith
belonged: the World Church of the Creator. Even the Klan quickly condemned these
murders, much as with the dragging death of James Byrd, in Jasper, Texas.
Americans are officially "against" hate crimes and hate groups. That
much is clear. But that much is also not particularly relevant: especially when
so many other forms of racism; so many other "crimes" against people
of color tend to go unnoticed.
the extreme act of violence occurs, the nation rises in collective agony. But
when the Centers for Disease Control reports that about 6,500 African Americans
and a few thousand more Latino/as and American Indians die annually because of
inferior health care relative to whites, few say anything.
Klansmen or skinheads on talk shows rant about the inferiority of black and
brown people, we roundly condemn them. But when two social scientists named
Murray and Herrnstein write The Bell Curve-which argues the same thing, only
with footnotes-we not only fail to condemn them, but whites make their book a
best-seller: half a million copies sold in the first 18 months. Furthermore,
Murray gets respectfully interviewed on every national news show in the country,
and is asked to address the GOP delegation, one month after they took over
when we see Ben Smith spray "mud people" with bullets in two states,
we react with indignation. But how do most folks respond to the following
institutionalized forms of racism, which injure and kill people of color in
those same states every day?
Illinois and Indiana, white women are 26% more likely to receive early prenatal
care than women of color. Largely as a result, the percentage of babies of color
with low-birthweight is double the white rate.
mortality rates for black children in both states are 2.5 times higher than the
child poverty rate for blacks in Illinois is 43%. For Hispanics and American
Indians it is 25%, while for whites it is under 10%. In Indiana, the gaps are
smaller, but black kids are still 3.6 times more likely to live in poverty than
white kids; Latinos, almost twice as likely to do so; and American Indian
children, 2.7 times more likely to live in poverty.
in both states, high-profile cases of police brutality have brought to light
patterns of institutional bias in law enforcement, which rarely, if ever, get
termed crimes of hate. In fact, hate crime laws would require enforcement by the
very police who have been involved in much of the racism meted out to people of
color across the nation.
other words, the problem of racism is not simply, or even mostly, to be found at
the extremes, and it’s not primarily driven by neo-Nazis. The biggest problem is
the everyday discrimination, inequity, and mainstream silence about these things
by folks who think they can prove antiracist credentials by condemning lynch
mobs: an act which ceased to be courageous about forty years ago.
that effect, we have groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center spending their
time taking a handful of professional bigots to court, tracking hate groups on
the internet, and sending out stamps reading "teach tolerance" to
folks on their mailing list so as to raise more money (despite an endowment in
the tens of millions of dollars), while largely ignoring the everyday racism of
most disturbing about the way many folks selectively deal with racism-as an
interpersonal phenomenon in need of attitude adjustment-is that the
institutional forms of racial mistreatment which they tend to ignore, contribute
DIRECTLY to the overt hostility which often manifests itself in hate crime or
hate group activity.
all, is it so hard to imagine that whites who see police locking up people of
color disproportionately might conclude there was something wrong with these
folks? Something to be feared, and if feared, perhaps despised? Is it so hard to
believe that whites who hear politicians bash immigrants of color for
"taking American jobs," or "squandering welfare dollars,"
might conclude such persons were a threat to their well-being? Is it so hard to
imagine that folks taught from birth that America’s a place where "anyone
can make it if they try hard enough," but who looks around and sees that
not only are many not "making it," but that these "failures"
are disproportionately of color, might conclude that they must therefore be
either culturally or genetically inferior?
mainstream institutions of our society send out multiple messages that people of
color are "lesser," and need to be controlled: messages that are bound
to be picked up by individuals in that society. The growth of the
prison-industrial-complex is a prime example. Although black and brown crime
rates have remained roughly steady for two decades, their incarceration rates
have tripled, thanks to intensified (and highly selective) law enforcement in
communities of color.
message is sent when we allow, and even cause, the kind of housing segregation,
isolation and poverty which confront so many persons of color? When Blacks
working full-time, year round are three times as likely to be poor as similar
whites, and Latino/as working full-time, year-round are four times as likely to
remain poor? When white college grads are 2.5 times more likely to find work
than Black college grads? Why should we be surprised that at least some,
witnessing the way the institutions of our society neglect (at best), and
oppress (at worst) people of color, might conclude they were superior, and more
deserving, even of life, than those same persons?
other words, Ben Smith and others like him don’t simply learn their racism at
the knee of retail fascists like Matt Hale; and their racism is hardly
"against the grain" of American ideology or culture, despite the
claims by many that such attitudes are "fundamentally inconsistent with
what America’s all about." (Oh really??)
know for some that last comment is hard to take. But consider the recent flap
over whether or not the same Matt Hale should be allowed to practice law in
Illinois. Despite graduating from law school, Hale is being blocked from his
chosen profession by those who claim his participation in the administration of
justice would "pervert the process," and call into question the
state’s commitment to the administration of "color-blind justice."
Imagine that, in a state that has no doubt taught Hale about their lofty
adherence to such principle by sending at least nine innocent men of color to
death row in the past few years-men who have only recently been released after
these "accidents" were discovered.
who’s the bigger problem: Matt Hale, whom everyone knows is a bigot, or the Cook
County D.A. and some overzealous cops, willing to send black or brown folks to
prison just to proclaim a big murder case solved? To even ask the question is to
answer it. It is precisely the visibility of the former’s racism, contrasted
with the invisibility of the latter, which makes the latter so much more
problematic, and more worthy of our concern.
the same is true for hate crimes. Which ones should we punish? The retail
versions perpetrated by lone bigots, or the wholesale versions which form the
basis of institutional racism, and are the very fabric comprising the tapestry
of American society? And who makes this decision? Local D. A.’s and federal
prosecutors? And who sentences the hate criminals? Juries like the one that
thought nothing of the Rodney King beating? Thanks, but surely, there has to be
a better way.
Wise is a Nashville based activist and writer, and the Director of the
newly-formed Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE). He can be
reached at [email protected]