Over the weekend, the two men arrested in connection with a shooting rampage targeted at African-Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, confessed to firing the fatal shots that killed three and wounded two others. Officials continue to investigate whether the crimes committed by Jack England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 32, were racially motivated, but with evidence showing England wrote on his Facebook page his dad was “shot by a F-----g N----r”, prior to going on the killing spree, Southern Poverty Law Center senior fellow Mark Potok says the answer to whether this was a hate crime is undeniable.
“I think the circumstantial evidence certainly suggests it was a hate crime,” Potok tells BET.com. “The motivation seems to have been an attack on all Black people, based on the killing of this man’s father years ago.”
Potok explains there is technically no such thing as a “race crime” or even a “hate crime.” But if he had to define a hate crime, he says it is a pre-existing crime that is already on the books, meaning it has already been defined as an assault, murder or even harassment. It becomes considered a hate crime if a jury or court of law finds the crime was carried out on the basis of a particular prejudice, Potok says. In the case of England and Watts, the prejudice would be race, but in other instances it could be gender or something else.
FBI statistics show the number of hate crimes in which the aggressor has an anti-Black bias has fallen over the past few years. In 2008, the number of reported hate crimes against Blacks was 2,284. In 2009, it was 2,284, and in 2010, the most recently reported year, it was 2,201. Though numbers have fallen on paper, Potok says studies show the actual number of incidents is 20 to 30 times higher than the reported FBI numbers, suggesting the number of hate crime incidents could be the same as prior years or even on the rise.
“Studies by the Department of Justice show hate crimes reported by the FBI grossly underestimate the level of hate crimes in the America,” Potok says. “There are a large amount of problems at the departmental level where administrators may write up the crime as simply an assault or murder, and the statistics never make it to the hate crime level.”
What is factual, however, is that hate-crime groups have been on the rise. According to research conducted by the SPLC, hate groups have been rising steadily dating back to 2000. Recently, the organization counted 1,018 hate groups, their highest number to date. Potok points out the radical right, or “hate groups and the so-called malicious patriot groups,” have grown astronomically in the last three years.
In Montgomery, Alabama, where the SPLC is based, in 2008 there were 149 malicious groups. In 2011 that number had grown to 1,274, a 755 percent growth rate in three years — the same three years that coincided with Barack Obama’s first years as president.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of rage directed against Black Americans, and especially our first Black president,” Potok says. “I think what’s happening now is that we’re in a very difficult period. The reality is that many, many white people in America feel as if they are somehow losing their country, and this has to do with the racial demographics of the country. The census bureau has predicted that whites will lose their majority in 2050, so there’s a lot of anger associated with that.”
Over the next few months and with an upcoming presidential campaign, Potok says it’s hard to see how the numbers will play out. Unfortunately, he says, there is no real way to stop hate crime, other than just trying to teach tolerance.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)