Ten years ago, the United States took a significant step forward in our response to hate crimes. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, passed in 2009, widened the scope of what can be considered a hate crime and expanded their definition to include motivations based on the actual or perceived gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability of the victim. It also increased funding to state and local agencies for investigating hate crimes, expanded the federal government’s abilities to do the same, and bolstered the FBI’s tracking requirements.
As strong as the Shepard and Byrd Act was, however, there is still much work to be done.
According to the FBI, hate crimes have been on the rise in the United States for the last three years, yet even these alarming numbers are tempered by a chronic, well-documented underreporting problem. And we know from what we see and hear every day in our society—from shootings targeting ethnic and religious groups to ugly rhetoric in our political discourse—that hate remains a pressing threat.
That’s not to say that pushing for improvements in countering hate is easy. The American Sikh community in particular knows how hard it is to achieve positive and proactive change in this space. In fact, three years of advocacy went into pushing the federal government to begin tracking hate crimes against more communities, including Sikhs. Ultimately, it took the actions of a deranged gunman in 2012 killing six worshipers in a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wis., to convince the FBI to better track hate violence against repeatedly targeted communities.
This is an area where we must hold our government officials accountable for their slow responses. Just as we would not tolerate such a delay for traffic fatalities or a blazing fire in the middle of downtown, we should not accept a meager response from policy leaders to better protect communities targeted by hate. We can no longer afford to wait until a catastrophic event demonstrates that our existing policies have failed us.
So how do we build on the legacy of the Shepard and Byrd Act? At the federal level, we need to pass the next generation of common-sense legislation that equips law enforcement to identify and track hate incidents. The Khalid Jabara-Heather Heyer NO HATE Act, named for two victims (Khalid Jabara, killed in 2016, and Heather Heyer, killed in 2017) who were excluded from hate crime statistics due to poor data collection and reporting practices, would modernize hate crime reporting and increase both assistance and resources available for other victims. At a time when white nationalism and xenophobia weigh heavily on the minds of all Americans, this bipartisan measure is a wise move to give our nation a fighting chance against hate.
There’s also work to be done at the state level—especially given the range of different hate crime laws across the country. Four states (Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Wyoming) have no hate crime laws at all, and others like Indiana have inadequate provisions that do not protect, for instance, against crimes based on gender. Fortunately, we’re seeing progress from coast to coast: California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom is rolling out a hate crimes task force, and legislators in the Georgia state Senate are attempting to close the gap in protecting communities against hate crimes. Here’s to hoping that more states begin to combat hate incidents by providing more resources for training and victims, improve law enforcement incident reporting, and hold prosecutors accountable for enforcing hate crime laws.
The promise to keep all Americans safe from hate crimes is long overdue, and we need to push forward on multiple fronts. But there are few challenges more urgent than the need to guarantee the safety that all Americans deserve. As we mark this ten-year anniversary, we must remember that the tragedies Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. and their communities had to bear could have been prevented proactively. Our nation must do right by protecting every American from the wicked actions of those motivated by hate, with the Khalid Jabara-Heather Heyer NO HATE Act at the federal level and state laws to back it up.
Sim J. Singh is the Senior Manager of Policy and Advocacy for the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organization.