An informed campaign improves its effectiveness. Determine if a hate group is involved, and research its symbols and agenda. Understand the difference between a hate crime and a bias incident.
Eruptions of hate crimes generally produce one of two reactions: apathy (“It’s just an isolated act of by some kooks”) or fear (“The world is out of control”). Before reacting, communities need accurate information about those who are spouting hate.
The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks more than 900 organized U.S. hate groups, virtually all white supremacists but including black separatist groups as well. Some are tiny — a handful of men — but armed with a computer, e-mail and a website, their reach can be immense, their message capable of entering a child’s private bedroom.
In their literature and websites, hate groups rail at growing immigrant populations that will make whites a minority in this century. Like some of their brothers-in-arms in militia groups, they also spread fears of losing control of America to a “One World Government” dominated by Jewish bankers, multinational corporations and the United Nations. More often than not, members of hate groups blame scapegoats for their personal failures, low self-esteem, anger and frustration. They frequently act under the influence of alcohol or drugs, recruiting disaffected teens through music and other means.
Though their views may be couched in code words, members of hate groups typically share these extremist views:
• They want to limit the rights of certain groups.
• They want to divide society along racial, ethnic or religious lines.
• They believe in conspiracies.
• They try to silence any opposition.
• They are antigovernment and fundamentalist.
And yet, most hate crimes are not committed by members of hate groups. The SPLC estimates that fewer than 5 percent of hate crimes can be linked to members of hate groups. The majority appear to be the work of “freelance” perpetrators, typically young males who are looking for thrills, defending turf or trying to blame someone else for their troubles. Rarely are they acting from deeply held ideology; instead, they attack targeted groups randomly, choosing whoever is convenient. While these young men act independently, it is hate groups — mixing stereotypes with a culture of violence — that often provide the dehumanizing rhetoric that may foster such attacks.
When Hate Hits Your Doorstep
In 2003, Rebecca Hines walked out of her Montgomery, Ala., home to find hate at her doorstep. It arrived in a way hate often arrives: an anonymous flier from a known hate group.
The leaflets, placed in plastic bags and weighted down with everything from pennies to cat litter, were filled with racist and anti-immigrant propaganda. They echoed the 14-word anthem of many white-supremacist groups: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
Hines used the incident to educate her two preteen sons about hate groups.
“This is an ugly thing to happen, but it is a way to start that dialogue with your kids, too,” she said. “It’s better than waiting for them to find out on their own.”
Hines also brought the leafleting incident to the attention of her neighborhood association.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” said another neighbor, Danna Goodson. Goodson picked up leaflets from other neighbors’ yards and called police. “I just felt dirty after looking at it; I wanted to go and wash my hands.”
Leafleting is a common practice of U.S. hate groups. It happens across the country, in cities small and large. Typically, no laws are broken. But it’s important to report the incidents to police so they can track hate groups.
Joe Roy of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks U.S. hate groups, said leafleting is a form of recruitment that can lead to new hate-group chapters forming in a community.
“By keeping up with how often a group is leafleting, and what group is distributing, authorities can get an idea of how active a group or chapter is in the area, and how sophisticated,” Roy said.
Roy and others advise taking the following steps:
>> Contact city officials about the incident. They can denounce the hate activity publicly.
>> Learn common hate-group slogans and symbols, so you can recognize any further activity.
>> Talk to your children, your neighbors and others about the incident, sharing what you know about the hate groups involved. Use the incident as an opportunity to reinforce your own values about tolerance and acceptance.
>> Offer additional support to targeted neighbors. If the leaflets focus on specific residents or homes, create neighborhood-watch teams, hold vigils and show solidarity.
What's a Hate Crime?
A hate crime must meet two criteria:
• A crime must happen, such as physical assault, intimidation, arson or vandalism;
• The crime must be motivated, in whole or in part, by bias.
The list of biases included in hate crime statutes varies. Most include race, ethnicity and religion. Some also include sexual orientation, gender and/or disability. In some cases, these statutes apply only to specific situations, such as housing discrimination.
As you respond to a hate crime, check specific statutes in your area, then consider working to add missing categories, such as protections for people who are gay, lesbian or transgender.
What’s a Bias Incident?
A bias incident is conduct, speech or expression that is motivated by bias or prejudice but doesn’t involve a criminal act.
What’s the Difference?
Hate crimes, if charged and prosecuted, will be dealt with in the court system. They typically carry enhanced penalties, such as longer sentences.
Bias incidents occur with no clear path or procedure for recourse.
Both, however, demand unified and unflinching denouncement from individuals, groups and entire communities.
What’s the Impact?
Hate crimes and bias incidents don’t just victimize individuals; they torment entire communities.
When someone scrawls threatening graffiti targeting Asian Americans, for example, the entire community of Asian Americans may feel frightened and unsafe, as may members of other ethnic or racial groups.