Tying Hateful Language to Criminal Cases

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What is the role of race and language in the offenses branded as hate crimes? Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams and Farai Chideya take a closer look.


Now for a look at the implications of the case, we turn to Patricia Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University. She's the winner of a McArthur Genius Award grant, the author of books, including the "Alchemy of Race and Rights" and a columnist for The Nation magazine.

Welcome, Professor Williams.

Professor PATRICIA WILLIAMS (Law, Columbia University) Thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: Do you suspect that whites and blacks in Long Beach are bringing different concerns to how justice should be done?

Prof. WILLIAMS: First of all, I want not to comment on the case. I do think that, as in so many of these high profile racialized cases, that the narratives are quite divided between blacks and whites.

And I do think the public discourse is something of ongoing concern that concerned our collective unconscious regardless of the facts in particular cases. But I was listening to the parents. In my mind, I was also listening to the statements of the young women who were assaulted in this case, and then the commentary in the media about the young women who were accused of committing this crime. Again, this is not to determinate the fact that the discourse in which the attackers - this is not an excuse for the attackers, they were called hyenas, were called savages, were called a pack of animals who don't belong in society.

And I think that kind of categorization, which is so related to heavily historically packaged stereotypes, is again a way of setting what's so troubling about the back and forth of this case's discussion.

CHIDEYA: Could the racial tensions in this community affect the ability to have a fair trial? And how do racial tensions in general play out - I know you can't talk directly about the case - but play out in general in the justice system?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, one of the things that concerns me is that the sort of national sense that began with the righteous indignation of the civil rights movement and a response to the long historical senses, a series of injustices that began in slavery that matured through Jim Crow which were fought out during the civil rights movement and then entered the discussion as hate crimes, is now being filtered to a kind of general backlash of reverse racism.

And so it seems to me there's entirely too much triumphalism around the question of blacks are the real racists. I think there's enough racism to go around in all directions. I think there's enough hate in this society to weigh us down for centuries to come.

But the degree to which reverse racism is now the currency of this discourse seems to me to be driving a sense that it is blacks who are the real racists as a way of not looking at this as a kind of mutually engaging, not just black and white, but one that afflicts all of us as citizens.

CHIDEYA: I just wanted to put in the context of hate crimes legislation. It seems, you know, through America's history of lynching and beyond into the present day you have cases in which not all African-Americans who were attacked received the satisfaction of seeing their attackers imprisoned. So hate crimes legislation really emerged out of that. Has hate crimes legislation traditionally been used against white defendants, white attackers, when they've attacked non-whites? Is this a reversal of how hate crimes legislation is used in general?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, I think hate crimes legislation is fairly recent. And again, it's been perceived I think in a kind of tension with hate speech. You had a case not so many years ago in Greenwich, Connecticut, as I recall, in some very wealthy suburb in Connecticut, in which a white team of football players goaded and provoked a visiting team from a largely minority and inner-city school by using the N-word and by butting heads in ways.

And I think one of the players said to a black player that, I think it was - it may have been the same or a different game, you may win this but, you know, in another year I'm going to be hiring and firing you and ordering you around. Or you'll be working for me I think was the word.

This was never categorized as hate speech, and I do think that the degree to which white offenses in this category become surrounded by the - almost enshrined as First Amendment liberty. This is about human beings acting viciously to one another.

That's what disturbs me about the vocabulary that greets these young people, I guess they're mostly young girls. That they don't belong in society or that they are not human, that they are savage, that they are animals and they're hyenas. I never heard that vocabulary used to describe in the media - in the larger media - even the people who dragged James Byrd…

CHIDEYA: Dragged him to his death in Texas.

Prof. WILLIAMS: …in the (Unintelligible). Yes. And when you look simply at how that hate, that categorious(ph) hate, is being prosecuted, I see the hate of whites more often handled as a free speech matter and the expressed statements of blacks who do virtually the same thing being handled as something which will send you to jail and incarcerated or doesn't belong in society. And therefore literally farmed like animals and disenfranchised in quite dramatic and drastic and disproportionate ways.

CHIDEYA: And finally, the judge in the case has not released the suspects from juvenile detention. They've been there for roughly 50 days. Is this typical treatment for juvenile assault suspects?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Unfortunately, I think it's becoming more commonplace. Some of that (unintelligible) jurisdiction by jurisdiction. But certainly we have entered a time when not only - I think it's 7 to 10 million Americans or most -blacks are the overwhelming majority of them - minorities are within the criminal justice system. We've become quite a hard-line society in terms of incarceration with very little attempt to rehabilitate within those institutions.

CHIDEYA: Well, Prof. Williams, thank you so much.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: Patricia Williams is a professor of law at Columbia University.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, a $100 million courthouse in Guantanamo Bay is called a waste of money and we discuss Washington's hottest stories on Political Corner.

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