Killing In Mississippi ... A Hate Crime?

In June, a black automobile worker was allegedly murdered by a group of white teens in Mississippi. Local prosecutors say the attack was racially motivated. A local detective testified that the teens traveled to Jackson just to "mess with somebody." To explore the issue of hate crimes, guest host Allison Keyes speaks with Southern Poverty Law Center president Richard Cohen.

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ALLISON KEYES, host: And now for a look at what this case means in terms of the racial climate in Jackson, Mississippi. We turn to Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. That's a non-profit organization that tracks extremist groups and which funds educational programs promoting tolerance. He joins us from the organization's offices in Montgomery, Alabama. Welcome, Richard.

RICHARD COHEN: Great to be here, Allison.

KEYES: So, based upon what we've been hearing about this case, is it a hate crime?

COHEN: Well, if the evidence that we've heard is accurate it is a hate crime. A hate crime is defined as one where the victim is chosen on the basis of or because of his or her race, ethnicity, religion, or the like. So from what we've heard this certainly sounds like a hate crime.

KEYES: I'm curious whether a hate crime in Mississippi or the definition of a hate crime in Mississippi is different than one might find in say New York or California?

COHEN: Well, you know, there are lots of variations among states. They typically follow the same kind of pattern. Again, if the issue is was the victim selected on the basis of an immutable characteristic such as race. That's a pretty common way to do it across the country.

KEYES: Your organization has an office in Jackson?

COHEN: Yes.

KEYES: Can you tell us, are there still racial tensions in that town and in the state of Mississippi?

COHEN: I mean, I think of course, of course. I mean, I think Mississippi has a, you know, sordid racial history and is still coming to terms with it. There's been progress made there. You know, you look at things like the prosecution of Byron de la Beckwith for killing Medgar Evers, the prosecution of Sam Bowers, the clansman for killing Vernon Damer, the president of the NAACP. So, you know, those happened in the '90s, Mississippi slowly coming to terms with its racial past, but there's still tremendous problems there. It's the state with probably the highest number of hate groups per capita.

One of the very prominent hate groups there is something called the Council of Conservative Citizens. That was a group that was literally built on the mailing lists of the white citizens councils. So, you know, we still have that element in Mississippi. Kim, earlier in the earlier segment talked about, you know, Jackson is a predominantly African-American city surrounded by white suburbs, white flight suburbs.

KEYES: Such as Brandon, where the teens charged are from.

COHEN: Exactly. You know, Jackson is approximately 80 percent African-American, and Rankin County, where these young men lived, is approximately 80 percent white. So, you know, we have that dynamic at work there.

KEYES: Richard, let me ask you briefly, Kim was talking about whether or not there was a culture among the white teens in that area that would cause a crime like this to happen or to be a thing that they would want to do. Is that what you're hearing from people in that area?

COHEN: Well, you know, we've heard speculation about that. And I think those are, you know, rumors that we're going to have to track down. I'd add, though, that what happened there, while Mississippi's past makes it a peculiar place, it's not completely unique. As, you know, as your listeners may know, there's a terrible crime in Patchogue, Long Island, shortly after Obama was elected, when a group of white teens went beaner hopping, their term for going out to beat up Mexicans.

A man, Marcelo Lucero, was killed as a result. An incident in Huntington Beach, where some white supremacist went into a predominantly Latino neighborhood looking for someone to hurt. So these kinds of basically hunting parties are not unknown to other areas of the country.

KEYES: Really briefly, Richard, there's a Facebook page in support of one of the suspects, John Aaron Rice. And his great aunt wrote that he's not a racist, a murderer. If anything, quote, "He's being tried by the media. He's suffering from reverse racism." And you have said that people in the South in small towns like Brandon feel kind of mischaracterized by the North. Is this indicative of that kind of thing?

COHEN: I think so. I think they feel many people in the South, many people in small towns in the South feel as if they are under a microscope, that there's a double standard that we hear, if there's a spectacular crime against an African-American, lots of press; but if the situation were reversed, one doesn't see that. And, you know, there's this sense of being aggrieved, to the sense of being the victims of double standards. And I think it's fairly prevalent in many areas in the South.

KEYES: Richard Cohen is the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks extremist groups and funds tolerance education. Thanks, Richard.

COHEN: Thank you.

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