.. eotype 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.
Bibliography Bragg, Richard. For Jasper, Just What It Didn’t Want. New York Times 27 June 1998: A8. Bragg, Richard. In Wake of Texas Killing, Black Militants and Klan Trade Words. New York Times 28 June 1998: A17.
Cropper, Carol Marie. Black Man Fatally Dragged In a Possible Racial Killing. New York Times 10 June 1998: A16. Levin, Jack, and Jack McDevitt. Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed. New York: Plenum, 1993.
Novick, Michael. White Lies, White Power: The Fight Against White Supremacy and Reactionary Violence. Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995. Pressley, Sue Anne. Down a Dark Road to Murder.
Washington Post 12 June 1998: A1. Racist Murder Leads Texas Town to Probe Its Prejudices. Wall Street Journal 1 October 1998: A8.