Hatred in high places

MSNBC News, August 16, 1999

WASHINGTON - The murder of an Asian American postman and the shooting of five people at a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center are the latest in a rising number of violent hate crimes in the United States. African Americans, by far, are the target of choice in hate crimes, but a large swath of the nation's population is also showing increases. While our attention now focuses on disaffected loners like Buford Furrow, Jr., hatred in America can also be found in high places.

A review of federal crime records at a recent meeting of the American Sociological Association indicates that from 1991 to 1997, 40 percent of hate crimes were committed against African Americans. Fifteen percent to 20 percent involved religious targets, and from 9 percent to 14 percent were against gays. Five percent targeted Asians or Latinos, and less than one percent Native Americans or the disabled. A new category for hate crimes against women is being considered by the federal government.

Hate crimes are not only increasing, they are increasingly spectacular. Benjamin Smith, 21, who grew up in a prosperous suburb of Chicago, had ties to the white supremacist World Church of the Creator. Smith's two-day shooting spree against African Americans, Asian Americans and Jews left two men dead and nine wounded.

Benjamin Matthew Williams, 31, and James Tyler Williams, 29, two brothers from Northern California who were charged with murder last month in the deaths of a gay couple and are suspects in arson fires at three Sacramento area synagogues, also had links to the World Church of the Creator.

Hatred in High Places

In the wake of these crimes, primary focus has been on the 527 active white supremacist groups identified in the United States, which claim an estimated 200,000 members. But the nation's political leadership must bear some responsibility as well. Quite a number of them are giving aid and comfort to white supremacist ideas. In their sophistication, these government leaders predictably prefer suits and symbols to sheets and shouting.

The adamant refusal of several Southern state legislators in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, among others, to consider removing representations of the Confederate flag from official buildings, including inside courtrooms, is just one - and perhaps the most benign - of the many winks and nods these officials are passing along to disaffected members of hate groups.

Hardly a protest was uttered when it was revealed that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr had frequently attended and addressed the racist Council of Conservative Citizens, formerly known as the White Citizens Council. In fact, Lott's uncle, Arnie Watson, is a member of the executive board of the CCC. Lott and Barr have denied knowing about the CCC's racist teachings and literature, assertions that strain credulity.

A Flap Over 'Dixie'

And the Chief Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist's recent leading of a sing-along of Dixie at a federal judicial conference was condemned only by African American organizations, led by the 18,000-member National Bar Association.

By itself, the sing-along might be apropros of nothing. But Rehnquist and the Fourth Judicial Circuit conference where the "Dixie" rendition was delivered two weeks ago, both have long and suspect records on the matter of race.

Earlier this year, a Time Magazine report described Rehnquist as a ".... Republican appointee who had a well-documented early life as a segregationist before his rise to the high court.

"In the 1960's," Time stated in its Feb. 1 edition, that Rehnquist "was the leader of Operation Eagle eye, described by the Arizona Republic as 'flying squad' of G.O.P. lawyers that swept through south Phoenix to question the right of minority voters to cast their ballots."

And in his more than two decades on the Supreme Court, Justice Rehnquist has never seen fit to hire even one African American law clerk.

As for the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which covers North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia, more African Americans live there than in any other appellate jurisdiction. Yet, never in the entire history of the republic has an African American ever served on this appellate court.

A Conservative View

Supremacist groups aren't the only hatemongers. In their sophistication, some politicians and judges prefer suits and symbols to sheets and shouting.

The Fourth Judicial Circuit is among the most conservative in the nation - sharply limiting the right of African Americans and others to file and prove racial discrimination and employment claims, among other rulings.

Two years ago, two vacancies occurred on the Fourth Circuit, which had experienced a doubling of its caseload over the past decade. President Clinton had informally agreed to nominate an African American to the court.

But in astounding testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1997, Chief Judge J. Harvey Wilkerson, urged the committee not to fill the vacancies, because to do so, "would disturb the collegiality of the court, and hinder its efficiency."

Committee members, including Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee chair, and Charles Grassley of Iowa, have since taken up Wilkerson's refrain to bring almost to a halt any action on the vast majority of President Clinton's nominations to the federal bench despite rising and crushing caseloads.

In such a setting, Justice Rehnquist joining hands to sing "Dixie" with Judge Wilkerson, the defiant song of Confederate nostalgia, is nothing short of outrageous - which is exactly what the nation's largest association of African American lawyers called it at their recent convention.

"The song 'Dixie' remains a symbol of slavery and oppression to many Americans," John Crump, executive director of the National Bar Association. "His conduct is prejudicial to the fair administration of justice." Crump said that the singing of "Dixie" at the Fourth Circuit conference was particularly vexing because the Fourth Circuit is the only federal jurisdiction without an African American on its court of appeals.

"If they follow the words of 'Dixie,' it'll be like this forever," Crump said. "That's what they're symbolically saying."

As the nation continues to bury more victims of hate crimes, the grieving families may wish to cast their gazes a little higher than bands of small organizations hiding out in the mountains of Idaho.

Kenneth Walker is former foreign correspondent for the Washington Star, former White House correspondent for ABC News and currently president of Lion House Publishing in Washington, D.C.



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