The Evolving Idea of a Hate Crime in America

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Melissa Block talks with Brian Levin, a hate crime expert, who explains how prosecutors have typically filed hate crime charges, and how the laws can be applied to both minorities as well as whites.


To get some background on hate crime, we called on Brian Levin. He's director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. He says hate crime laws vary slightly from state to state. In California, Brian Levin says prosecutors only have to prove that membership in a group, racial, religious or other, was a significant cause of the attack, not the only cause.

BRIAN LEVIN: They look at, was there a substantial motivating factor relating to the victim's actual or perceived group affiliation? That can be established through the lack of any other apparent motive, through statements made at the time and the totality of the circumstances.

BLOCK: Now in this case in Long Beach, the defendants are all black. They're charged with hate crimes against whites, and there have been some people who've said that's an inappropriate application of hate crime law, that the original intent was to protect minorities. What do you think about that?

LEVIN: Certainly, the overwhelming majority of people who are attacked are people who have been traditionally victimized by these types of offenses. But the fact of the matter is, is the United States Constitution requires that we apply these laws evenhandedly. The 14th Amendment says that we must treat similarly situated groups equally. So to do otherwise would be unconstitutional.

BLOCK: And as the country's becoming more and more diverse, are you seeing a change numerically in how these laws are being used?

LEVIN: It varies by location. The really sad thing here, for instance, with regard to this case, is African Americans are far more likely to be the victims of hate crime. Thirty-seven percent of all hate crimes nationally are against African Americans, even though they're between 12 and 13 percent of the population. By the same token though, however, African Americans are somewhat more likely to also be perpetrators.

In Los Angeles County, though, where Long Beach is, we have another sad thing and that is the majority of racial hate crimes are by and between African Americans and Latinos. Only seven percent of the hate crimes in L.A. County are directed against whites. One last thing on that, though, however - when whites are victimized, we generally see more serious types of attacks against persons as opposed to property.

BLOCK: Brian Levin, thanks for talking with us.

LEVIN: Thank you so much for having me.

BLOCK: Brian Levin is director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

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