I first developed a distaste for the notion of “hate crimes” when I became a victim of one.
Many of my American friends have trouble believing this (because, Michelle Bachmann excluded, most Americans are sensible, rational people) but in Britain I got picked on for the color of my hair. A lot.
So much so that I couldn’t even walk down a bustling street without getting catcalls of “Oi! Ginger!” and “Your head’s on fire!”
This casual abuse was worse in a relaxed setting like a pub. I can’t remember a single time in a busy bar — not a single time in a fifteen-year professional drinking career — in which some stranger didn’t come up and accost me because of the color of my hair.
“Do your pubes match your hair?”
The problem was drunken Brits tend to be naturally combative, so when I’d confront them on their behavior — politely but firmly explaining the sheer, fucking unacceptability of shouting vulgar abuse at a total stranger — I’d often end up backed into a corner trying to talk my way out of a fight.
(Anybody who rags on the concept of so-called “male privilege” needs to remember that this “privilege” includes being twice as likely to be the victim of a violent crime.)
The fact is, everywhere I went in England, I was singled out and target for abuse and even violence because of the color of my hair — and that was never considered a “hate crime.”
I’ve always found this somewhat difficult to swallow, because I didn’t understand the difference between picking on somebody because of the color of their hair as opposed to the color of their skin, or the suspicion that they might be homosexual.
This is why, even after I moved to a more civilized country like America, I have remained a fierce and vocal critic of the notion of “hate crimes.”
All Violence is Hateful
I’ve read about some truly horrific “hate crimes” in recent months — including a robber targeting gay men in west village here in New York, and a Hispanic man who beat a Long Beach resident about the face after overhearing him admit that he was gay.
And while those crimes sicken me, I find trouble separating how the motivation for them — petty, bigoted hatred — was any different to the way Giants fan Brian Stow was similarly targeted for assault in the Dodger’s stadium in L.A. last July.
Dodger’s fan Louie Sanchez confronted Stow because he was wearing a Giants shirt — then pursued him into the parking lot and punched and beat him into a coma (one in which Stow remains in today).
In my mind, targeting somebody for assault because of the baseball team they support seems just as horrific and arbitrary as assaulting them for their sexuality or skin color; yet one is classified as a “hate crime” and the other simply “assault and battery.”
They even have different severity of punishments. If Brian Stow had been assaulted because of his sexuality, the perpetrators would have been facing considerably stiffer consequences than they are for attacking him because of the sports jersey he was wearing. Yet, ultimately, Brian Stow’s injuries would have been exactly the same in either example.
Sending the Wrong Message
So what message does that send out?
I can understand the logic behind hate-crime legislation. It attempts to dissuade people from committing acts of violence against those traditionally most vulnerable to it.
If there are hefty consequences for targeting somebody who is gay, or Muslim, or disabled, it’s hoped people will think twice before victimizing them.
But ultimately, that sends out a very confusing message; because whatever the motivation behind violence — whether it’s a “hate crime” or not — the end result is always the same.
We shouldn’t be punishing people because of their motivation to commit violence; but because they committed violence in the first place.
Failing to Protect
The fact that Brian Stow didn’t have his skull cracked open because he was the target of a “hate crime” certainly won’t make his family or friends feel any better.
And his case illustrates the weakness is hate crime legislation. It fails to help people targeted for hateful abuse that don’t have the benefit of “hate crime” legislation protecting them?
Again, I can’t help but think of my own experiences; in which I was the target of violence and abuse simply because of the color of my hair.
On one night in particular, back when I was at college, I remember my friends and I being followed into an alleyway by three town kids taunting me for having ginger hair. I was punched in the head several times before we managed to make our escape, and report them to the police.
But their assault wasn’t considered a “hate crime” — even though it was clearly hateful. This is where I suffer the disconnect: I fail to see how casually assaulting somebody because of the color of their hair — or because they were English kids in Wales, or the college students as opposed to townies, or any of a million different reasons — is somehow more acceptable than assaulting them because of their skin color or religion.
And it’s not just flawed from a logical point of view; there are also legal issues to think of. One of the most immediate, of course, is the 14th Amendment: Equal Protection Under the Law.
If Person A is assaulted because they are gay, and Person B is assaulted because they were wearing the wrong sports jersey — and assuming they’re both injured identically — how is it “equal protection” under the law if the law pursues and punishes those who attacked Person A much more severely than those who victimized Person B?
The fact is, all violence is unacceptable; and treating some victims of hate differently from others doesn’t help in the struggle for racial, gender and sexual equality; but create even deeper and insurmountable disparity.