Hate crime laws were first signed into law in 1968, making it a crime to attack or threaten someone because of his or her color, religion, or national origin. In the '90s, hate crime laws were expanded to cover disability and sexual orientation. In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, further expanding the federal definition of hate crimes and increasing the ability of federal law enforcement to support state and local officers.
Supporters of these laws say hate crimes are akin to terrorism, in that they are designed to threaten entire communities and groups. Hate crimes also statistically involve more violence. And many say our laws should reflect that violence rooted in bigotry has no place in our society, and will be punished accordingly.
But others say while we should oppose violence rooted in bigotry, creating laws that punish people for their beliefs sets a disturbing precedent. Gay activist Bill Dobbs says violence is violence, no matter what motivates it, and legislation is not the way to address bigotry.
"While racism and homophobia, for example, are deplorable prejudices, social problems cannot be solved with more prison time."
Defining what constitutes a hate crime is complicated and can get messy. There are increasing instances where hate crime statutes are being applied to situations for which they clearly were not intended.
And the data is inconclusive at best as to whether or not hate crime laws actually deter violence. As Feministing points out, sentencing laws may not be the solution to hate-based crime:
"Putting our energy toward promoting harsher sentencing takes it away from the more difficult and more important work of changing our culture so that no one wants to kill another person because of their perceived membership in a marginalized identity group."