Young Men, Hate Crimes and the Courts

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In an examination of why young men perpetrate hate crimes, commentator Patricia Williams talks about a trial where the defense mounted a particularly unusual argument.

ED GORDON, host:

Over the last couple of weeks, we talked about the use of the n-word in a hate crime and a legal team's interesting defense of its use. This story has caused many of you to write us and voice your opinion.

Here's commentator Patricia Williams' take on the defense and the possible other side of it.

Professor PATRICIA WILLIAMS (Professor of Law, Columbia University): About a year ago, Nicholas Minucci, a young, white man, spotted an African-American man named Glenn Moore walking down a street of Minucci's neighborhood in Howard Beach, New York. Minucci leapt out of his car, accosted Moore, and employing a baseball bat he just happened to be armed with, beat Moore while spewing racial epithets, then stole his sneakers.

Moore ended up with two skull fractures.

Assault was not the main issue in the case. Rather, the question was whether Minucci's use of the n-word made this a hate crime as well. Just recently, a jury found Minucci guilty, perhaps influenced by the revelation that he had once shot a Sikh woman with a paintball gun, while shouting, you f-word Indians, you killed our people.

The defense in Minucci's case was premised on a flat claim: that the n-word had lost its hateful sting among youths marinated in hip-hop music. If the repeatedly offensive Mr. Minucci ultimately wasn't able to wring much mileage from that claim, I do fear it is a premise that has a lot of cultural cache, nonetheless, that the n-word is just part of the American idiom, the festal banter of the sports and music industries.

Indeed, Minucci's lawyers depicted him as a high-fiving, hip-hop loving, baseketball playing, born again neo-kinsman of Ludacris. As such, he was merely utilizing the n-word's most casual and non confrontational connotation when inquiring if Mr. Moore might possibly have lost his way. This is where it gets interesting I think.

Minucci's defense rested on a complicated kind of ventriloquism. He may have been an epithet-spewing white person beating up a dark-skinned victim with a baseball bat, but it's not a racial hate crime, because he was really performing the assault as a pseudo-black brother. Minucci attempted to align himself with what black speakers mean when they employ the n-word. His attempt was also signaled by hip-hop dress - the oversized basketball jerseys, the enormous sweat pants, the flat-brimmed, sideways-turned baseball cap, in which Minucci was pictured in the media's stock footage.

So here's what I wonder. Every day of the Minucci trial, I also read the police blotter. Every day I came across cases of black young men being charged with hate crimes for yelling things like honky or white trash, while shoving, hitting, throwing stones, and other clearly prosecutable and violent behavior. As in the Minucci case, this is important, because a charge of a hate crime can add years to a sentence for assault.

What I would like to know is if there's a parallel defense available for black defendants who want to put a white face on their behavior. If Nicholas Minucci could claim no hate intended because he lives his life in black-face, would it work, do you think, for black defendants to show that hurled words like white trash and you old, honky devil, are just hillbilly terms of endearment?

Would it be just as fair for black defendants to claim that they are so steeped in the culture of hockey, heavy metal, and Ann Coulter's trash-talking patter, that nothing more than well-meaning colloquial banter must be imputed? Would that make us love each other better or hate each other more?

And what would it take to hear ourselves, to see ourselves, more clearly?

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Patricia Williams is a professor of law at Columbia University in New York City.

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