Obama Signs Hate Crimes Law

President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes bill, which extends the definition of federal hate crimes to include attacks against people based on gender identity, disability and sexual orientation.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in California.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington, where at the White House today, President Obama signed a new hate crimes bill into law.

President BARACK OBAMA: After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we've passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray or who they are.

SIEGEL: This law adds protections for people attacked on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this snapshot of hate crimes in America since the first hate crimes bill passed in 1968.

ARI SHAPIRO: This snapshot has some problems: It's out of focus, half exposed and someone's thumb is over part of the image. The government did not even start tracking hate crimes until 22 years after it first passed a federal hate crimes law. And even today reporting is spotty.

Mr. MICHAEL LIEBERMAN (Washington Counsel, Anti-Defamation League): It's disturbing that almost 4,000 police agencies across the country are not participating in the Hate Crimes Statistics Act effort at all.

SHAPIRO: Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League says police voluntarily report hate crimes to the FBI. If they don't participate, that's a gap in the government's knowledge.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: And almost 80 percent of those that do participate affirmatively report that they have zero hate crimes.

SHAPIRO: You find that hard to believe that there are actually zero hate crimes in those places.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: When one of the largest cities in America affirmatively reports to the FBI that they had zero hate crimes, that's very hard to believe.

SHAPIRO: Because similarly sized cities are reporting many more hate crimes.

Mr. LIEBERMAN: Exactly right.

SHAPIRO: Indianapolis, for example, is the 13th largest city in America. It regularly tells the FBI it had zero hate crimes. The entire state of Mississippi filed reports with the FBI for the last three years, saying there were no hate crimes in the state. In contrast, states like Georgia and Louisiana report hate crime figures in the double digits every year.

Then there are whole categories of crimes that the government is about to start documenting, like violence against transgender people.

Mara Keisling is with the National Center for Transgender Equality. She says her community documents an average of a murder every month. And her group recently did a national survey that found 3 percent of transgender people had been attacked in hospital emergency rooms.

Ms. MARA KEISLING (Executive Director, National Center for Transgender Equality): That's happening in emergency rooms. And believe me, it is. It's happening, you know, on the street. It's happening in the workplace. You know, trans people get slapped, hit, things thrown at all the time.

SHAPIRO: Now the government will track that, along with attacks on people based on gender or disability. The FBI already counts crimes based on sexual orientation, but this new law allows federal prosecution of anti-gay crimes for the first time.

Even with the statistical shortcomings, the FBI says crimes based on sexual orientation are the third most common type of hate crime in the government's annual survey.

Kevin Cathcart of the gay group Lambda Legal says he hopes this law provides a fuller picture of anti-gay violence in the United States.

Mr. KEVIN CATHCART (Executive Director, Lambda Legal): I think that we will get a better number and I think that that's important.

SHAPIRO: The government's statistics on hate crimes do show some clear trends. For example, crimes motivated by race are the most common, with African-Americans victimized more than any other race. Religion based crimes come in second; Jews are the most frequent victims there.

These numbers demonstrate short-term trends, too. For example, right after 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims skyrocketed. More recently, as the debate over immigration has intensified, attacks against Latinos have risen steadily.

Hate crimes cases are overwhelmingly prosecuted by state and local rather than federal authorities. And even with today's law, experts expect that to remain true.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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