"So when is the Southern Poverty Law Center going to file a lawsuit against the man who killed Mr. Patel?" This was only one of many comments I've seen since James Anderson died under the wheels of a big truck.
I want to say, "When we find out that his murderer was looking to kill an Indian or was shouting 'white power!' when he committed the tragic murder."
Some folks are very upset over, and confused by, the notion that some violent crimes are "hate crimes" and, thus, require an extra level of attention than other kinds of crimes.
This confusion is remarkable in the state of Mississippi--one that still suffers every day in myriad ways from our violent race past. It has caused continuing racial distrust and made the world stereotype us. It has kept us on the bottom of most indicators and contributes to our poverty, and our poor self-image.
Words matter. Let's consider the meaning of "hate." In "hate crimes," it has a specific meaning, as SPLC Research Director Heidi Beirich explains to Lacey McLaughlin in this week's cover story. It is a distinctive kind of crime, an attack on someone based on believing they are a member of a specific group that the perpetrator "hates." When you attack that person, you are attacking every member of that group. It could have been any of them.
And you are attacking the entire community. I think of my hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., a town that was broken for so long due not only to the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, but the fact that so few people in the town cared enough to do anything about it (until the multiracial Philadelphia Coalition formed a few years back and helped get Edgar Ray Killen tried and convicted).
Hate crimes are devastating to communities. They are a form of domestic terrorism, usually meant to send a larger message of violent supremacy. The attacker flexes his muscle and targets a member of a despised group because he can. He needs to prove something.
This is no way to run a society; that is why hate crimes should be treated with an extra level of legal response and community outrage. That does not mean that a different heinous crime, such as that committed against Mr. Patel or anyone else, should be treated in a lesser fashion than the law already allows. It shows a complete misunderstanding of hate crimes to argue that it means such a thing.
Society must send an additional message that our society does not tolerate group terrorism. Ironically, many people who want us to hunt down global terrorists don't believe the same scrutiny should be applied when victims are African Americans, homosexuals or other targeted groups right on our own soil.
It is even more absurd to argue that every crime is motivated by "hate." Even if you don't understand the meaning of the word as applied to hate crimes, this is a patently false argument. Many domestic murders and other kinds are motivated by passion or even drug or alcohol abuse. Many crimes are motivated by greed or the need to knock off a competitor.
Many things, other than hate of some group, motivate violent crimes.
So why the resistance to treating hate crimes like hate crimes and speaking out on behalf of communities that don't want to go through what so many towns in our state went through in the past? What could possibly be wrong with using the criminal-justice system to try to prevent hate crimes? This is especially true for young people coming out of households and schools where some family and friends think that, somehow, it is cool to be racist or homophobic. If the family and peers of a teenager aren't going to teach those lessons, society has to step in and send the message that such rhetoric and violence are unacceptable.
Of course, people who make the argument against hate-crime legislation are usually presenting a false dilemma: They make it sound like we must trade off prosecuting hate crimes with prosecuting other kinds of violent crimes. Ironically, it is often law-and-order-lock-em-up types who say that; somehow this kind of crime seems to deserve less scrutiny, to their thinking, because other kinds of crimes (such as those committed by black people, let's just be honest) aren't prosecuted enough.
In so doing, they are making it a race issue when it doesn't have to be. The truth is that many people of all races right here in Jackson and Rankin County do not want to see hate crimes destroy our community. If evidence surfaces that the man accused of killing Mr. Patel did it because he is Indian, then it should be treated as a hate crime. And considering that the SPLC has also targeted black nationalist groups as hate groups, in addition to groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Council of Conservative Citizens and the American Family Association (due to its vicious anti-gay stances), it could bring a lawsuit against people targeting Indian people. Good.
But whether it would or not, the issue here is how each of us respond to a hate crime individually and collectively. What kind of city and state do we wish to live in?
I remember growing up in Neshoba County and constantly hearing racist or hateful rhetoric, sometimes uttered by people I knew. In fact, of late it's remarkable how much I hear against our African American president, usually hidden inside urban myths being spread by anonymous bloggers and emailers, spreading (false) rumors that he attended Muslim prayers or stopped the National Day of Prayer (please run such rumors through snopes.com).
It was not easy then, and it is not easy now, to tell people you care about that this kind of rhetoric is offensive (yes, to white people, too) and unacceptable in a civilized society. But free speech flows both ways, and we must talk back. I've talked back and walked out of many hate-filled rooms over the years, and I can sleep at night as a result.
I urge each of you to speak up each and every time you hear hate and to not believe the liars who try to convince you that prosecuting hate crimes is somehow excusing other kinds. Nothing could be more stupid.
Don't forget: Troubled people, regardless of age, need to feel superior to something. They take this kind of rhetoric and use it to justify their actions. They did it back in Neshoba County in 1964, and they do it across the U.S. today. Don't let another James Anderson or James Byrd or Matthew Shepard die before you find the courage to call such rhetoric and violence exactly what it is. Hate.
So it dawned on me after this went to press that my "response" at the beginning would make more sense to say "black power!" than white power, being that the accused in the Patel murder is black.