The Politics of Hate Crime Laws
This legislation [ethnic intimidation law] does more than punish. . . . It says something about who we are, and about the ideals to which this state is committed.
New Jersey Governor Jim Florio, August 1990
The proliferation of hate crime laws in the 1980s and 1990s should not be attributed to insufficiently severe criminal sanctions. There is no reason to believe that prejudice-motivated offenders, particularly those who commit violent crimes, were not or could not be punished severely enough under generic criminal laws.
In this chapter, we argue that the passage of hate crime laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s is best explained by the growing influence of identity politics. Fundamentally, the hate crime laws are symbolic statements requested by advocacy groups for material and symbolic reasons and provided by politicians for political reasons.
The past thirty years have seen a shift from emphasis on nondiscrimination to emphasis on race and group consciousness. The very success of the civil rights movement spawned a new "identity politics" that led Americans to define themselves and others in terms of race, religion, gender, and sexual-orientation. 1 According to political journalist Jim Sleeper:
Identity politics makes race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation into the primary lenses through which people view themselves and