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STREET LAW: Bias-Motivated Violence


The United States has often been called the world’s melting pot because its population is made up of ethnic groups from around the world. Such diversity brings a richness that can benefit everyone. Unfortunately, some individuals feel threatened by groups who may look or behave differently. They may even commit acts that are intended to hurt people merely because they are part of such a group. These acts are called hate crimes. They may take the form of bias-motivated violence or property crime such as vandalism. The notion that vandalism is a victimless crime, overlooks the fear and outrage felt by those whose property has been intentionally and unjustifiably destroyed, as well as the disruption of community services and the cost of repairing or replacing vandalized property. Over 9,000 hate crimes were reported to the FBI in 2018. More than six in ten of them, or 61 percent, were motivated by racial bias: 16 percent were motivated by religious bias, 13 percent by sexual orientation bias, 10 percent by biases based on ethnic or national origin. The fact that crime involves people from two or more racial, ethnic, religious, or gender-orientation groups, does not automatically mean that it is a bias-motivated crime. The determining factor is whether the crime was committed because the victim was a member of a particular group.

Over 9,000 hate crimes were reported to the FBI in 2018.

Many psychologists, sociologists, and psychiatrists have explored the issue of why people individually or as members of groups commit violent acts against others, simply because of the victim’s race, religion, or ethnic origin. Sometimes the violence is premediated. Other times it boils up explosively when a group feels powerless, threatened, or deprived unjustly and sees someone on which to place blame or take out its grievances. Experts point out that people sometimes engage in bias-motivated violence because they are ignorant or misinformed about the target group. Education and one-on-one interaction with members of the group as individuals can help in such situations. Dehumanization can also lead to violent expressions of bias-based hatred. Dehumanization is the process of perceiving an individual or group to be different or inferior. In the process of dehumanizing another person or group, a person will: focus on individual differences, such as skin color, in a negative manner; refer to the target group by derogatory names; and stereotype selectively.

Acts of bias-motivated violence exact costs far beyond those suffered by the individual victims. Targets of bias-motivated violence suffer feelings of extreme fear, personal violation, and degradation. But, also, in many incidents of hate violence, the perpetrators are not only trying to frighten or harm their chosen target, but an entire group of people as well. Whole communities feel threatened, and community residents feel vulnerable and powerless. Members of the target group feel constant tension, even fear, that they may be the next victims. Acts of violence can also contribute feelings of distrust, senseless anger, tension, and suspicion. These acts of violence can shatter community unity.

Victims of bias-motivated violence may need special help. Although a caring friend can help the victim deal with his or her resulting feelings, some problems may require trained counseling help. Hot lines are a good source of information, understanding, advice, and guidance. Victims may feel that they have no control or are helpless; victims may feel somehow responsible, blaming themselves for the actions of criminals; victims may feel rage and outrage at the perpetrators; victims may feel vulnerable and unable to prevent future incidents; victims may suffer from negative self-image.

What can you do?

There are many things individuals can do to reduce or prevent bias-motivated acts:

• Make sure your own actions, attitudes, and remarks set a good example for younger children, friends, family, and neighbors.

• Educate the community against bias-motivated violence.

• Build community support and cooperation to organize both prevention and victim assistance efforts.

• Report crimes to local law enforcement and testify if asked.

Thinking about crime requires each of us to go beyond slogans and stereotypes. We should carefully consider each of the suggested causes and the possible solutions to the problem. Perhaps the most that can be said, is that disagreement exists over the cause of crime, and that solutions to the crime problem are not simple. Crimes wear many faces.

Joseph King Davis, Jr. is the Law, Government and Forensics Instructor at The Shepard International Baccaluaureate Magnet Middle School, Durham, NC; Immediate past 5th National President of the Assembly of Christian Educators; and a lifelong Zionite. P


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