Is Columbia Professor’s Punch A Hate Crime?

November 12, 2009

I’m not a big fan of hate crime legislation. Don’t get me wrong. I believe proponents of this sort of legislation have good intentions. I just don’t think these laws are the way to go about reducing crimes caused by hatred and prejudice. I’m not going to spend a lot of time recounting all the arguments against this law which have been publicized at nauseum, but I’ll mention a few:

1.The First Amendment bars prosecution for words or thoughts, though of course not the underlying acts.

2.Why is violence committed against one victim more serious than that committed against another?

3. It is impossible to read the mind of an assailant to determine motivation.

All of this brings me to the events that occurred last Friday night at a bar near Columbia University in Harlem. Professor Lionel McIntyre, who is black, punched Camille Davis, a white theatre production manager, in the face during an argument about “white privilege.”  He also wound up slugging a second patron who stepped in to defend Ms. Davis. Said another patron who wound up getting shoved by McIntyre:” He was talking to us about white privilege and what we are doing about it-apparently I wasn’t doing enough.”

Professor McIntyre couldn’t have picked a worse time to lose his cool. In October President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded existing United States federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, and which dropped the prerequisite that the victim be engaging in a federally protected activity. The new federal law also added provisions to aid in the detection of hate crimes, and included  the mandate for the federal government to step in when local authorities fail to prosecute.

There is no word yet whether this crime will be treated as a bias or “hate” crime. Common sense would dictate not. It sounds more like this professor probably had one too many and committed an assault (or two). Should he be arrested?  Yes.  Should the government make a federal case out of it, so to speak? No. He has shown himself to be a jackass, but that’s about it. The fact remains though, that the victim’s race was obviously the reason why she was attacked.  If  it seems far fetched to think this could be prosecuted as a hate crime, read what’s happening in Los Angeles.  Columbia University is not coming out of this looking too good either. There is information that school officials tried to convince the victim not to file a police report. Were they seeking to cover up a bias related attack?

I have already seen rumblings on the internet that this should be treated as a bias crime. This puts the local authorities in a bind. It is important that there be no perception that bias crime laws are only used to protect minority victims. Here the victim is white and the attacker is black. If these prosecutions are brought selectively, they will only serve to inflame racial tensions, achieving the exact opposite goal for which they were enacted.

Professor McIntyre has had an illustrious career. From 1993 to 1999 he headed the University’s graduate program in Urban Planning. He also headed the  Urban Technical Assistance Program.

In the 1960’s he worked as a civil rights organizer in the south. He now may find himself in the middle of another civil rights battle where he’s on the wrong side of the fence.  Either that, or common sense will prevail.

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