The era of lynchings has not passed

June 16, 1998|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- I have at least one cranky reader who is highly annoyed with news coverage of the recent lynching-by-dragging of a black man in Jasper, Texas.

We in the media are making a big deal of this killing, he said, while downplaying cases of blacks who attack whites.

The victim, James Byrd Jr., was dragged to death behind a pickup truck, leaving pieces of him strewn along the road. Three local white men reputedly linked to a white supremacist organization were charged with the murder.

Even President Clinton was moved to comment on the outrageous nature of the crime. My reader did not disagree. He hoped the perpetrators of the crime get what's coming to them.

But he also suggested strongly that I look up the FBI crime statistics. He implied that I would find many more cases of blacks attacking whites than vice versa.

"But you won't print that," he said.

Oh, yeah? He didn't say whether he thought I wouldn't print it because I was black, because I was a member of some liberal media conspiracy or both.

Either way, he was wrong. I, too, was curious, since I know my reader holds a widely held view, whether or not others are bold enough to express it. So I looked up the FBI's official hate crime statistics for 1996, the most recent year available, and I am delighted to print the results, especially since the results refute some commonly held misconceptions.

Out of 8,759 incidents reported under the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, 5,396 were motivated by racial bias. Of these, the 3,674 "antiblack" incidents outnumbered the 1,106 "antiwhite" episodes by more than 3 to 1.

There were also 355 "antiAsian/Pacific Islander" episodes, 51 "antiAmerican Indian/Alaska Native" and 210 that victimized someone for being a member of a "multiracial group."

Most of these incidents involved some sort of intimidation. Only eight reported racerelated hate crimes were murders. Of those, five were "antiblack," one was "antiwhite," one was "antiPacific Islander" and one was "antimultiracial group."

Since African Americans number only about onetenth of the nation's population, one might say that our victimization rate exacts an even higher burden in proportion to our population.

That's an important observation for those who have commented that they thought horrendous hate crimes were a thing of the past.

That's what people said after the killings of black men by whites in the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst sections of New York City.

At the same time, those images compete with images of Willie Horton and other blacks who notoriously attacked whites, like Reginald Denny during the Los Angeles riots or the female Central Park jogger in New York.

We Americans have come a long way in the past three decades. When my parents were growing up, lynchings of blacks were common public affairs in the South. Seldom was any white participant punished by the allwhite juries of that time, even in those rare occasions where someone was arrested. Sometimes participants sat on the juries.

Times have changed, but only after concerted action by the civil rights movement and other concerned citizens of good will. It is not enough to shrug off today's hate crimes as merely isolated incidents or, worse, some sort of racial payback for past sins against one's own racial group.

Nor is it enough to depend on new hatecrime laws that ratchet up the punishment for crimes motivated by group hatred. Not every attacker utters a racial epithet or some other overt expression of bigoted motivation.

Last year, for example, two white men were arrested in the decapitation and burning of a black man in Elk Creek, Va. The circumstances were remarkably similar to the murder of James Byrd. Yet, although the local sheriff consulted with the FBI just in case, he hesitated to charge the men with a hate crime because the victim and suspects had hung out together for several weeks.

Today's lynchings are more isolated than they used to be, but hate does not always speak its name. It only continues quietly to infect our society, poisoning relations in a nation that is only beginning to come to grips with its increasingly multiracial diversity.

Now is not the time, tempting as it may seem, to hide behind a veil of denial and pretend that hate crimes are merely isolated incidents. We will have hate crimes as long as we have hate. If we're looking for solutions, we won't find it by pointing fingers at others. We each need to point at ourselves.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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