The Experiment Podcast: Who Is Protected by Hate-Crime Laws?

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Hate crimes in the United States have reached their highest levels in more than a decade, prompting bipartisan support for legislation to combat them and increased resources for law enforcement. But the recent COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act has spurred resistance from an unexpected source: activist groups that represent the people these laws are meant to protect.

This week on The Experiment, our correspondent, Tracie Hunte, investigates the 150-year history of legislating against racist violence in the U.S. and asks: Have we been policing hate all wrong?

This episode’s guests include Jami Floyd, WNYC’s senior editor for race and justice; Saida Grundy, an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Boston University; Jason Wu, a co-chair of the LGBTQ advocacy group GAPIMNY; Jeannine Bell, a professor of law at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law; and Sunayana Dumala, the founder of Forever Welcome.

As the Experiment podcast keeps growing, we’re looking for new ways to tell stories and better serve our listeners. We invite you to visit theatlantic.com/experimentsurvey to share your thoughts with The Atlantic and WNYC Studios.

Further reading:Calling the Atlanta Shootings a Hate Crime Isn’t Nearly Enough


A transcript of this episode is presented below:(As a keyboard note skips in and out, a heartbeat, static, and a buzzing join in.)

Julia Longoria: Okay, so where do you want to start?

Tracie Hunte: So why don’t we start in March? Back in March, there was this shooting in Atlanta. [Reporting audio begins to fade in as Hunte continues.] I think we all remember it. It was completely horrifying.

NPR’s Noel King: Police in Georgia are investigating a series of deadly shootings that took place in the Atlanta area. Eight people were killed. Authorities say many of them were women of Asian descent. Now police have arrested one man, who is white, but they haven’t said anything about a motive yet. Advocacy organizations … (Fades out.)

Hunte: This guy, he went to three different spots—Asian-owned spas in Atlanta. He shot eight people. Six of them were Asian women. And one of the things that happened was that there was this press conference.

Police Chief Rodney Bryant: Thank you, Madam Mayor. We’ll start off with Sheriff …

Hunte: The police were talking about the investigation and the fact that they’d been getting a lot of questions about, you know, “Was this a hate crime?”

Bryant: I know that many—we’ve received a number of calls about “Is this a hate crime?” We are still early in this investigation, uh, so we cannot make that determination at this moment. (Fades under.)

Hunte: The detectives involved in this case were not coming out and calling it a hate crime. And that was upsetting a lot of people. But I think what really set people off was when the spokesman said that the shooter told detectives that he shot these people not because of racial hatred, but because he was struggling with sex addiction.

Captain Jay Baker: As the chief said—this is still early—but he does claim that it was not racially motivated. He apparently has an issue, uh, what he considers a—a—a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him … (Fades under.)

Longoria: How did people respond to that?

Hunte: I think some people thought maybe the police department was, you know, giving credence to this claim. And, also, the idea that it was sex addiction just seems so ludicrous on its face.

Now, prosecutors in the case did eventually bring hate-crimes charges against the shooter, but this shooting was part of a pattern we’ve seen for the past year, of increased violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

(A montage of news coverage plays.)

CBS’s Norah O’Donnell: Tonight, the FBI is stepping up its efforts to counter the shocking surge in attacks on Asian Americans.

PBS’s Judy Woodruff: Hate crimes against Asian Americans in major U.S. cities surged by nearly 150 percent in 2020 …

CNN’s Amara Walker: A 36-year-old Asian American father beaten by a stranger last Friday …

(The montage ends.)

Hunte: And in response to all this, Grace Meng, a congresswoman from New York, and Mazie Hirono, a senator from Hawaii—two Asian American lawmakers—put forth this bill called the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. And it was going to increase resources to the police so they can do more outreach to the communities that don’t speak English, and they also wanted the Justice Department to gather more data on hate crimes connected to COVID-19.

(A low droning tone begins to play.)

Hunte: But then I heard something a bit surprising, which is that a group of Asian American and Pacific Islanders and, you know, social-justice groups and LGBTQ groups—85 of them in all—signed a letter opposing this hate-crimes bill.

Longoria: Why did they oppose it?

Hunte: Well, they opposed it because they said that the COVID-19 hate-Crimes bill wasn’t going to keep people safe.

And I guess I was surprised to see all these groups that represent Asian American groups, LGBTQ groups—in one way or another, groups that are very often the victims of hate crimes—saying that this law that’s aimed at maybe preventing hate crimes just isn’t going to cut it, just isn’t going to do it. And I wanted to know more about why that was.

(Quiet, contemplative music plays over the drone. A heartbeat can be heard in the background.)

Longoria: This week, correspondent Tracie Hunte investigates the origin of hate-crimes legislation in our country—What changes when we call an act of violence a hate crime? Who does it protect?—and makes the case that maybe we’ve been thinking about how to police hate all wrong. I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.

(The music rises in volume, then fades out.)

Hunte What is a hate crime?

Jami Floyd: Well, a hate crime is a crime that is committed with a motivation—or, at least, a partial motivation—of hate or bias.

Hunte: Jami Floyd is WNYC’s senior editor for race and justice.

Floyd: So you have to have the underlying offense, which is, you know, an assault or a battery, attempted murder or even a murder, but then you have to have that added motivational element—a hate, bias—and it has to be intended or even expressed.

Hunte: These laws vary from state to state and on the federal level, but they often mean tougher sentences for crimes committed against protected groups. Assault someone? Get five years. Assault someone because they’re trans? Get 10.

Floyd: And the prosecutor has to prove that element.

Hunte: The actual term hate crime won’t come into wide use until the 1980s, but crimes motivated by hatred have been with us since the Founding. And we’ve tried to  use laws to stop them since Reconstruction.

(Reflective piano music plays, driven by a persistent beat and a percussive flourish that builds a sense of movement.)

Floyd: So we all know about the Constitution. We like to talk about the Constitution. We like to talk about the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth Amendments, which are the Reconstruction Amendments. But we also know—especially as Black people—you know, the Constitution is one thing, but then actually living and breathing the spirit of the Constitution is a whole other thing.

Hunte: After the Civil War, legislators tried to write a new vision into the Constitution: of a multiracial democracy where Black people could vote, hold office, and serve on juries. Resistance was instantaneous. Local and state government officials used violence and threats to deny Black people these rights, and the KKK began a campaign of terror. Black people were being dragged from their homes, beaten, and killed. So President Grant called on Congress to pass more legislation—starting with the Enforcement Acts.

Floyd: And these prohibited the states from disenfranchising voters on account of race, color, previous condition of servitude.

Hunte: The first two—of 1870 and 1871—were directed at government officials who used violence to deny Black people their civil rights. The third Enforcement Act focused squarely on the Klan.

(Music out.)

Floyd: Members of the Ku Klux Klan would be penalized if they terrorized Black citizens for exercising their right to vote, running for public office, serving on juries—and that’s what this series of legislation was all about. And then they had to go in and enforce the legislation…

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