John R.K. Howard, a senior, and one-time student at Dietrich, Idaho High School, will finish high school in Texas. Two other former students at Dietrich High, who are underclass students, will undoubtedly complete their schooling at another high school. The three white students were booted from the school after they were charged with the rape of a disabled African-American student. The grisly facts about the alleged rape made brief headlines only after the student's adopted parents filed a $10 million lawsuit against just about everybody at the school--coaches, administrators, staff--that allegedly knew about the rape, and much more, yet said and did nothing about it.
The case itself is a near textbook example of racially motivated victimization in a small mostly white, traditionally conservative, insular, town, with few African-Americans. The type of town where more than a few are willing to look the other way or deny that racial victimization could ever happen in their town. The rape, though, was the culmination of a long train of vicious taunts, harassment, verbal and physical abuse of the black student that stretched out for months before the alleged rape that was first reported last October. Yet it took weeks before school officials, and then prosecutors, acted and charged Howard and the other two with sexual assault. Howard was still allowed to leave the state with no hate crime charges filed. There's as yet no indication from Idaho Attorney General Lawrence G. Wasden whether there will be a hate crimes prosecution. The Idaho hate crimes statute which has been on the books there since 2003 flatly states that a hate crime is a criminal offense "motivated in whole or in part" by racial, religious or gender bias. The crime certainly fits that definition.
The great danger in not slapping hate crime charges against Howard and the others is that it minimizes and marginalizes hate violence. Hate crimes, and especially hate crime violence, still remain grossly under-reported and prosecuted.
The Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked hate crime reporting and violence from 2003 to 2011. Its findings were appalling. It found that a huge portion of hate crimes are never reported to law enforcement. It found that a significant number of the hate crimes that are both reported and un-reported have resulted in serious injury or death to the victims. In fact, the study found that victims of hate violence are more likely to be injured than victims of ordinary crimes of violence. This was more than evident in the brutal physical assault on the black Idaho student which was the predictable consequence of the vicious and prolonged racial harassment. The even greater problem is that often when hate crimes are reported as such the perpetrators often evade full punishment. This has nothing to do with the First Amendment, but rather muddled, confused, and outright lax enforcement and prosecution of hate acts. Even when the FBI and local law enforcement agencies ID individuals for their propensity for violence their hands are still tied.
State prosecutors flatly say that the hate perpetrators are more likely to be convicted and get stiff sentences if their crime is treated as just a garden variety criminal case. This makes good legal and political sense -- if they're prosecuted locally and if there's a hate crime enhancement which is far from assured.
Yet, that's not the only reason for their hands off of many hate criminals. Except in the highest profile cases, they see these prosecutions as no-win cases with little political gain, and the risk of making enemies of local police and town officials. Hate crimes may be horrific but they are largely seen as common crimes and are treated as such. Few state prosecutors will chance inflaming racial passions and hatreds by slapping a hate crime tag on a case except in the most heinous and high-profile cases.
There's also the belief that hate crimes are mostly a thing of the past. When they do occur, they are isolated acts committed by a handful of quacks, and unreconstructed bigots, and that state authorities vigorously report and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. This is a myth.
When Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, it compelled the FBI to collect figures on hate violence. But, it did not compel police agencies to report them. Record keeping on hate crimes is still left up to the discretion of local police chiefs and city officials.
Many police departments still refuse to report hate crimes, or to label crimes in which gays, Jews and minorities are targeted because of race, religion or sexual preference as hate crimes. Still other police departments don't bother compiling them because they regard hate crimes as a politically loaded minefield that can tarnish their image and create even more political friction. The official indifference by many police agencies to hate crimes prevents federal officials, even if they wanted to more aggressively enforce civil rights laws, from accurately gauging the magnitude of civil rights violence.
The rape of the disabled black student in Idaho screams for a prosecution as a racially motivated hate crime. Anything less sends the wrong message about hate.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is How "President" Trump will Govern (Amazon Kindle) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.