- Tough on Hate?: The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes by Clara S. Lewis
Although gay college student Matthew Shepard’s murder was not legally deemed a hate crime, Shepard has become the paradigmatic hate crime victim, his image so often invoked that the federal legislation against hate crimes is named after him and lynching victim James Byrd, Jr. Though their murders raised national consciousness about bias-based violence, Clara S. Lewis argues in Tough on Hate?: The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes, the media, politicians, and the general public have used their images in ways that paradoxically decry “hate” while undermining “our collective sense of culpability” (25) so that we cannot act on the ongoing structural oppression that incubates hate.
Lewis posits that our well-meaning narratives about hate crimes demand a post-difference citizenship, “whereby members of historically marginalized groups and their allies are given access to public support by condoning post-difference ideology” (91). Victims of hate crimes (or their family members) must deny their difference, [End Page 142] which otherwise challenges ideas about national unity. Victims of anti–Arab/Muslim hate crimes must stress their love of America and Islam’s non-threatening nature. Racial minorities must be “race blind,” relegating race-based violence to the Civil Rights era (except in the exceptional case at hand). Victims of homophobic violence cannot be sexual but, like Shepard, childlike and from “spectacularly normal” backgrounds (96). Yet victims are selected precisely because they are not normative; their religious, ethnic, racial, and sexual identities place them outside of the norm. In a post-difference world, these identities don’t matter—except that they do, sometimes to the point of death.
By erasing the very difference that inspired the crime, the public again victimizes with its “overwhelming desire to prove that we, the people within the community where the crime occurred, are better than the crime” (3). Hate crime narratives focus on the normality of the victim. (How tempting it is, as Matthew Shepard’s mother Judy speaks, to think, “That could have been my son!” Except that it wouldn’t ever be your son unless your son is gay). They also place the perpetrators outside of society, as “loners” on the “fringe.” The public’s desire to depict perpetrators, who are actually “disturbingly conformist” (85), as abnormal is motivated by the same need to view such crimes as abnormal rather than as “an expression of extended histories of often state-sponsored violence against minority groups and of broader contemporary social forces” (60). If victims really are different and perpetrators really are conformists, we could no longer see these crimes as unthinkable but as violent, predictable consequences of oppression.
Lewis skillfully analyzes the rhetoric around hate crimes, examining news coverage, political hearings, legislation, and documentary films, and deploying theories from diverse disciplines in a way that will engage American Studies scholars. Unfortunately, it draws from a limited number of high-profile crimes—for example, no anti-Semitic crimes are examined. That said, it is easy enough for readers to imagine how the rich critiques that Lewis articulates here could be applied to other hate crimes and, more importantly, to our responses to them.