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 depressed economic conditions in rural areas of the United States since the early 1980’s have provided a fertile breeding ground for organized hate groups, playing on a theme that has special appeal to downtrodden farmers and small town residents (Levin 113). Racist forces are appealing because they offer simplistic solutions for the problems of our society by providing obvious scapegoats- blacks, immigrants, and other minorities that threaten their well being.
Dees points out, however, that perhaps most significant in their downward spiral were the racist influences they encountered and embraced in prison. Larry Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said that while all three men were serving time, they were suspected of belonging to white supremacy groups, specifically the Confederate Knights of America, a prison gang aligned with the Ku Klux Klan (Bragg 17). Likewise, King was disciplined in 1995 while in prison for his involvement in a racial disturbance between whites and Hispanics (Pressley A9).
In his statement to police, Berry supplied a clue about the depth of King’s racist beliefs. While dragging Byrd’s body behind the truck, King allegedly said, We’re starting the Turner Diaries’ early. The Turner Diaries are a fictional account of race war in America and antigovernment-conspiracy, and is seen as the bible of hate groups. The murder of James Byrd Jr. was not a random act of violence. King, Berry, and Brewer were on a mission, a mission they were brainwashed with after years of exposure to white supremacist ideology: to rid the world of evil by disposing of all blacks (Levin 89).
For the past several years, white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the National Association for the Advancement of White People have been claiming that they are not racists. They say that they are not motivated by hate, but are simply proponents of white rights, trying to redress what they claim is current discrimination against white people (Novick 21). Members of the KKK believe the notion that they are biologically superior, and justify their violent behavior toward innocent people as defense.
In a recent issue of a White Aryan Resistance newspaper, Tom Metzger asserts We have every right to use force in self-defense, in retaliation, and in preemptive strikes against those who openly threaten our freedom. Many white supremacists believe that their violence toward blacks is defensive, aimed at protecting their American way of life or God-given Aryan advantage. Hate crimes represent one extreme on the continuum of prejudice and bigotry (Levin 97). Whether it is for economic or psychological reasons, there are countless individuals who feel resentful toward those of a certain group.
They have suffered some loss in self-esteem or status; rather than accepting responsibility for their hapless situation, they are eager to place the blame elsewhere. Millions of people, however, have suffered a decline in their quality of life or standard of living, and would never commit a criminal act against those who are different from them (Novick 24). Fortunately, not every member of society buys into the culture of hate; some have enough self-control to stop themselves from behaving in a deviant or violent manner, no matter how great the appeal.
Still for some individuals, as in the case of John King, Shawn Berry, and Lawrence Brewer, the desire to commit a hate crime is overpowering. A recent study indicated that the number of white supremacists in America consist of just under fifty thousand people; when compared to the population of our nation as a whole, that number is a relatively small percentage. In a country founded in life, liberty, and equality, that is fifty thousand too many. In her book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman writes the ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness (Herman 1).
With a crime as horrifying as the James Byrd murder, society cannot afford to sweep this issue underneath the rug. Perhaps it takes an event as traumatizing as the Byrd murder to bring society’s problems to the forefront. James Byrd Jr’s death should be a wake-up call for America that sparks a self-examination and reflection. While some may argue that it is an isolated incident, the Byrd murder should serve as a stark reminder that racial hatred continues to be a national problem. Those who track hate crimes say that while the incident here may be isolated, the apparent thinking behind it is not.
Joe Roy, directory of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, says Jasper is a reminder that no matter how well we think we’re handling our problems, there’s always something out there (WSJ A8). The murder of James Byrd Jr. was an act of barbarism, a crime that should be incomprehensible. No one deserves to be treated that way no matter what the color of your skin is. To kill a man for something he cannot help, such as the color of his skin, is worse a motive that to kill him because he is rich, unsuccessful, or owes you money.
Our society must join together across racial lines to demonstrate that an act of evil such as this one is not what America is all about. We must not retaliate with violence, as the Black Muslims and Panthers urged in the wake of the murder (Bragg A17). Surprising to many, the town of Jasper did not erupt in racial conflict after the murder; instead blacks and whites joined together in prayer vigils, rallies, and discussion groups, showing the world that what happened in Jasper hurt and outraged all the town’s people, not just its blacks (Bragg A8).
A community forced to experience that kind of trauma must not waste any time binding up the wounds caused by the crime. It is disheartening to note that the Ku Klux Klan used the Byrd murder to talk about white pride and used the press attention as a stage to explain their platform. After nearly four centuries of violence between whites and blacks in America, race remains this nation’s most divisive and intractable problem. The fight against hate crime demands the attention of every member of society.
For legislators, it means refining laws to address the serious threat of hate crime. For educators, it means developing ways to open channels of cultural understanding among children. For police, it means increased attention to acts of hate violence. For neighborhoods, it means strengthening the bonds of community to embrace diversity and reject acts of bigotry (Levin viii). Society as a whole must accept the fact that we are all a part of the problem, if we are not a part of the solution.