The Social Construction of a Hate Crime Epidemic

By Jacobs, James B.; Henry, Jessica S. | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Social Construction of a Hate Crime Epidemic


Jacobs, James B., Henry, Jessica S., Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. INTRODUCTION

Although definitions vary from state to state, "hate crime" generally means a crime against persons or property motivated in whole or in part by racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation and other prejudices.! Politicians, journalists, interest groups, and some criminologists insist that the United States is experiencing an across-the-board hate crime "epidemic." The use of the epidemic metaphor is meant to dramatize a sharply accelerating hate crime rate. Assertions that a hate crime epidemic exists are almost always accompanied by recommendations for new "hate crime laws" that increase minimum and/or maximum punishment for offenders.

This Article attempts to deconstruct the claim that the United States is experiencing a hate crime epidemic. Drawing on the "social construction of reality" perspective,(2) we attempt to show how the "reality" of a hate crime epidemic has come to prevail. First, we examine the hate crime epidemic hypothesis and identify its proponents, including advocacy groups, the media, academics, and politicians. Second, we examine the hate crime data collection efforts of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Southern Poverty Law Center's Klanwatch Project (Klanwatch) and the FBI; figures from these groups are widely used to confirm the existence of the hate crime epidemic. Third, we demonstrate the political and subjective nature of counting hate crimes. Fourth, we offer some contrarian observations on the status of hate crimes.

II. CONSTRUCTION OF THE HATE CRIME EPIDEMIC HYPOTHESIS

Many commentators assert that the rates of all types of hate crimes taken individually and together have reached epidemic levels. In this section, we consider how the hate crime epidemic has been constructed. We first consider the epidemic metaphor. Then we show how some advocacy groups have used the metaphor to dramatize their groups' plight. Finally, we focus on the roles of the media, politicians, and scholars in fostering the belief that a hate crime epidemic exists.

A. "EPIDEMIC"?

According to Webster's dictionary, an "epidemic" is a phenomenon "affecting or tending to affect many individuals within a population, community or region at the same time; excessive, prevalent; contagious."(3) The Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention says "an epidemic occurs when the incidence of a condition is higher than normal or higher than what health officials expect."(4) Proponents of social problems, believing that the more serious their problem, the more persuasive their demand for action, have appropriated the term "epidemic" to mobilize public attention and government resources. Calling a social problem an "epidemic" implies the existence of a crisis, a calamity that demands immediate political and social action.(5)

Hate crime is so often referred to as an "epidemic" that one might well believe that there is a solid foundation of facts documenting that this social problem is out of control and getting worse. To take just a few examples: Steven Spielberg, the movie producer, told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that "hate crimes are an epidemic curable only through education:;(6) Leo McCarthy, Lieutenant Governor of California, declared that "[t]here is an epidemic of hate crimes and hate violence rising in California";7 Mississippi State Senator Bill Minor warned, "this is the type of crime that easily spreads like an epidemic";(8) a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle declared that "hate-motivated violence is spreading across the United States in 'epidemic' proportions."(9)

B. HATE CRIME EPIDEMIC PROPONENTS

The leading proponents of a hate crime epidemic thesis are advocacy groups representing gays and lesbians, Jews, and blacks; advocates for women, Asian-Americans, and the disabled also have demanded explicit inclusion in hate crime legislation.(10) By calling attention to the criminal victimization of their members, these advocates may hope to mobilize law enforcement resources on behalf of their members, and, more broadly, to make out a moral and political claim in furtherance of their groups' agenda of social and political goals. …

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