Hate Crimes in US History

One of the things that makes the recent hate crimes in the United States so shocking and outrageous is that they seem to go against the grain of American life. They’re out of character, and un-American. But, if I can paraphrase what one fellow historians, David Silkenat, said recently, “The citizen in me hates what is happening in America now. The historian in me knows that this has always happened in America.”

In the wake of everything that happened last week, several of you have asked me about the history of hate crimes in the United States, and if I’d do a show on it. It’ll take a while for me to produce a show on the full history of hate crimes, but since it’s a topic on many minds right now, I’ll say a few very general things about that history. And then we’d like to play for you again the show we previously did on the KKK. It addresses many of the underlying issues of hate and bigotry that seem to be continually with us in the United States.

In recent decades, “hate crime” has been defined as a crime motivated by bias or prejudice at least partly because the victim belongs to a race or social group, and that the perpetrator of that crime seeks to go beyond a “simple” crime, and to express hatred toward the group that the victim represents.

Although “hate crime” wasn’t used as a description in 19th century America, the Civil Rights Act of 1871 addressed exactly the same idea. The Ku Klux Klan and others had committed, essentially, hate crime against African-Americans during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, and the 1871 Act was needed to add extra gravity to racially-motivated crimes, especially murder.

The 1968 Civil Rights Act broadened the meaning of “hate crime” to include “religion and national origin.” And subsequent Federal Laws from the 1970s to the 2010s have widened the circle of potentially-affected groups, as American society has become more aware of the need for such laws.

Since “hate crime” has had this specific legal meaning in recent decades, historians have been naturally wary of applying the phrase “hate crimes” to the worst expressions of hate and bigotry in American history. It’s a phrase that could be seen as technically anachronistic since it wasn’t commonly used until the late 20th century. Well, apart from the concerns of historians of language, this is unnecessarily finicky in ordinary conversation. Lynching and other outrages were clearly hate crimes. And, of course, any reasonable person would consider that the nearly systematic removal, and worse, of Native Americans from their homelands was a hate crime.

At times like this, when there are killings motivated by race hatred and religious bigotry, we’re often prompted to look back on “the good old days” when these things didn’t happen. Unfortunately, tragically, horribly, there was no time when these things didn’t happen. Yes, the increased ownership of assault weapons seems to have made murderous hate crimes all too easy these days. And there’s no excuse for letting that happen in a modern society today.

But there was no excuse for letting lynching happen. There was no excuse for letting the murder of Emmett Till happen. And, since we all ought to know about these things, and be stunned by their constancy in American history, there’s no excuse for failing to fight much harder than we ever have to try to eliminate them.

It would be a wonderful thing indeed if, one day not far off, the innate historian in all of us could factually say, “these things used to happen in the United States, but not any more. We’ve become genuinely stronger than hate.”

And so here’s our previous episode about the KKK, and I’ll talk more with you next week.

283 Buzzkill Bookshelf

Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (2004).

The mother of Emmett Till recounts the story of her life, her son’s tragic death, and the dawn of the civil rights movement—with a foreword by the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

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