(The Root) — When James Byrd, a black man, was dragged to his death in Texas in 1998 by a group of men later identified as having white-supremacist tendencies, African Americans were outraged. Most Americans were.
That same year, another horrifying hate crime captured the attention of the nation, when gay student Matthew Shepard was murdered by a group of men in Wyoming. The circumstances of Byrd’s and Shepard’s tragic deaths perfectly capture the shared challenges that African Americans and gay Americans face in a world in which power is still predominantly held by straight, white males.
Their deaths also perfectly illustrate why the historical tension that has existed between the two communities makes so little sense when a bottom-line reality exists for both: You can be killed for being the wrong color or the wrong sexual orientation.
Yet recent hate crimes in New York City, like the murder of Mark Carson, who was black and openly gay, raise an uncomfortable question: Despite inroads made in finding common ground between the two communities, are communities of color less sympathetic to hate crimes predicated on sexual orientation?
Since his murder, there have been other anti-gay assaults in New York City. Although protest marches initiated within communities of color tend to immediately follow the deaths of men of color believed to have been victimized because of their race, such as the recent Kimani Gray protests, the outrage about Carson’s death has been largely concentrated in the gay community.
The mysterious death of openly gay Clarksdale, Miss., mayoral candidate Marco McMillian seemed to touch upon this issue. As news coverage hailed McMillian’s pioneering run as one of Mississippi’s first openly gay candidates, I couldn’t help wondering if there would have been more outrage and coverage had he simply been one of the state’s first viable black candidates.
To be clear, I don’t believe that everyone has a responsibility to attend every single protest march there is or to write his or her member of Congress about every single issue. But I will say that every time people are killed for being who they are, it hurts all of us.
As a testament to the fact that hate crimes, regardless of how they are defined, affect all minorities and therefore should matter to all Americans, in 2009 President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. The fact that both men’s names are featured in the bill’s title highlights their shared struggle and tragedy, despite their differences in race, class, sexual orientation and geography.
But ultimately the reason people of color should care about hate crimes perpetrated against other groups, including gays and lesbians, can best be summarized by Martin Niemöller’s famous saying, inspired by the Holocaust: