Hate Crime

The legal term hate crime refers to violence brought on by intolerance and prejudice. The Department of Justice defines a hate crime as an act in which an offender intends to hurt another person based on the victim’s ethnicity, national origin, race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or disability. Illegal acts that can be elevated to hate crimes include physical assault, bullying, harassment, insults, damage to property, graffiti, and other crimes committed in the name of prejudice. To explore this concept, consider the following hate crime definition.

Definition of Hate Crime


  1. A crime of violence that is motivated by prejudice or intolerance against an individual or group of people.


Civil Rights Act of 1871

What is a Hate Crime

A hate crime is the intentional hurting or intimidating of someone because of his perceived characteristics that place him in a particular social group. The characteristics of protected groups of people include:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Nationality
  • Religion
  • Gender and Gender Identity
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Disability

Perpetrators of hate crimes are motivated by their personal bias against an individual or group of people belonging to a protected group. Perpetrators of this type of crime use methods ranging from bullying to physical violence and verbal threats to create fear in their victims. Such attacks sometimes rise to include actual acts of violence involving weapons, explosives, and arson. Congress has instituted hate crime laws in an effort to deter violence committed in this manner.

Hate Crime Laws

By enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress enabled federal prosecution of anyone committing a violent crime against any person belonging to a protected class, attempting to engage in any federally protected activity, including:

  1. Attending school
  2. Patronizing a public place or facility
  3. Applying for employment
  4. Acting as a juror in a state court
  5. Voting

Federal penalties for hate crimes without bodily injury may range from a fine to imprisonment of up to one year. If the victim sustains bodily injury as a result of the crime, or if the crime involves the use of a firearm, explosives, or fire, the perpetrator may be sentenced to a prison term of up to 10 years. Hate crimes involving sexual assault, kidnapping, or murder are punishable by life in prison, or even the death penalty.

As of 2015, 45 states and the District of Columbia have instituted their own strict hate crime laws. If a crime is committed due to bias, the penalty is harsher than if the same crime was committed with no prejudice or intolerance. Because hate crimes have the potential to breed tense situations and large-scale racial conflict, federal and state laws are designed to discourage people from committing such crimes.

Additionally, according to most state laws, hate crimes are subject to civil actions as well as criminal charges, allowing the victim to sue for various damages, emotional distress, and pain and suffering.

History of Hate Crime Laws

The Civil Rights Act of 1870, also known as the “Enforcement Act of 1871,” and the “Ku Klux Klan Act,” was enacted by Congress at the request of President Ulysses S. Grant, during the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War. The Enforcement Act made it illegal for any person to use force or make threats against any person based on their race, color, national origin, or religion. This act was created to combat the surge of violent crimes committed by the Ku Klux Klan.

California was the first state to pass a hate crime statute in 1978. The statute called for stiffer penalties when a person was murdered based on their race, religion, color, or national origin.

Hate Crime Statistics

Each year, the FBI releases its Hate Crime Statistics Report to demonstrate the prevalence of hate crimes throughout the United States. The latest Hate Crime Statistics report was released in December 2014, and it provides some surprising numbers. According to the December 2014 Hate Crime Statistics report, in 2013:

  • Reported Incidents: there were 5,928 hate crime incidents involving 6,933 separate offenses reported to police
  • Number of Victims: reported incidents involved a total of 7,242 victims
  • Increase from Previous Years: the total number of hate crimes increased by at least 8 percent
  • Top Three Reasons: race, religion, and sexual orientation were the three top reasons for reported hate crimes
  • Identity of Offenders: 52.4 percent of offenders were white, and 24.3 percent were African-American
  • Age of Offenders: 31 percent of offenders were under the age of 18

Landmark Hate Crime Case

Born in 1920, Byron De La Beckwith was raised by his aunt and uncle in Mississippi. He grew up and entered the Marine Corps where he served as a Machine Gunner. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, that public school segregation was unconstitutional, the White Citizen’s Council was founded. The group uses tactics to put pressure on businesses and other entities to boycott African-Americans. Beckwith became a staunch member of the Council and, on June 12, 1963, he assassinated NCAAP civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Beckwith was prosecuted for the murder twice in 1964, both trials concluding with a hung jury, as they were made up of all white males. In 1973, police were tipped off that Beckwith planned to murder another man. When they caught up with him, Beckwith was in possession of firearms and a bomb. For that offense, Beckwith was convicted, sent to prison, and paroled in 1980.

An article published by the Jackson Clarion Ledger in the 1980s shed light on jury tampering and other serious errors in Beckwith’s previous trials for Medgar Evers’ murder. This led to a new investigation, and in 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the hate crime of killing the civil rights leader. Thirty-one years after the crime, Beckwith was sentenced to life in prison.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.

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