THE presence of "hate" crimes in the United States today is sobering. But the situation is not hopeless.
Reported incidents of violence, vandalism, and threats motivated by bias continue to increase. "White supremacist" groups number more than 200.
Most troubling, according to law enforcement officials and civil rights groups, is the growing number of "skinhead" gangs that have been noted in at least 100 cities. Such groups are marked by obsessive violence and a willingness to attack a broad range of "enemies" - blacks, Asians, Hispanics, homosexuals, Jews, and rival skinheads. (Last week in Vancouver, Wash., a skinhead was sentenced to 11 years in prison for beating a fellow gang member to death.)
At the same time, there are new efforts to curb hate crimes. More than 40 states now have laws banning such activities as paramilitary training and religious desecration. Federal officials are using civil rights laws to prosecute skinheads who attack minorities. (In March, the first such case resulted in five Dallas skinheads being convicted of civil rights violations, sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and ordered to pay reparations to a synagogue and Jewish community center that had been vandalized.)
Courts are awarding huge sums to victims or their heirs. Rallies by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups often bring out more counterprotesters than members, indicating growing public awareness and revulsion.
Comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, but reports from around the country indicate the problem is escalating:
- The Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations reported 378 hate crimes in 1989, the highest figure in 10 years.
- In New York City last year, crimes involving bias jumped to 541 - more than double the previous year.
- The Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, reported that hate crimes in its five-state region jumped from 60 to 263.
- In Boston, hate crimes are creeping back up after years of decline.
- Oregon officials reported last week that hate crimes in the state had increased 40 percent in the second quarter of 1990 over the same period last year.
- The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'Nai B'rith recorded 1,432 anti-Semitic incidents in 1989, the most in the 11 years the organization has been keeping such figures. These included a 200 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents involving skinheads and a 30 percent increase on college campuses.
"Who knows why there's been an increase in hate violence around the country in the last few years," says Danny Welch, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Klanwatch Project. "A lot of people would say the general atmosphere in America has changed. Civil rights and racial toleration are not taught the way they were during the civil rights period."
Mr. Welch, a 10-year veteran of the Montgomery, Ala., police department, observes that while membership in white supremacist groups appears to have stopped growing, the relatively new phenomenon of skinheads adds to the overall violence. "A 17-year-old is not thinking about what's going to happen to him if he does this like a 35-year-old man with a wife and kids will," he says. "That alone contributes to some of the violence and racial attacks that have been going on." In New York City, 70 percent of those arrested for bias crimes are younger than 19 and …