Prosecuting hate crimes Legal recourse: Clinton looking for more than a national conversation on race relations.

November 16, 1997

ONE STUMBLING BLOCK to improved race relations is the attitude among too many Americans that nothing needs to be fixed. The relationships they may have with someone of another race have convinced them that everything is as it should be. The way they see it, no type of affirmative action is needed because the ground has become level and everyone is color blind.

It's important that a truer picture of America be painted for those who have deluded themselves into believing this land is already where it says it wants to go. President Clinton helped do that last Monday with a White House Conference on Hate Crimes. Participants told compelling stories of ethnic, religious and gender discrimination.

The president said he supported forthcoming legislation to add to the list of federal hate crimes acts commited against people because they are gay, lesbian, female or disabled. The Justice Department said reports of all hate crimes had increased last year to 8,759 from 7,947 in 1995. Race was a factor in 63 percent of the crimes; religion, 14 percent; ethnic origin, 11 percent, and sexual orientation, 11 percent.

The day-long hate crimes conference is part of the national conversation on race Mr. Clinton wants the nation to have. The ambitious effort has been criticized for not having an agenda beyond talking about discrimination. Even in announcing the proposed legislation to increase the penalties for hate crimes, the White House had to admit those prosecuted represent only a small portion of the guilty.

For every family that files a complaint others try to deal with hate crimes quietly. Just as damaging is the more subtle discrimination not expressed in violence or hurtful language. People are still denied jobs, promotions, loans, homes because of the way they look. Progress has come from firm enforcement of anti-discrimination statutes, but the sad stories told at the hate crimes conference remind us that the ultimate solution requires a change of heart that laws alone cannot force.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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