Saturday, January 06, 2007

'I'm not a racist, but . . . '

'Regular people,' not members of hate groups, often commit acts such as LI menorah vandalism

Randy Blazak is an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University in Oregon and director of the Hate Crime Research Network, which conducts academic work on bias criminality

January 5, 2007

Hate happens in unusual places. As an undercover hate crime researcher, I found it in the expected locales - Klan rallies, skinhead parties and neo-Nazi meetings.

But the more time I spent in such circles, the more I came to appreciate that many hate crimes are committed by people who are not members of organized hate groups. Their justification often starts out, "I'm not a racist, but . . ."

Such people typically feel that the privileges they enjoy - by virtue of being representative of a majority race, religion and/or sexual orientation - are threatened. They fear being reduced to minority status and will commit crimes to stop change.

Indications are that the recent string of menorah vandalism in Suffolk County was the work of people with these kinds of fears. The destruction of three displays during the holiday season, a time when love is celebrated, fits with a pattern we see in hate crimes.

One menorah, outside the St. James Chamber of Commerce, for example, was knocked down while the Christian displays next to it were left untouched. Hate crimes often have a defensive religious motive behind them.

But other issues besides religion are at work among both "regular people" and hate groups. The key motivations sound like the contents of any newsmagazine. They include immigration, gay marriage, U.S. support of Israel and declining wages of workers. Klansmen think there are too many Hispanics sneaking across the border. Racist skinheads think gay marriage is an abomination. And neo-Nazis think the rise of terrorism and the outsourcing of American jobs are both connected to our support of Israel. "Regular people" also vent on such issues.

While crosses are still being burned and synagogues spray-painted with swastikas, hate has gone mainstream. That is, people in at least some otherwise respectable circles see that hatred can be used to affect social policy.

Thus, law-enforcement agencies seeking to curb hate crime have readjusted their techniques for dealing with the issue - adopting policies that respect constitutional rights and simultaneously recognize that hate crimes work as a form of terrorism. The FBI says 8,380 hate-crime incidents were reported to police in 2005. This number is a fraction of the actual number, as most hate crimes are not reported to police. The FBI also says only about 5 percent of hate crimes are committed by active members of hate groups.

Then who commits the other 95 percent? The Suffolk incidents offer some clues. There is no evidence that they were the work of organized groups.

What the FBI data does tell us about hate crimes is that there are patterns and trends. Anti-black hate crimes are the most common, followed by anti-Jewish crimes. Anti-gay hate crimes increase in an election year when an issue, such as a referendum on same-sex marriage, is on the ballot. After the 9/11 attacks, hate crimes against Arabs, Muslims and those who looked like them spiked dramatically. Anti-Hispanic violence has increased with increased rhetoric about the alleged threat of illegal immigration.

Each of these upswings in "regular people" getting involved in terroristic hate crimes is fueled by sensationalized and irrational fears - of gays destroying marriage, of terrorists, of Mexicans taking jobs away.

There is now a new player in the fear Olympics, the "war on Christmas." The United States is a diverse society with many religious traditions. Yet, Santa Claus has been winning the war on Hanukkah.

Americans who are considerate often say "happy holidays" to be respectful of others' different faith traditions. Not Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. He and Fox News anchor John Gibson (author of "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought") have been waging a two-man war against their imagined war on Santa and the baby Jesus.

The fear that our way of life is "under attack" is a powerful motivator. It worked to justify the invasion of Iraq, just as it works to motivate homophobic violence and anti-Semitic vandalism. Suburbs are the new battleground as straight white Christian men are told that somebody is trying to take their privileges away.

Bigots aren't all inbred sub-moronic rednecks. Just ask Michael Richards. They can be anyone being told to fear some alleged threat. They are the people who say: "I'm not a racist, but . . ."

Source: NewsDay

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