Hate And Justice on Trial in Long Beach

12/13/2006 10:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's unprecedented! Nine black teen girls and one boy are charged with a racially motivated hate crime against whites in Long Beach, California. The Long Beach hate crimes trial of the girls has barely drawn a squint of national news, and only the barest of bare mention in the local press.

Yet the case has raised the thorny issues of racial divisions, racial violence, what is or isn't a racial hate crime, and a redefinition of what's legally permissible or not in a hate crimes case involving juveniles.

The only case that has come even remotely close to the Long Beach case is the prosecution four years ago of 10 black high school students in Charlottesville, Virginia. That case momentarily sent shock waves through the nation. The shock wasn't that they were young, black or were jailed. The shock was that their victims were white students who attended the University of Virginia. This cases also set off a deep and agonizing debate and soul search over whether blacks can be just as guilty and culpable of committing racially motivated hate attacks on whites, as whites have committed on blacks.

The facts in the Long Beach trial, as in Virginia, are much disputed. Prosecutors say that on Halloween night the teens viciously harassed, beat, and kicked three white women. They allegedly hurled racial taunts and insults at them before and during the assault, and that included screams of, "I Hate whites."

This is what made the case a racial case, and why prosecutors slapped the youth with a hate crimes enhancement. That charge carries an additional four years if the youth are convicted. Defense attorneys say that the teens did not assault the women, and that they were singled out solely because they were black, happened be in the area at the time, and were convenient and accessible targets.

The kids have no prior records, and from all appearances come from solid middle class and working class homes. One of the girls received a track scholarship to the University of Southern California. Are the teens the victims of malicious prosecutors or a mindless pack of violence prone teens? Prosecutors and defense attorneys will spend weeks battling each other to answer that question.

But it's the hate crime charge against black teens that is the most intriguing and tormenting. Traditionally blacks have been the targets of racially motivated hate crimes, and that hasn't changed in the past decade. According to the FBI's annual report on hate attacks in America, there are about 10,000 such attacks yearly. In more than half of the hate attacks, blacks are the targets. In the majority of these cases their assailants are white, usually adult white males, and even more typically a motley assortment of racist zanies, Neo-Nazis, Aryan Nations, Klansmen, the Order, and bikers, or are simply loose cannons from the racist crackpot fringe. In almost all cases, the hate mongers land in a federal court docket, on federal charges, and in almost all cases, they are convicted.

The black teens in Long Beach hardly fit the standard profile of a hate purveyor. But does that mean that they can't be? In the Long Beach case, the teens are not members of a hate group, and the attacks weren't premeditated. But they have been jailed since early November, are brought to court in shackles, and since they are juveniles, they are not tried by a jury, but by a judge. The judge has come under Constitutional fire for issuing an order to limit the right of defense attorneys to publicly cross-examine some prosecution witnesses, and to disclose their names. (The judge subsequently modified the order). Predictably, the case has drawn fire from local radio talk shock jocks. They have fanned hysteria about the case, and virtually convicted the girls, and the case has stirred racial tensions in Long Beach.

Local civil rights leaders have mostly taken hands off on the case. They are understandably conflicted by it. If the attackers did in fact target the women solely because they are white, they must be denounced, and even if race was not the sole motivation, the violence still should be denounced. But civil rights leaders also know the vicious history of hate attacks against blacks and they are loath, and correctly so, to rush to judgment and convict the teens, especially since a key prosecution witness, and even one of the victims, could not positively ID all of the attackers.
This doesn't or shouldn't give blacks a pass on hate crimes. They can commit them, just as whites, and others have, and they can commit them at any age. Was that the case in Long Beach? It's way too soon to answer that question. But one thing is certain; the Long Beach trial puts the issues of hate and justice uneasily side by side in a courtroom.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006).