A well-known local civil rights activist drew applause and praise when he announced that he planned to lead a walk against hate two days before Christmas in support of victims of racially motivated violence in Long Beach, California. In years past, that would have scarcely raised an eyebrow and drawn only the barest of media coverage since civil rights groups have held countless marches and demonstrations in past years against white on black hate violence. Local and national civil rights leaders almost certainly would have eagerly endorsed the walk.
But this time, none publicly endorsed it.
The walk was not in protest of black hate violence. The victims are not blacks. They are three white women. They were brutally beaten on Halloween night in Long Beach. Ten black teens are charged with the attack. During the attacks the blacks allegedly hurled racial insults, and taunts that included shouts of "I Hate Whites." That prompted prosecutors to slap eight of the teens with a hate crimes charge. The hate charge raised two thorny questions: Can and do blacks commit hate crimes? And if they commit them, what should civil right groups say and do?
That second question is even more perplexing and conflicting. That was plainly evident during a contentious meeting Long Beach officials called in mid-December to ease racial tensions stemming from the attacks. Blacks were deeply divided over the issue. Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope, who organized the anti-hate walk, challenged civil rights leaders to break the code of silence on hate violence when blacks are the accused attackers, and whites are the victims. The editor of Long Beach's black newspaper hotly disputed that there was any racial motive in the attacks, blamed the white women for provoking the violence, and accused prosecutors of overkill in piling on the hate charge.
In the last century no issue has ignited more fear and outrage, sparked marches, demonstrations, and even riots, and prompted demands for tougher laws, prosecutions, and prison sentences among civil rights groups, than the issue of racially motivated hate violence. Race violence is so emotionally tormenting that civil rights leaders still demand that federal and state prosecutors reopen, investigate and vigorously prosecute the slew of still unsolved racial murders in the South from four decades ago. They have heaped much praise on the handful of Southern prosecutors that have gotten convictions in the old cases.
But in the Long Beach case, local and national civil rights leaders have either ignored it, or issued cautious and guarded statements about the victims. To take a stand against hate violence, and express empathy for the white victims does not presume guilt, jeopardize the rights of defendants, or muddle the fight against white on black racial violence. That's the sensible and credible response civil rights leaders should take in the fight against race violence. It would silence those conservatives that lambaste blacks for rushing to the barricades when the victims are black, but maintain mute silence when the victims are whites.
The troubling reality is that there's still a lot of racial violence in America, and the perpetrators of that violence come in all colors. According to the FBI's annual hate crimes report there are about 10,000 reported hate crimes yearly in America. That figure has remained fairly constant for the past decade. The majority of the assailants are white males. But there's also an increasing number of hate attacks committed by Latino gangs in Southern California. The victims in almost all cases are blacks. Blacks, for their part, commit about one in five hate attacks and their victims are almost exclusively whites. The attacks whether by whites, blacks, or Latinos are similar in pattern. The victims are usually alone, and have no known gang or known criminal involvement. The attacks include murder, beatings, harassment, taunts and insults.
In the past, the legal line has been relatively clear on what constitutes a racial hate crime. The crime is committed by a group or individuals that had a violent history of attacks against blacks or whites, and the victims were targeted solely because of their race. That does not appear to be the case with the Long Beach attacks. It's another reason why civil rights groups have been cautious or silent on the case.
The trial is expected to stretch out for a few more weeks. During the defense phase, the teens will give their version of what happened that fateful night. That could shed light on just what and why the attacks happened. That could stir even greater soul search on why racial hate violence continues to forge the deep rift between blacks and whites. And now between blacks and other blacks.
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). earlofarihutchinson.blogspot.com