Is Hanging a Noose a Hate Crime?

Are the repeated incidents involving nooses indicate an increase in racism? We talk about what they mean and how communities should react. Farai Chideya talks with Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

As the Jena Six case filled the headlines, so did the debate over whether nooses are still a potent symbol of race and violence. That debate has intensified with a spade of new incidents. Among them, this week, two nooses were found at a highway department garage in Long Island, New York - one of them around a tar-smeared doll. Last week, a Columbia University professor found a noose on her door.

Soon we'll hear from two commentators who have very different perspectives on how these incidents should be handled. But first, for some context, Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Hi, Mark.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Director, Intelligence Project, Southern Poverty Law Center): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So first off, do you consider a noose hanged in a public or private space a hate crime?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think it very much depends on the precise circumstances. It also depends what state it happens in. State hate crime statutes are quite different or at least somewhat different from place to place. So I really do think that it comes down to a jury question in most cases. What was the reason for the leaving of the noose? You know, did the person intend in fact to frighten or terrorize someone else?

Just this week, I read somewhere up in Wisconsin, you know, a couple has taken down a noose display as a part of their Halloween display. I think it's fairly obvious just from reading the reports that they didn't intend to terrorize or intimidate anyone.

CHIDEYA: Do you keep track of how many hate crimes are violent or attacks are violent versus nonviolent?

Mr. POTOK: Well, in fact, the government did a very important study a couple of years ago. And what it showed was, first of all, there are far more hate crimes than anyone knew - about 191,000 a year. But perhaps, even more interestingly and importantly, the data showed that 84 percent of all hate crimes are violent crimes, meaning they involved a sexual attack, robbery or assault or murder. By contrast, just 23 percent of non-hate crimes involve violence.

CHIDEYA: So from what you know, is the rash of this reported noose incidence on the rise or are they receiving more media attention?

Mr. POTOK: Well, there is no, you know, there is no absolute answer to that. There's no registry of noose incidents. That said, I think there's no question that this noose incidents are largely in reaction to Jena that we've seen, a real rash of, you know, I would say that we probably see in Southern Poverty Law Center maybe half a dozen of these incidents that for one reason or another cross our desk every year. So we've seen, you know, something on the order of 15 or more in just the last few weeks, yeah, and that really is quite a rash.

CHIDEYA: It sounds to me like you think that there's a copycat aspect to this following Jena.

Mr. POTOK: I do. I think there are really two things going on. I think, yes, there's a copycat aspect and that typically would be, you know, your teenager out there who thinks this is amusing or is angry at someone and knows that this will get a lot of attention in this noose environment. I think at the same time that the noose incidents really reflect a kind of wider white backlash against the events in Jena.

I think that many white people in the United States see Jena quite differently than certainly the Civil Rights Movement sees it. In other words, they see it as a simple six-on-one, black-on-white hate crime, and that's the end of the story. And then their minds, you know, the sort of politically correct media is covering this up and distorting this into a civil rights issue.

CHIDEYA: Mark, thank you so much.

Mr. POTOK: Well, thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: Mark Potok is director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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