Racism Paper

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racism



Racism & Hate Crimes in America
Blacks were introduced to American soil during the 17th and 18th centuries via the
triangular trade route, and were welcomed by whips, chains, shackles, and all the horrors
of slavery. Slavery was legitimized by our government and continued for a few hundred
years, taking a civil war and sixteen presidents before it was abolished. To this day,
there is still much hatred between blacks and whites despite emancipation, desegregation,
and integration; some would argue that the condition of African Americans in the United
States is still one of a subservient nature. Federal law defines a hate crime as whenever
a victim is attacked on the basis of his or her race, ethnicity, religion, sexual
orientation, or gender; hate offenses are directed against members of a particular group
simply because of their membership in that group (Levin 4). Last year, a black man was
brutally murdered in east Texas by three young white males. There are over a hundred
homicides committed every year, but the manner in which this life was taken and the
apparent motive of his perpetrators leaves no doubt that this crime was one rooted in
hate. In this brutal murder, the motivation is obvious and clear-cut, the bigotry so
blatant that it virtually hits you in the face. James Byrd Jr.'s death is America's
shame: another man tortured for no reason- other than the color of his skin. This essay
will use the Byrd murder to explore the cause and effects of hate crimes, and attempt to
draw meaning from it so that a tragedy like this will not happen again.

In the early morning of June 7, 1998, a black man was walking down a road in Jasper,
Texas. James Byrd Jr. had just left a niece's bridal shower at his parents' house, and
was trying to hitch a ride home. Three men drove by and the owner of the vehicle, Shawn
Berry, offered Byrd a lift in the back of the pickup. Byrd, handicapped in one leg,
didn't hesitate to accept the apparently kind gesture; little did he suspect his fate that
was to follow. Angered, one of the passengers by the name of John King grabbed the wheel
and drove to a dark deserted road outside of town. What happened thereafter undoubtedly
has to be one of the most gruesome and horrifying crimes this country has seen since the
day's slavery was legal. King and the final member of the trio, Lawrence Brewer, got out
of the truck and began beating and kicking Byrd until he was nearly unconscious.
Afterward, they chained him by his ankles to the back of the truck and dragged him so
violently down the winding asphalt road, tearing off his head and right arm from his body.
Police found Byrd's dentures torn from his mouth, lying a few hundred yards down the road
from the rest of his body. Blood smeared a trail over a mile long.

Research strongly suggests that hate crimes reported to the police have certain
characteristics that distinguish them from other types of offenses. First, hate crimes
tend to be excessively brutal; the hatred in such crimes is expressed when force is
exercised beyond what is necessary to subdue victims or make them comply. Classifying the
murder of James Byrd as "brutal" is definitely an understatement. A second characteristic
of hate crimes is that they are often senseless or irrational crimes perpetrated at random
on strangers. Finding a random black man walking down the road late at night and dragging
him to death is not a common circumstance. Another characteristic of hate crimes is that
they are usually perpetrated by multiple offenders; it is a group crime frequently carried
out by young perpetrators operating together for the purpose of attacking the members of
another group (Levin 16). The murder of James Byrd Jr. satisfies these characteristics,
and unmistakably qualifies as a hate crime.

Byrd's hometown of Jasper is a racially mixed town of 8,000 people located in a rural
section of Texas; a Southern town with built in biases, but not racist. Despite of the
nature of Byrd's murder, you cannot stereotype a community because of the actions of a
few. According to the Mayor of Jasper, there had been no unusual racial problems in the
town in the past (Cropper A16). "The kind of racial problems we had here were the kinds
of things where you wouldn't get the promotion or the right jobs," said Byrd's sister Mary
Verrett. "In all the time I grew up, there was never any outright bigotry, and none of us
were afraid to walk the street. In fact, you could say we were pretty happy." Many
people seemed to believe the crime did not reflect a deeper problem.

On the other hand, Gary Bledsoe, president of the state chapter of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that the eastern part of Texas
surrounding Jasper has been considered a "problem area and a hotbed of Klan activity for
years." Jasper lies 55 miles north of the town of Vidor, where a Klan group in 1993 tried
to prevent the integration of an all-white housing development, threatening the first
black residents as teen-agers dressed in sheets confronted black newcomers (Cropper A16).
Certainly, the racist environment that Byrd's perpetrators were forced to grow up in
contributed greatly to their bigoted ideology.

Reporters say Byrd's perpetrators were three troubled men riding and drinking on a
Saturday night. John William King, 23, was the trio's unofficial leader, a foul-mouthed
convicted burglar whose prison nickname was "Possum." Shawn Allen Berry, also 23, was
King's former high school classmate and partner in crime. Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31,
had served seven years on a cocaine conviction, released on condition he be treated for an
undisclosed mental illness. All three had tattoos or personal items with the special
markings of a white supremacist (Pressley A1). For all of his personal problems-
alcoholism, petty thievery, an inability to hold a job- James Byrd was well liked and had
never been involved in any kind of racial incident. What then set the three Jasper men
off and led them to commit a crime so violently atrocious? It may have been a case of
unfortunate circumstances, too much to drink, nothing to do, influence of Klan propaganda,
a lone black man on a dark street giving shape to all the thoughts the men had absorbed in
prison (Pressley A9). Without a doubt, these men were not transformed into racists
overnight.

In his book, Hate Crimes, Jack Levin proposes several factors that may cause one to commit
a crime rooted in hate. Levin writes, "Learning to hate is almost as inescapable as
breathing. The hate crime offender grows up in a culture that distinguishes certain
people as righteous, while designating others as sleazy, immoral characters who deserve to
be mistreated" (Levin 21). One cannot be disillusioned to think that we live in a society
free of stereotypes. The three men who murdered James Byrd grew up in an environment that
stamped all blacks as being inferior subordinates. So when they saw James Byrd walking
down the road on the night of his death, they weren't looking at James Byrd the
individual; all they saw was a black man that gave shape to the nasty stereotypical images
in their heads. All that mattered to them was that the person's skin was black and
different from theirs. Unfortunately, for James Byrd he was at the wrong place at the
wrong time.

Historically, economic hardship has inspired racial tension and violence, and may have
been a factor in the murder of James Byrd (Levin vii). The local economy around Jasper is
struggling, and young white men there see minorities competing against them for jobs with
what they perceive as unfair advantages, such as affirmative action and other government
programs. According to Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an
organization which tracks the activities of hate groups, the three men who murdered Byrd
match the stereotype of perpetrators of hate crimes. All three were going through tough
times struggling to stay afloat: King, Brewer, and Berry were high school dropouts unable
to hold a steady job, working variously as yard workers and lumber company employees, and
they were about to be evicted from the apartment they shared (Pressley A9). According to
the SPLC's Klanwatch Project, the number of organized hate groups has grown significantly
during the last few years, perhaps because of hard economic times. The particularly
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