Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Weekend

September 17, 1999

"Judiciary Committee Braintrust:

The State of Justice at Century's End"

Hate Crimes Panel

Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.

Opening Remarks


Representative Conyers, Congresswoman Jackson-Lee, and Members of Congress, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today on the important and troubling issue of hate crimes. As you know, President Clinton and the Attorney General have remained deeply committed to preventing and prosecuting hate crimes, and we continue to dedicate significant time and resources to this issue. I would like to thank the Congressional Black Caucus for its steadfast support of our efforts.

I am old enough to remember 1967- the "Summer of Love." Sadly, the last summer of the 20th century has been a summer of hate. On August 10, the nation was shocked and horrified by the murderous acts in Los Angeles of a self-avowed white supremacist who shot and killed a U.S. postal worker of Filipino descent -- and who shot and wounded 5 children and adults at a Jewish Community Center day-care facility.

Over the 4th of July weekend, a young man linked to a white supremacist organization shot at several people in Illinois and Indiana, including a group of Jewish men walking home from Sabbath services in Chicago. Two others died from their injuries: Won-Joon Yoon, a South Korean student at Indiana University, who was shot and killed outside of his church; and Ricky Byrdsong, an African-American man, who was walking with his daughters near his home in Skokie, Illinois.

In California, on July 1, Winfield Scott Mowder and Gary Matson, a gay couple, were brutally murdered in their Redding home, and on June 18, three synagogues in Sacramento erupted in flames. And of course, we still remember the brutal murders of Billy Jack Gaither in Sylacauga, Alabama; Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming; and James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas.

In 1997, law enforcement agencies reported 8,049 hate crime incidents -- about one hate crime incident per hour. But we know that even this disturbing number significantly underestimates the true level of hate crimes. Many victims do not report these crimes. And police departments do not always recognize, appropriately categorize or adequately report hate crimes.

What is the Justice Department doing about this disturbing trend? First, we are reaching out to our nation's youth and teaching tolerance. For example, in conjunction with the Department of Education, the Justice Department has produced a manual entitled "Preventing Youth Hate Crime" -- about 16,000 copies of this manual have been distributed throughout the educational community. We must teach tolerance to our children so that we can prevent hate crimes by addressing bias before it leads to violent criminal activity. We must instill in our children the respect for each other's differences and the ability to resolve conflicts without violence.

Second, we are working to prevent and prosecute hate crimes. The centerpiece of the Administration's Hate Crimes Initiative is the formation of local working groups in United States Attorneys' districts around the country. These task forces are hard at work bringing together the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's office, the DOJ Community Relations Service, local law enforcement, community leaders, and educators to assess the problem in their area and coordinate our response to hate crimes.

And third, we have urged Congress to amend the current federal hate crimes law by passing the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999 -- a bill introduced in the House by our distinguished moderator, Representative Conyers, and co-sponsored by many members of the CBC. The principal federal hate crimes statute, 18 U.S.C. 245, prohibits certain hate crimes committed on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin -- but this law has two serious deficiencies. First, even in the most blatant cases of racial, ethnic, or religious violence, no federal jurisdiction exists unless the violence was committed because the victim engaged in one of six narrowly defined federally protected activities. This unnecessary, extra intent requirement has led to acquittals in several cases.

For example, in 1994, a federal jury in Fort Worth, Texas acquitted 3 white supremacists of federal criminal civil rights charges arising from unprovoked assaults upon African-Americans, including one incident in which the defendants knocked a man unconscious as he stood near a bus stop. Some of the jurors revealed after the trial that although the assaults were clearly motivated by racial animus, there was no apparent intent to deprive the victims of the right to participate in one of the federally protected activities. It is important to point out that in this case, as in many others, the Justice Department's prosecution was brought only after state and local prosecutors were unsuccessful at, or declined to bring, prosecutions under state law. We must expand federal jurisdiction so that in those instances where states cannot or will not take action, the federal government can step in to assure justice.

Moreover, we can offer assistance to state and local law enforcement but, in most circumstances, only if we have jurisdiction in the first instance. The level of collaboration achieved between federal and local officials in Jasper, Texas was possible only because we had a colorable claim of federal jurisdiction. The state-federal partnership in that case led to the prompt indictment of three men on state capital charges. Therefore, we believe an essential fix of 18 U.S.C.  245 is to remove the "federally protected activity" element.

The second jurisdictional limitation of 18 U.S.C.  245 is that it provides no coverage whatsoever for violent hate crimes committed because of bias based on the victim's sexual orientation, gender, or disability. These crimes pose a serious problem for our nation. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would prohibit the intentional infliction of bodily injury based on the victim's sexual orientation, gender, or disability, whenever the incident involved or affected interstate commerce.

We know that a significant number of hate crimes based on the sexual orientation of the victim are committed every year in this country. One out of seven hate crimes reportedly involves gay men and lesbians. Despite this fact, 18 U.S.C. 245 does not provide coverage for these victims unless there is an independent basis for federal jurisdiction. We also know that a significant number of women are exposed to brutality and even death because of their gender. Indeed, Congress, through the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, has recognized that some violent assaults committed against women are bias crimes rather than mere "random" attacks. And we know that because of its concern about the problem of disability-based hate crimes, Congress amended the Hate Crimes Statistics Act in 1994 to require the FBI to collect information about such hate-based incidents from local law enforcement agencies. And the Federal Sentencing Guidelines include an upward adjustment for crimes where the victim was selected because of his or her sexual orientation, gender, or disability. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a logical next step to provide a comprehensive safeguard for investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.

Preventing hate crimes and eliminating bigotry are among our most important challenges. There is never an excuse for violence against an innocent person. But violence committed because the victims look different, practice a different faith, or have a different sexual orientation, threatens America's most cherished ideals. It represents an attack not just on the individual victim, but on the victim's community. Its impact is broader because it sends a message of hate, and is intended to create fear and dissension.

Hate crimes are not just a law enforcement problem. They are a problem for the entire community: for our schools, for our religious institutions, for our civic organizations and for each one of us as an individual. When we come together to respond to these crimes, we help build communities that are safer, stronger and more tolerant. All of us working together -- at the federal, state, local and community levels -- must redouble our efforts to rid our society of hate crimes.