Hate Crime Bills Reveal Bias
Proposals to confront intolerance may be confounded by the very symptoms they are intended to ward against.BY BRETT BURSEY
In May, Attorney General Charlie Condon announced his hate crime unit" as a response to the burning of black churches in South Carolina.
In June, President Bill Clinton visited the torched Mt. Zion church in Greeleyville. With most of the state's politicians nodding behind him, the president denounced racist violence.
Three days after the Oct. 28 drive-by shooting of black teenagers in Pelion, the governor called for hate crime legislation. By the end of the year, politicians of all ranks and stripes were talking about sending a message of tolerance by passing legislation against hate crimes.
Sen. Darrell Jackson (D-Richland) was first to propose legislation that increases penalties when the crime is intentionally targeted at a person because of "race, color, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability."
Sen. John Courson, a Republican from Columbia who has been one of the leading supporters of the Confederate flag, was expected to cosponsor Jackson's bill. But after consulting with a "liberal Democratic attorney" and a friend on the federal bench, Courson was convinced that instead of enacting new laws it would be better to increase existing criminal penalties.
"There were only 26 [hate crimes] out of over 40,000 violent crimes [in South Carolina in 1994]," Courson said, "So it's not really statistically significant.
While Courson isn't sponsoring the legislation, he says he will likely vote for it if it comes to the floor.
Courson agrees with Jackson that "If we have hate crime legislation there is no reason for it to be exclusive. But the question is: Do we need it?"
Against a backdrop of growing racial tensions, Condon began pushing his own version of a hate crime bill last fall. Condon, also an ardent supporter of the Confederate flag, defended his involvement in the hate crime issue by stating, "I don't think being proud of Southern heritage contradicts being against hate crimes. That flag is not causing any crimes."
While Courson uses statistics to diminish the need for specific hate crime legislation, Condon uses the same numbers to justify who is to be included for special protection. Condon's bill, introduced in the House by Speaker David Wilkins (R-Greenville), excludes women and gays.
"It was our understanding that there was a total of only four [gay-related assaults] last year," said Cam Crawford, Condon's legislative lobbyist. "Nobody has demonstrated to us that there's a problem [with people being attacked because of their sexual orientation], so we decided to take action against race-based hate crimes.
"It was not our intention to slight [gays]," Crawford said; "we didn't think of it. I don't believe in gay bashing, but people paint you that way. We're not picking on homosexuals; they should have brought it up themselves."
Crawford has pledged to work with Jackson to "find some common ground. What I would hate to see is that we get no bill because of sexual orientation when there have been only four cases reported."
To that Jackson said, "Does the Attorney General think that four gay victims is just enough? I think it's four too many. I'm not supporting homosexuality; this is just the right thing to do. We may disagree with someone's sexual orientation, but this does not mean they are fair game for violent assaults. I want the attorney general to go on record that he's against violence against any South Carolinian."
Jackson acknowledges that state legislation against hate crimes may be political posturing but maintains that "sometimes it's important to send a message. What message is the attorney general sending by leaving women and gays out of his bill?"
Tony Snell, chairperson of the Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement, thinks that Condon is "appealing to the political right, and gays are a political football. Condon's running for governor, and is willing to bash gays to win the Christian Coalition vote."
When asked to comment on the omission of gays and women from the bill he is sponsoring for Condon, Wilkins said, "I haven't been asked that, I am willing to consider making the bill more inclusive."
The federal government passed hate crime legislation in 1990 that included both gender and sexual orientation.
In 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of hate crime legislation that dealt with violence, as opposed to laws that attempted to regulate hate speech or symbolic displays like cross burnings. Burning crosses as a symbolic act of white supremacy is legal, as long as you have the property owner's permission.
In 1993, SLED started keeping numbers on hate crimes for the feds. According to SLED's Uniform Crime Reports of Bias Motivated Incidents, there were 25 "crimes of bias" in 1993, 20 in 1994 and 26 in 1995. Seven out of the three-year total of 71 were listed as "anti-homosexual, two were recorded as "anti-ethnicity and two as "anti-religious."
Condon's bill, while it excludes gays as statistically insignificant, includes ethnicity and religion.
Hate crimes against homosexuals are seldom reported as such. Many gays are afraid of the repercussions such disclosure might invite.
"There is a lot of discrimination in South Carolina based on sexual orientation," said Columbia lawyer Pete Tepley. "We saw that in the anti-homosexual ordinances passed in Greenville and Spartanburg counties last year.
"Peoples' fear of losing their jobs also makes them reluctant to come forward and report that a crime was committed against them because they are gay."
Cops are often reluctant to categorize an assault as a hate crime, as it means more work for them. Some of them blame the victim for the circumstances.
Some argue that if people are reluctant to identify crimes against them as "gay bashing," what good would hate crime legislation do?
To that Tepley said, "We need hate crime legislation because it says that crimes of bias are heinous and need special punishment. This puts society on record, as well as the police on notice, and adds a little bit to making people more comfortable in reporting crimes of bias."
On the other hand, Tepley said, "If you leave sexual orientation out of the law, as the attorney general proposes, it says that there are groups of people who don't deserve to be protected against discriminatory violence."