Two weeks ago, Matthew Shepard was tortured and left to die on the high plains of Wyoming simply because he was gay. On June 7, a similar attack was made against James Byrd Jr., a black man in Texas. Both murders were followed by outpourings of grief and public rage, expressed in editorial comments and from political pulpits across the nation. These were appropriate if extraordinary responses to crimes against ordinary citizens, whose untimely deaths would otherwise have been unremarkable because they are all too common.
It was the fact that the perpetrators and victims were set apart by communal bigotries, for which the crimes served as particularly violent expressions, that made the acts seem so important. The enhanced sense of human depravity that colored the public reactions to these incidents lies in our shared conviction that their nature as hate crimes made them an outrage to the nation's sense of self, as well as a threat to its communal future. Well and good enough. These responses are signs of health in the body politic, the presence of a will to summon the better angels of our nature, and to keep the savagery that lurks beneath the surface of any civilized society firmly at bay.
But these expressions did not exhaust the public response to the two crimes. While libertarians and conservatives looked on in dismay, a coalition of radical and liberal activists, led by Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., and other gay spokesmen, mounted the Capitol steps in Washington to pressure Congress into passing a bill that would extend existing federal hate crimes legislation to also cover the categories of gender, sexual orientation and handicapped status, and to make all such crimes easier to prosecute. They were joined in the call by the president himself.
Legal concerns were immediately voiced by nonparticipants about the civil liberties implications of the proposed legislation. Probing the intentions of any perpetrator, and especially those involved in crimes against victims who were already the targets of community prejudice, posed troubling issues. For example: the temptation offered to aggressive prosecutors to postulate such intentions where none might exist. In a sobering column, George Will recalled a recent example of perverse legal reasoning when applying the hate crime standard. In 1989, a white female jogger was raped and beaten into a coma by a gang of black and Hispanic youths on a "wilding" rampage. The act was not deemed a "hate crime" by prosecutors, and the perpetrators did not suffer enhanced penalties under the law, "because they also assaulted Hispanics that evening. They got more lenient treatment because of the catholicity of their barbarism." Of course, the act they committed -- rape -- could be characterized as a hate crime in and of itself.
In the emotional melodrama unleashed by the murder of Matthew Shepard, the left has once again found its political oxygen. Temporarily thrown by feminist hypocrisies around the Clinton scandal, the left has recovered its balance with the prospect of once again rallying behind society's victims and against their victimizers. The absence of conservatives and libertarians among the Capitol protesters only serves to confirm the enduring sense of righteousness that fuels the progressive agenda.
This politics of the left is what George Will calls "a sentiment competition," which is "less about changing society than striking poses." The proposed multiplication of hate-crime categories, which stipulate that some crime victims are more important than others, would be what Will calls "an imprudent extension of identity politics." It would work against, not for, the principle of social tolerance.
A little more than a year before the attack on James Byrd in Texas, three white Michigan youngsters hitched a train ride as a teenage lark. When they got off the train, they found themselves in the wrong urban neighborhood, surrounded by a gang of armed black youths. One of the white teenagers, Michael Carter, 14, was killed. Dustin Kaiser, 15, was brutally beaten and shot in the head, but eventually survived. The 14-year-old girl (whose name has been withheld) was pistol-whipped and shot in the face after being forced to perform oral sex on her attackers.
Though the six African-Americans responsible for the deed were arrested and convicted, their attack was not prosecuted as a hate crime. Though they were all legally adults, ranging in age from 18 to 23, none of them received the death penalty. More to the point, most of the nation never knew that the crime had taken place. It was not reported on page one of the national press, and there was no public outrage expressed in national editorials or in the halls of Congress. Indeed, the few papers that reported the incident nationally did so on their inside pages.
Beyond the Michigan region, the stories often failed to mention the races of the participants at all. The crime took place on July 21, 1997, but among the readers of this column, there will not be one in a hundred who has even heard of it before. That is because as a hate crime it was in a sense politically incorrect. To notice that black people, as well as whites, can be responsible for vicious crimes of hate, is simply improper. Hate crimes can only be committed by an oppressor caste; therefore what happened in Michigan was not a hate crime at all.
Two years ago, the most celebrated trial of the century was about a black man accused of murdering two whites in what was apparently an act of blind rage. The idea that O.J. Simpson might have murdered his wife and a stranger because they were white was never even hinted at by the prosecution, although this was a case that was turned into a circus of racial accusations against whites by the defense.
The fact is that it is not OK in America to hate blacks, but it is OK in our politically correct culture to hate white people. Entire academic departments and college curricula are based on this idea. White people are the oppressors of minority communities and cultures. That is America's true legacy. There is even an academic field of "whiteness studies" to parallel black studies and women's studies. But the parallel is an inverted one. Blacks are celebrated in black studies and women are championed in women's studies. But whiteness studies (notice how the adjective has been modified) are devoted to the subject of how whites construct the idea of race to enable them to oppress others. Academics working in whiteness studies have their own magazine published out of Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard and MIT and one of the most liberal communities in America. The name of the magazine is Race Traitor, and its motto proclaims, "Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity." Under the influence of the left, our universities have become purveyors of racial poisons, but the rest of the country cannot notice this, because the targets of the hatred -- whites -- are not politically correct victims.
Hollywood understands this rule of progressive etiquette. A new film, "American History X," will for the umpteenth time feature white neo-Nazis as the villains of a homily about racial bigotry. The idea is that race hatred is synonymous with "skinheads" who are white. But a few years ago a sensational mass murder trial in Miami spotlighted a black cult leader named Yahweh Ben Yahweh, who required his cult members to kill whites and bring back their ears as proof of the deed. There was no Hollywood scramble for the rights to the Yahweh cult story, and -- partly as a result -- few Americans are even aware that it ever took place.
Last week a German tourist was shot to death in Santa Monica, Calif., in front of his wife and children. The trigger for the killing seems to have been his failure to understand the English commands of his attackers. The crime was committed by three African-Americans, though one would never know this from reading the Los Angeles Times or AP accounts. (I had to verify their racial identities by calling the Santa Monica police department directly.) The word "hate crime" never surfaced in connection with the deed, either in the press accounts or in editorial commentaries that followed. Now suppose that three whites had gone to a Hispanic neighborhood to rob inhabitants and had murdered a Hispanic immigrant because he could not speak English. Does anyone imagine that the press accounts would hide the identity of the attackers or fail to question whether it might be a hate crime?
According to Department of Justice figures, in 1993 there were 1.4 million crimes involving interracial violence nationwide. Eighty-five percent of them were committed by blacks against whites. A white is 50 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime committed by a black person than the other way around. Not surprisingly, the first hate-crime conviction to be appealed to the Supreme Court involved a black perpetrator and a white victim. The politically righteous, who are pushing the current legislation, will be in for some surprises should the law they are proposing go into effect.
How many of the interracial violent crimes committed by blacks and other minorities are actually hate crimes? In fact, there is no real way to tell. Of course, the leftist university, which gave us the concept of political correctness, has a ready answer for the question: Only whites can be racist. The alleged reasoning behind the assertion is that in our society only whites have power. This is an obvious absurdity that only an intellectual could think up. Forget the thousands of public officials great and small, police chiefs, judges, administrators and members of Congress, petty bureaucrats, corporate executives and military officers, who are now drawn from the ranks of minorities. At the most elemental level, a black outlaw with a gun -- and there are many -- has the power of life and death over an unarmed, law-abiding citizen of any race or color.
The doctrine that only whites can be racist is itself an instigation to commit hate crimes. Moreover, it has now apparently spread to the secondary school system. Last week, a Seattle father called in to a national radio talk show that I happened to be on, and told the audience that his son's class in junior high school had been discussing the hate crime concept because of the Shepard killing. During the discussion, the teacher informed the class that only heterosexual whites could be racists. Responding to this idea, the caller's son brought up the savage beating of Reginald Denny during the Los Angeles riots by a group of black gang members. Surely, he suggested, this was a hate crime. But his teacher corrected him. Even though Denny was pulled from his truck solely because he was white, and then beaten within an inch of his life, he could not be the victim of racial poisons. The attempted murder of Reginald Denny was actually an act of rebellion by people who were themselves the victims of a white racist system, and therefore the act they committed could not be considered a hate crime.
That is why I will not join Rep. Frank and the left in promoting politically correct hate crime legislation, creating a few more specially protected categories among us as a kind of human "endangered species" act. Sorting Americans into distinctive racial, ethnic and gender groups, and designating whites and heterosexuals to be "oppressors" -- and therefore legitimate targets of hate themselves -- becomes a way of exacerbating rather than curing the hate problem.