Until South Carolina decides to get tough on hate, we’d probably better lay off our usual catch-all excuse — “Thank God for Mississippi.”
Because they actually have a hate crime law. As do Tennessee, Kentucky and, yes, even Alabama.
That should be embarrassing enough to prompt our Legislature into action, seeing as how it often enjoys feeling superior to our Southern brethren.
But if it’s not, perhaps lawmakers should consider state Rep. Wendell Gilliard’s proposed legislation simply because Charleston — the first city in the state with a hate crime ordinance — just shamed them.
Two weeks after local officials, religious leaders and civil rights activists gathered here for a rally against anti-Semitic violence, City Council voted unanimously for a resolution urging state lawmakers to adopt Gilliard’s bill.
Which, by the way, he’s been trying to pass for years.
Councilman Keith Waring, who called for the resolution, says this isn’t complicated. When someone burns a church, or paints a swastika on a synagogue, it sends a message.
“It’s not a message of encouragement, it’s not a message of love, and it’s not a message of inclusion,” Waring says. “To have that rally pulled together without action, without work … is empty.”
He’s right and, fact is, hate is trending these days. Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds notes that hate crimes have more than tripled in the past four years. In 2018, the FBI reported 436 such offenses in South Carolina; in 2015, it was 123.
One of which changed Charleston forever.
The city’s Hate Intimidation ordinance came out of that tragedy. Mayor John Tecklenburg had gone over to the federal courthouse one afternoon to sit with the families of Dylann Roof’s victims. The sad scene reminded him that the federal government had charged Roof with a hate crime — but the state hadn’t.
Because it has no laws against such things.
That day, the mayor called city attorneys and asked if Charleston could have its own hate crime law. Council passed the resulting ordinance more than a year ago, and since then Charleston police have charged six people with hate crimes that would have otherwise been written off as vandalism or simple assault.
Of course, given the limits of city statutes, the ordinance can impose no penalty harsher than a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. The mayor says that’s why the state needs to act. There need to be greater penalties for these crimes.
“I’m so hopeful South Carolina will pass this,” Tecklenburg says. “We need the ability to add those hate crime charges when people act on hate or bias. I just can’t urge our legislators enough.”
Opponents of hate crime laws don’t have many good arguments — that there are already laws that cover this sort of violence and harassment, that they create a hierarchy of crimes.
That ignores the increasing influence of bias in crime, and the fact that every other state — save Georgia, Arkansas and Wyoming — believes such laws are worthwhile.
At last month’s rally, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson made the best case for hate crime laws. As Fleming Smith reported, Wilson told the crowd that these laws help shape attitudes and drive societal norms. Which could use an attitude adjustment these days.
“Hate crimes are message crimes. It’s not all about the act, it’s about the message that’s meant to be sent,” Wilson said. “We need to have a message of our own to send.”
She is absolutely right. There are far too many people these days who stir up rancor and racial resentment, erroneously telling some people they are more American than others, more holy than others, more deserving than others.
That does nothing but weaponize easily influenced people like Roof, and leads to the sort of attacks that seemed to increase across the country after the devastating hate crime at our own Emanuel AME Church.
There is no excuse for the ignorance of bigotry. And it’s high time South Carolina followed Charleston’s lead and said so.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.