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News from PrisonerActionNet

Hate crimes are not just about race and not just about hate

25 years of public debate and professional reflection on the causes and responses to crimes of intolerance


This article by Gerard Lemos is from a new book, Curing Violence:How we can be a less violent society 


The emergence of ‘hate crime’

In 1993, the public's attention was conclusively drawn to racially motivated hate crimes by the death of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager out for the evening with his friend Duwayne Brooks, who was stabbed and killed by a group of white young men.  Largely through the determined and persistent campaigning of Stephen's parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, and their supporters, the case and the inadequate police response which failed for many years to bring anyone to trial (only two of the alleged perpetrators were convicted many years after the murder) became a cause celebre.

Following the murder, a much wider public debate took flight about the state of race relations in the UK and, in particular, the behaviour and attitudes of the Metropolitan Police to crimes when the victim was black and the perpetrators were white.  Eventually, a public inquiry was launched chaired by Sir William Macpherson who confirmed, among many other findings, that the police were in his view 'institutionally racist'. This term was championed by campaigners to describe the wider interaction of prejudice and discrimination in organisations which in the case of the police led them to take crimes committed against black people less than seriously, while they were all too ready to suspect black people of crimes, often with little justification.

But the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence was certainly not the first high profile racially motivated crime. Nor was it the first time that officialdom, in particular the police and the prosecuting authorities, had been enjoined to take crimes motivated by prejudice and discrimination more seriously, to recognise the nature of the motive and to seek sentences for conviction which gave weight to the added importance of the racist motive, in order to both set an example to others as well as to draw the attention of the perpetrator to the additional seriousness of their crime. 

Violent crimes were also not the only cause of concern.  Neighbour disputes, which were tremendously intimidating for the victims for example or the persistent shouting of intimidating and racist verbal abuse at Asian mothers as they took their children to local schools, or at the other extreme, harassment and attacks by neo-fascist groups (such as the now largely defunct British National Party and National Front), also served to reduce the lives of some black and minority ethnic people,  families and communities to intolerable levels of fear and stress.

These other incidents, which did not fall so squarely into the definitions of crimes to be investigated and prosecuted by the police, often went unaddressed by the authorities, not just the police and the prosecutors, but also social landlords.  The British Crime Survey since the 1980s has persistently found that some individuals and groups experienced attacks and harassment at levels of frequency which were way in excess of any serious attempts to deal with these incidents, much less to put a lasting end to the harassment, abuse and attacks. 

The evolution of ‘hate crime’

As time has gone on, it has also become clear that black and minority ethnic people are not the only people to be targeted for violent crimes for reasons of intolerance. Lesbians and gay men have also been targets, notably in the nail bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho in 1999, trans-gender people and people with physical and learning disabilities are all victims of crimes motivated by prejudice, intolerance, the perception of a particular group as inferior, weak and therefore deserving of denigration and exploitation in some cases.  Religion can also be a motivator of intolerance and aggression, now commonly characterised by the term 'Islamophobia. The 2017 attack on the Finsbury Park Mosque by a man driving into a group of worshippers serves as a case in point.

Understanding ‘hate crime’

Whether 'hate' is an accurate description of the variety of motives in these cases is debatable.  Without doubt, however, intolerance, prejudice and discrimination were important features both of the manner and the matter of the crime.  How do we then derive a more nuanced set of interpretations of these types of violent incidents in ways that will help us both to prevent incidents occurring in the first place and responding effectively when incidents are committed?  Researchers (such as Levin and McDevitt of Northeastern University) have sought to derive meaningful typologies to help understand motivation and its relation to different types of incidents. 

Mission offenders are those motivated by prejudices so strong that they feel themselves to be on a ‘crusade’. These are extreme emotions that appear to justify extreme actions in the minds of their promoters.  Terrorism can be seen as this most extreme form of hate crime.  Fortunately, it is also the rarest.

Thrill-seekers are often immature and motivated by a warped sense of what will bring excitement and drama to their lives, of which the complaint is often that they are ‘boring’.  Prejudice does not necessarily run very deep in this group, but the willingness to act on impulse and take risks without regard to consequences often amplifies their latent prejudices into acts of aggression, frequently perpetrated under the influence of alcohol and in groups, egged on and congratulated by one another.

Defensive attackers are people who feel that there is something that they need to protect – the traditional (and perhaps excluding) lifestyle and culture of their neighbourhood or removing a (usually erroneously) perceived danger to their children’s safety. They tend to persist in the belief that their actions are justified even when challenged by the authorities and assert that many others in similar situations would do the same did they but have the courage of their convictions.

Responding to ‘hate crime’

The salience of this typology is not just for the purposes of academic tidying up.  Which type of offence is being committed speaks strongly to what would be the most effective official response. 

The increasing recognition of racially motivated and other hate crimes in the 1980s and 1990s led to an acceptance by legislators and courts that an intolerant motive aggravated the crime and therefore attracted a higher tariff. This was intended to be both penal and exemplary.  While that was an understandable response to campaigning pressure, it did not really answer the post-conviction question of who should do what to seek to make a lasting beneficial change to offenders’ behaviour.

Important work in this regard was done by Liz Dixon at the London Probation Service and Andy Stelman, then part of Merseyside Probation Service, to address explicitly and constructively the motives, attitudes, behaviour and consequences of racist offending.  They focused on strengthening feelings of positive identity and self-esteem such that others were not seen either as a threat or so weak (even weaker than your own secret self) that they could be attacked with impunity. They also focused on positive association, good friends and engaging social lives and only lastly on the further risks and consequences up to and including imprisonment for further trouble with the law. Perhaps most importantly they placed considerable emphasis on inculcating empathy for the victims.

In my own work on attacks on people with learning disabilities, I have noted both common characteristics among those likely to be the victims and the perpetrators as well as trends in the nature of the crimes.  Financial and sexual exploitation appear to come high on the list of perpetrators’ intentions and actions. Cruelty and exploitation is therefore perhaps a more accurate description of what is going on than hate crimes.  The vulnerability of the victims appears to stem from their loneliness and sense of exclusion from an unwelcoming and intolerant wider society. Indifference seems to prevail even among those who are not themselves actively cruel or exploitative. Remedies for that exclusion lie in civil society and, in our work, we have focused on the opportunities offered by the arts and faith communities, as well as the importance of financial capability as an enabler of safe independence.

One could also focus on sport, rambling, cycling clubs or any number of other social groupings which speak to the quieter aspects of British civic life which repeatedly proves itself more durable than more high profile but evanescent activities driven by politics, celebrity and media.  These everyday person to person activities are also less susceptible to the undoubted dangers which sit alongside the undoubted benefits offered by online experience. Notwithstanding the huge benefits of the newer technologies, they are also a recent and rapidly amplifying zone of vocal intolerance and hostility, notably for example in relation to anti-Semitism.

Rethinking ‘hate crime’

One recognises the value of a term such as ‘hate crimes’ as a tool for campaigning. Sometimes there is a need for strong language to overcome official indifference or intransigence, but the term hate crimes does not work as a policy framework beyond the recognition of the need for a higher tariff by the courts.

The broad front of civil society as well as criminal justice responses I have articulated will in the end have more lasting benefit. These engage criminal justice actors, in particular probation officers, but even more so voluntary groups and the wider community.  The meta-goal here is that prosecution and punishment are only an educative starting point for policy intention. Victims and members of vulnerable communities will feel infinitely more satisfied with a convincing assurance that the hostile, aggressive or intolerant behaviour can be prevented, stopped and will not recur. That is always more effective in bringing closure and a lasting feeling of security than the simple sight of an offender being locked up.    




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