Tulsa Shootings and the Color of Hate

In racially tinged crimes against blacks, what does it mean if the suspect isn't white?

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The fallout over the killing of three black people in Tulsa, Okla., continues after the arrest of two "white" men, Jacob England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 32, both of whom reportedly confessed to the shooting spree, which occurred in a predominantly black neighborhood.

On April 5, England, who is half Cherokee, posted comments on his Facebook page referring to the 2010 murder of his father by a "F--ing n-word." According to "locals," as reported by NPR, England had been troubled since the killing of his father and the January suicide of his fiancée, which left him to care for his 3-month-old child on his own. England's father, Carl England, was described by locals as a "racist." Watts' brothers have said that he can't be a racist because their family "includes mixed races."

While media organizations are being cautious about reporting these crimes as hate crimes, possibly because of the controversy over the Trayvon Martin killing, the Tulsa NAACP has called for the crimes to be treated as such based on the racism spewed on England's Facebook page. Only time will tell how the police will treat these crimes, but what is interesting about this case is how the race of the suspects might affect whether the killings will be seen as hate crimes.

This is an issue that also resonates in the case of George Zimmerman, whom many have identified as white but who in actuality is of mixed race. While Zimmerman and England may see themselves as white men, many see them as minorities based on their physical characteristics -- including skin color and facial features.

Some might question whether these mixed-race men can be accused of hate crimes when they could be considered members of traditionally marginalized groups. How ironic is it to see oneself as white but to possibly escape accusations of hate because the world sees you as a person of color? Talk about racial privilege at work.

The reality is that hate crimes have less to do with the race of the perpetrator than with the motive. It is possible to be charged with a hate crime even when you are a member of a disenfranchised group. Just because you're half Cherokee or half Latino doesn't mean you can't hate blacks entirely -- or vice versa, for that matter. A hate crime involving race is a crime committed because the victim has an immutable trait and is targeted because of that immutable trait. The race of the perpetrator is much less important than the race or trait of the targeted victim and the reason the victim is targeted.

What is also interesting about this case is how the supporters of Zimmerman, and quite possibly of England and Watts, use their membership in a marginalized racial group to defend their actions as being unrelated to the race of the victims. It is these same folks who then claim that Zimmerman, in this instance, is being unjustly vilified because he is a white man. So, which is it -- victim or perpetrator? The same people who are unable to see blacks as victims of crime are able to see minority men passing as white as victims when they're accused of being perpetrators. How convenient

Both cases speak to the fluidity of racial identity and the issue of when race matters, particularly when it involves crime and punishment. Just because one is a member of a racial minority group does not preclude one from being a racist or biased against marginalized groups -- even one's own (see James Earl Jones' grandmother).

The end result is that the black community in Tulsa was terrorized and three black people died violent deaths, possibly because of their black skin. If those people died solely because they were black, that is a hate crime, whether or not police identify it as such and regardless of the perpetrators' race.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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