Recently, I found a very disturbing message on my car. Just above several bumper stickers praising President Obama, someone had inked, “I love niggers.”
The car was parked in my boyfriend’s driveway in East Fishkill. He had seen the message in black marker as he was about to leave for work and asked me to come outside. “I called the cops,” he said. “It’s a hate crime.”
He was absolutely correct. According to the FBI’s website, “a hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias.”
Nearly 260,000 Americans are the victims of hate crime every year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, but no one charts how many of the criminals are brought to justice. Because hate crimes can have a ripple effect that spreads fear throughout an entire community, the federal government, 45 states and the District of Columbia have enacted hate-crime legislation with enhanced penalties. In a sad reflection of race relations in this country, nearly half of hate crimes are motivated by race, and two-thirds of those cases have an anti-black bias, according to recent FBI data.
“We’re putting out the message that hate crimes should be treated seriously at all times because they make a whole community fearful,” said John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), which develops best practices for police departments across the country.
Yet the responding police officer not only failed to fingerprint my car, the only reasonable chance we might have had to catch the perpetrator without video-camera footage, but seemed to blame the victims – in this case, President Obama and me.
“There’s so much anger toward this president,” the officer said, shaking her head, as though this remotely justified what had happened to my car.
Apparently, I should have known better than to broadcast my admiration for a president who arouses this emotion, despite the fact that it may well be rooted in racism.
I believe that the vandalizing of my car was also a form of terrorism, defined by the FBI as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
The FBI’s website continues, “Investigating hate crime is the number one priority of our Civil Rights Program. Why? Not only because hate crime has a devastating impact on families and communities, but also because groups that preach hatred and intolerance plant the seeds of terrorism here in our country.”
Fingerprinting is one of the first lines of offense, according to both the FBI and the IACP. But a sergeant at the East Fishkill Police Department told me, “We don’t fingerprint for graffiti on cars.” He advised my boyfriend and me to install video cameras with night-recording capability, which can cost hundreds of dollars. In other words, it was our job to catch the guy.
“Most large police departments take hate crimes more seriously,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that monitors the radical right. “We often see it fall down in smaller departments and rural counties.”
Unless small law-enforcement agencies also start taking hate crimes seriously, these toxic messages will continue to pervade our communities – and that’s a loss for everyone, Obama supporter or not.
The other day, a driver on the Taconic State Parkway gave me a thumbs-down as he passed my car. At first I thought I was driving too slowly; then I realized, “It’s the stickers again.” Not a hate crime, but still a hostile act.
When I told my boyfriend, he said, “Maybe we should take a few of the stickers off. There are too many haters out there.”
He’s right—there are too many haters. But we don’t capitulate to terrorists abroad, so why should we do it at home?
Time to put more stickers on my car.