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What is a Hate Crime?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A hate crime is a crime which is fueled by bias or prejudice. For example, assaulting someone because he is in a wheelchair is considered a hate crime in many regions of the world. While hate crimes have been carried out throughout history, awareness and legislation about hate crimes did not arise until the 1970s, with the United States leading the way in hate crime legislation. A number of nations around the world have followed suit to protect their vulnerable social groups from hate crimes.

A wide variety of biases can be involved in a hate crime. Attacks on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, cultural origin, political beliefs, economic status, and disability are often included under the umbrella of “hate crimes,” depending on the nation writing the law. As a general rule, hate crime legislation clearly defines acts which are considered hate crimes, and often provides for additional punishments for a hate crime.

In countries with hate crimes legislation, when someone commits a hate crime, he or she will be prosecuted both for the crime itself and for the fact that it was motivated by prejudice. So, when someone murders a person of the Jewish faith because he or she is a Jew, the perpetrator will be charged with murder, and with a hate crime. If convicted on both counts, the perpetrator will be sentenced to a longer prison term, and he or she may also be forced to take educational classes or to participate in a community service program.

You may also hear a hate crime referred to as a bias-motivated crime. Hate crimes can take the form of harassment, bullying, distribution of inflammatory material, assault, intimidation, or property damage. If a crime can be linked with an expression of hatred, as in the case with someone who sprays anti-gay graffiti on the home of a known homosexual, it is treated as a hate crime.

Hate crime legislation cannot, of course, protect people from hate crimes, but it does send a clear message to society that hate crimes will not be tolerated. Nations with laws about hate crimes on the books often also have educational outreach programs and other methods for connecting with people to discourage hate crimes and to break down prejudicial barriers. In many of these societies, prejudice is regarded as socially unacceptable, which further stigmatizes the act of committing a hate crime.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By backdraft — On Jan 15, 2012

There have been a number of instances lately of people being attacked because they are gay. There have been even more instances of young men and women committing suicide because of the shame, confusion and rejection that they feel when they are honest about their sexuality. It seems clear to me that if we are going to stop this cycle of violence and allow homosexuals to exist in the mainstream as they so rightly deserve, we have to recognize that hate crimes exist.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Jan 14, 2012

I am really on the fence about whether or not hate crimes should be defined strictly within the law. I can see it both ways.

On the one hand, all crimes are hate crimes. Whether you attack someone because of their race or sexuality, or just because they annoy you or have somehow wronged you, I don't think the intent really matters. What matters is the result. We should not punish people differently because of the nature of their hate. We should punish all acts of hate.

But on the other hand there is no place in a civilized society for the kind of racism, sexism and homophobia that strict penalties for hate crimes try to curb. And there does seem to be something uniquely heinous about them. Murdering someone based only on their race seems more malicious than murdering someone because they have wronged you or because you want to rob them. At least in this second instance there is a motive beyond arbitrary hate.

It's complicated and I'm not sure what the right answer. Luckily people smarter than are debating the issue and I'm sure that they will come to a reasoned conclusion.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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