Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes

Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes

Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes

Tough on Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes


Why do we know every gory crime scene detail about such victims as Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. and yet almost nothing about the vast majority of other hate crime victims? Now that federal anti-hate-crimes laws have been passed, why has the number of these crimes not declined significantly? To answer such questions, Clara S. Lewis challenges us to reconsider our understanding of hate crimes. In doing so, she raises startling issues about the trajectory of civil and minority rights.

Tough on Hate is the first book to examine the cultural politics of hate crimes both within and beyond the law. Drawing on a wide range of sources--including personal interviews, unarchived documents, television news broadcasts, legislative debates, and presidential speeches--the book calls attention to a disturbing irony: the sympathetic attention paid to certain shocking hate crime murders further legitimizes an already pervasive unwillingness to act on the urgent civil rights issues of our time. Worse still, it reveals the widespread acceptance of ideas about difference, tolerance, and crime that work against future progress on behalf of historically marginalized communities.


At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals
of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest,
international conflict. But we should learn to step back
to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this
directly visible “subjective” violence, violence performed
by a clearly visible agent. We need to perceive the contours
of the background which generate such outbursts. A step
back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our
very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance.

—Slavoj Žižek, Violence

IT IS TEMPTING TO begin a book on hate crimes with violence. The words themselves, “hate” and “crime,” evoke images of the most heinous acts of prejudicial assault. Within the U.S. mainstream cultural imagination, sadism, Nazism, and white power dramatize hate crimes stories. In considering the problem, we are invited to recall the same select few victims’ degraded bodies. We see Matthew Shepard, Christlike, through the dark Wyoming night. His frail form strung up against a cattle fence, the tracks of his tears cutting lines down his bloodstained face. We see James Byrd Jr.’s dentures, thrown from his decapitated head into a drainage ditch, the rest of his torso reduced to smears across a three-mile stretch of backcountry Texas road. Our collective memory preserves the physical reality of these victims’ suffering as evidence of bigotry’s evil.

The most “obvious signals” of hate crimes remain the swastika, the Klansman’s noose, and the skinhead’s buzzed skull. These potent symbols have come to satisfy our expectation of what constitutes a hate crime. But the expectation itself as well as the images that sate it are misleading. If we have internalized a particular image of hate crimes, that image is itself the end result of historically specific work on the part of cultural producers, national political figures, and . . .

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