February 26, 2007

“It’s not right”: an example of why I support hate crimes legislation

Posted in Civil rights, Law at 7:16 pm by The Lizard Queen

I saw this on Pandagon this morning, and wanted to post about it because it relates to a couple of other posts I’m currently working on. I frequently hear cries that hate crimes legislation grants minorities special rights, and that racism isn’t a problem anymore. Because of that, I wanted to draw my readers’ attention to this case in Texas. The story begins with a sheriff’s deputy being led to an unconscious man:

…Elder could make out a figure on the ground, huddled in the fetal position. He was a short, slight black man, and he was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans despite the cool weather. Elder knelt down, and after fishing the man’s identification out of his pocket, the deputy saw that he was Billy Ray Johnson. Around Linden, the county seat, Billy Ray was often seen hanging around the courthouse square or walking by the side of the road, and he was what people in town politely called “slow.” Elder could see that he was alive but in bad shape. The bottom half of his face was bruised and swollen, and his breathing sounded labored. His upper lip was cut, and blood had pooled on the ground under him. His entire body had been badly stung by fire ants. The deputy tried to wake him, but Billy Ray was unconscious.

At first the deputy assumed Billy Ray had been hit by a car, but as the story unfolded, it turned out that Billy Ray had received a punch to the face (I’m skeptical that it was just a single punch, but I might think a single punch can’t do all that much damage due to seeing too many cheesy action movies), and his unconscious body had been dumped beside the road. After a handful of anonymous tips stating only that the sheriff’s department should look into what happened to Billy Ray, the department began to investigate…

What the investigation unearthed was a story that no one in Linden wanted to believe: Billy Ray, who is mentally disabled, had been taken to a party, ridiculed, called racial slurs, knocked unconscious, and then dumped by the side of the road. Even the strangers who had come to his aid were not Good Samaritans but two of the perpetrators. Had the town’s white residents condemned what had happened to Billy Ray, the incident might have faded into memory; the crime pivoted on a single punch. Instead, they closed ranks, and juries in both criminal trials that followed declined to give the defendants more than a slap on the wrist.

This isn’t a matter of reasonable doubt; while the stories of the four men involved in the incident have changed around some (blame shifting around for who actually threw the punch and who was physically present during the moment of impact, as it were), there doesn’t seem to be any real confusion as to what happened. The question was whether the men deserved to be given punishments of any significance. One man received a sentence of sixty days in jail; the other three were given thirty days each. By contrast, Billy Ray “suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a serious brain injury that can be caused by blunt force to the head,” and more:

Billy Ray had regained consciousness on Wednesday, but the trauma to his head had resulted in permanent brain damage. (Having retained no memory of what had happened to him, he was unable to help investigators.) There was little dignity in his condition; he drooled and soiled himself, and his speech was severely impaired. When he tried to talk, his lips and tongue would not cooperate, and to all but a few family members who grew accustomed to the way he grunted his words, he was unintelligible. He had difficulty swallowing food and walking unassisted, and he often sat in his hospital bed and cried in frustration. After a month, when he still could not feed or dress himself, he was transferred to a nursing home in nearby Texarkana, where he gradually learned to walk again and recovered control of his bodily functions.

Another paragraph to put things into perspective:

“The verdicts sent a message: ‘It’s okay to treat a black man that way,’” Lue [Billy Ray’s cousin] said when I visited him last fall. He showed me a small item he had clipped from the Cass County Sun, which he had glued to a piece of loose-leaf paper for safekeeping, about a black man named Burks Mack, who had illegally dumped some tires near Old Dump Road. For his crime, Mack had received six months in the county jail. “The only way I can figure it, a bunch of old tires is worth more than Billy Ray,” he said.

The town’s Caucasian community seems nonplussed: Billy Ray shouldn’t have been at that party. He should have known better than to go to a party with a bunch of white kids half his age. He wasn’t actually mentally disabled; rather, he ruined his brain with drugs. He’s better off in the nursing home anyway. The four men were good boys who’d just gotten a little out of hand. These attitudes are those I think we need to be fighting against. Racism is alive and well in this country, and honestly, when a man is a target for violence simply because he’s African-American, or African-American and disabled (which isn’t any better), then he becomes a victim of a hate crime, and I think that should carry an additional punishment. If four black men had committed exactly the same crime against a mentally disabled white man, I don’t think there’s any way they’d have gotten away with prison sentences that would be counted in days. And if you doubt that Billy Ray was targeted because of his race, here’s a final quote:

“Why did this happen?” Lacy asked, changing the subject. “Why?”

“Because he’s a fucking nigger,” Corey said.

Until the day comes when minorities truly do have equal protection under the law, I will be an advocate of hate crimes legislation–and I don’t want to hear about “special rights for minorities.”



  1. Evil Bender said,

    That’s a very important point. Those who argue against hate crime legislation (as I did, in my younger and more foolish days, though I am ashamed to admit it) don’t understand that uniform laws only work if justice is applied uniformly. As long as the privileged have power over the less privileged, they’ll continue to abuse it, and we need more than general protection for those who would be abused.

    It’s the same basic principle as why we need Affirmative Action: because the playing field isn’t level, and until it is we only do damage by pretending everyone is treated fairly.

  2. Cara said,

    Well, hate crime laws would apply to anyone… if a group of non-white individuals killed/maimed/abused a white individual because of his race, that would still be a hate crime and still fall under these laws. But anyway, I don’t think any group- minorities or not- will ever have what one considers equal rights under the law in cases where a subjective jury of “peers” (who are not really peers, but most often retirees or stay-at-home parents who do not read the paper or watch the news) ultimately applies/interprets the laws and doles out the punishments.

    Unfortunately, we haven’t quite yet figured out how to legislate how people feel… and jurors are generally selected because they are a) warm bodies available at minimal pay for possibly several weeks at a time and b) optimally, as uninformed and ignorant as possible. If only juries were cast like commercials are now… “we need two white families, and one each of black and Asian families… oh shit, and now a Hispanic/Latino family too”

    A question on Affirmative Action…. if in real life application it results in the hiring of minorities with lesser qualifications than non-minority candidates because of their race/gender/sexual preference/whatever is it working and leveling the playing field or is it discrimination?

  3. I like the idea of casting juries like they cast commercials…

    And indeed, hate crime laws would apply to anyone, minority or not. Still, stats from the FBI indicate that minorities (African Americans, homosexuals, Jews, etc.) are targeted much more often than members of dominant groups.

    And as to legislating how people feel, I agree that hate crime legislation can be problematic in that respect. However, our legal system frequently takes intent into account: for example, it’s the difference between first degree murder, second degree murder, and manslaughter. The idea behind a hate crime, then, is that the intent is not merely to assault a person, vandalize their property, etc., but also to send a message: [minority group] aren’t welcome in [location]. For example, with Matthew Shepard, the two men weren’t merely beating Matthew to a pulp; they were making the statement that gays aren’t welcome in Laramie, WY. Is it arguable? Certainly. Could it backfire? I imagine so. All the same, though, I don’t have a better solution.

    (And for the moment, I’m not touching Affirmative Action with a 10-foot pole…)

  4. […] on their motivation? This seems like a reasonable argument, and one that gets frequently made (as this discussion at the Lizard Queen’s pad reminded me). But it misses the […]

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