More Equal Than Others

Hate-crimes legislation violates the principle that all are equal under the law

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Obama on Oct. 28, represents both the best and the worst of the modern-day civil rights movement. Given the current legal framework, it was outrageous that crimes committed against individuals due to their sexual orientation were excluded from the roster of hate crimes. By correcting this injustice, the Shepard Act accomplished something important. However, the act also upholds and perpetuates the noxious notion that crimes ought to be weighted by the nebulous standard of “hate”—a concept that should not have a place in our legal system. Without hatecrime legislation, all individuals would be treated equally under the law; the current system unfairly privileges certain groups with special protection.

Dark was the day that it ceased to be true that all crimes of equal magnitude were equally tragic, no matter the gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation of the victim, for that day also marked the transition from the tradition that crimes are an offense against society to the view that crimes are only an offense against the groups with whom the victim is associated. Ironically, this treatment of crime widens the chasms between groups rather than narrows them, for it actually perpetuates and legitimizes the belief that society is composed of compartmentalized groups instead of fundamentally similar individuals.

And why should this compartmentalization extend only to gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation? Religion, which is covered under existing hate-crime legislation, is as much a choice as ideology, so why not protect the latter? Should political leanings be placed under the umbrella of hate-crimes protections? Should this aegis be extended to include Neo-Nazis and Klansmen? Why not include hatred based upon weight, height, hair color, state of origin, sports-team affliation, or any other demographic characteristic under hate-crimes protections?

This inexorable ambiguity permeates all facets of what constitutes a hate crime, including the highly questionable notion that the repugnance of a crime escalates due to the intangible, unquantifiable impact that it has upon those to whom the perpetrator did nothing. Proponents of hate-crimes legislation posit that crimes committed against individuals due to their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation are particularly heinous due to the fact that they intimidate and offend all members of those groups. But all crimes, by their very nature, intimidate and offend more than just the victims, for crimes are affronts to society as a whole. Does a burglar not intimidate and offend all residents of the neighborhood in which his victims dwell?

The most pernicious implications of hate-crimes laws, however, are those tied to freedom of thought. America is a country in which everyone is entitled to his opinion, no matter how odious that opinion may be. People have the right to be offensive, so long as their views do not lead to actions that extend beyond speech or thought. But this premise complicates the legitimacy of hate-crimes laws. If racism is permitted legally but murder is not, then how can it be justified for murder borne out of racism to be treated more severely than any other kind of murder?

It is truly a paradox that those who clamor most ardently for the erasure of divisions between races also advocate most passionately for institutionalizing these divides by granting different groups different treatment under the law. They forget that law is supposed to be what unites a society, not cleaves it.


Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.