Magazine article Newsweek

Why It's Important-And Almost Impossible-To Classify the Charleston Shooting as a Hate Crime; the Recent Church Massacre Occurred in a State with No Hate Crime Law. Does It Matter?

Magazine article Newsweek

Why It's Important-And Almost Impossible-To Classify the Charleston Shooting as a Hate Crime; the Recent Church Massacre Occurred in a State with No Hate Crime Law. Does It Matter?

Article excerpt

Byline: Polly Mosendz

Within hours of the shooting attack on June 17 that left nine dead in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, numerous authorities deemed the incident a hate crime. Both Charleston's police chief and mayor agreed, the FBI started investigating the shooting as such, and the Justice Department confirmed that the shooting would be treated as a hate crime.

The general public, too, mostly agreed with that call: After all, the suspect, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man who has made numerous racist comments, was seen on social media wearing the flags of formerly white-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia, and following his arrest, Roof reportedly said he had hoped to start a "race war."

"The only reason someone would walk into a church and shoot people that were praying is hate," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said.

But even if hatred was the motive, the local prosecutor won't be able to pursue such charges because South Carolina doesn't have a hate crime law. South Carolina, along with Arkansas and Georgia, is one of only three states lacking race, religion and ethnicity hate crime statute provisions, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Jack Levin, an expert in hate crimes and criminology at Northeastern University, says there's no blanket explanation for why those states haven't signed on. In South Carolina, hate crime legislation has been brought up in numerous legislative sessions, including every year between 2009 and 2014, and it will no doubt be debated again soon, in the wake of one of the deadliest shootings in the state's history. Two Charleston-based Democrats, Seth Whipper and Wendell Gilliard, are among the South Carolina legislators who have long tried to get such legislation passed, and Gilliard plans to redouble the effort. "I don't care if they call it a knee-jerk reaction," Gilliard told the Charleston Post and Courier. "I got to do what I got to do."

Though South Carolina has repeatedly refused to pass a law regarding hate crimes, modern hate groups in the United States have flourished since the 1990s. In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1,018 active groups in the country. In 1998, there were only 537 such groups. Since hitting that peak in 2012, the number of active hate groups has slowly decreased, to 784 in 2014, a number comparable to the early 2000s. The number of neo-Confederate groups on that list has shrunk since 2004, down from 13 percent to 5 percent of the total, but the number of racist skinhead groups has grown, to 15 percent of the total from 6 percent. The center also found that Ku Klux Klan groups had gone underground but not disappeared.

Roof was not immediately linked to a hate group, though photographs in his apparent manifesto indicate he has strong affection for the racist neo-Confederate movement.

This is not the 1950s when it comes to race, at least on the legislative front. But research by Spencer Piston, assistant professor of political Science at Syracuse University, suggests that Americans--including younger ones--are far from color-blind, to state the obvious. In that 2012 survey, people were asked to rate how intelligent and hardworking they considered white, black, Hispanic and Asian people. The survey found 64 percent of white, older people thought whites were more intelligent and worked harder than blacks, while 61 percent of those under 30 agreed with that statement. "White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population," Piston told New York magazine at the time of the survey's publication.

Even if it could be argued that racism and hate groups have diminished in America, awareness of the horrors they can perpetrate has grown, and specific punishments for hate crimes have taken on an important symbolism and often bring a harsher sentence. When someone is convicted of committing a hate crime, the original charge may be enhanced in court: A murder can become an aggravated murder; a second-degree felony may be increased to first-degree felony. …

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