White-on-Black Violence = Hate Crime, Right?

It's not that simple, despite this nation's legacy of race-based terrorism, say some civil rights advocates. Find out what constitutes a hate crime and why pursuing a crime as such isn't always the best route to justice.

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It has been nearly two months since a 30-year-old black poultry plant worker was shot by a white co-worker, his corpse strung to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for 11 miles like so much detritus in a small central-South Carolina town.

While the killing of Anthony Hill evoked strong memories of the stunning lynching-by-dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, in June 1998 by three white supremacists, no hate crime charges have been filed to date in the South Carolina case.

The incident has sparked a smoldering debate among civil rights activists, community leaders and hate-group monitors about hate crime laws, in part because South Carolina is one of five states that do not have a hate crimes statute. (The others are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana and Wyoming.)

Hate crime statutes send a strong message to individuals that federal and local governments will not tolerate crimes based on xenophobia, which includes attacks on race, ethnicity and sexual preference. However, it's important to note that they are not freestanding statutes. They lengthen sentences and increase fines, but do not include major punishments such as the death penalty.

Last October, Congress passed a measure known as the James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act, which strengthened the federal government's ability to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, and extended coverage to violence and attempted violence directed at people based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

The law was named to recognize two heinous crimes that garnered worldwide attention. Byrd was hooked to a pickup truck with a heavy logging chain wrapped around his ankles and dragged about three miles before three men left the torso on display in front of the city's black cemetery. Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, was tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was homosexual.

"The federal hate crimes law is an enhancement that overlays criminal statutes and applies to the sentencing of a case,'' said Bill Nigut, southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Atlanta. The ADL, which fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry across the globe and monitors hate crimes, has been involved in the Newberry, S.C., investigation. (The Root also reached out to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the NAACP for comment, but neither group was available for comment by press time.)

"[The law] increases penalties and sentencing, and each measure varies from state to state,'' Nigut continued. "In a state like South Carolina, federal law would allow the Department of Justice to prosecute it as a hate crime. But hypothetically, if the death penalty were involved in a case like this, you might be reluctant to apply hate crime law because it is not included in the sentencing.''

Besides that, the killing may have been a matter of an affair of the heart: an old-fashioned dispute over a woman, according to some news reports. Collins was charged with murder in Hill's death in the incident that occurred in early June.

Nigut questioned the involvement of the New Black Panther Party, which his organization considers to be a hate group itself, and he debated the validity of hate crime charges being pushed by the leader Malik Zulu Shabazz.