When the Honorable Jeffrey Manning sentenced a Pittsburgh resident three to six years in jail last week, the ruling was about more than serving justice to one victim.
Ryan Kyle, 22, was the first person sentenced under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in Western Pennsylvania. The law — passed in 2010 — provides for additional penalties for crimes based on prejudice against people of a certain race, gender, sexuality or other protected classes. Kyle, a white man from the South Hills, hurled a black man off the subway tracks at a Downtown T station last spring and beat him unconscious in a racially motivated attack.
Despite the fact that Kyle used a racial slur the night of the incident, members of his family came before the bench in the moments before the sentencing to convince the judge that he was not a racist. The defendant himself blamed the violence on alcohol, calling it a “very bad drunk incident,” according to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
His sentence — the first of its kind — wasn’t about drunken behavior. It was legal recognition that in a society where racial tensions are still intensely real, acts of violence like this one actively contribute to increasing that tension.
“It’s not a crime in this country to hate,” Manning said as he handed down Kyle’s sentence. “It is a crime to hate and act upon it.”
We are in a dangerous time — one in which people are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than each other’s hands. Despite passage of some progressive legislation nationwide in the last ten years, a rapid increase in hate crimes against minorities of all kinds — racial, ethnic and sexual — has made modern American society seem to repudiate rather than celebrate the diverse elements in our country’s population.
Heightened tensions have shown themselves in even uglier ways even since Kyle’s hate crime sentencing. In what the Pittsburgh Islamic Center feared may have been an act of hate, a Somali cab driver was beaten to death last week in the South Hills. He was found unresponsive a day after the attack. While the crime doesn’t seem to be motivated by racial or religious hatred, the ICP is on high alert and the death nevertheless left Pittsburgh’s Somali community shaken.
Former refugees who now call Pittsburgh their home claim they and their children face harassment in neighborhoods, on buses and in schools. Somali women in particular are often harassed because of their clothing, language preferences and religious practices.
Wasiullah Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, stressed to WPXI that last week’s tragedy wasn’t an anomaly.
“This is not a single incident,” Mohamed said. “This is a continuation of a trend that’s happening around the country. It’s happening around the state and now we know it’s happening down the street.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1999, as more and more anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ+, white nationalist, black separatist, neo-Confederate and neo-Nazi organizations have taken hold in the public sphere. The SPLC’s report showed that the number of anti-Muslim hate groups alone rose 197 percent from 2015 to 2016 — and it’s not hard to see how hate crimes would be plentiful in this atmosphere.
This prevalence of prejudicial violence gives the impression that minorities in this country can never attain the privilege of being truly American. What’s more, this impression feeds into and continues to back up anti-Muslim legislation that suggests certain groups are un-American by the very nature of their identities.
In South Carolina’s state legislature, for example, a Republican proposal in January 2016 would have barred Islamic jurisprudence and other forms of international law, including Sharia law, from being used as a form of defense in American courts. The bill was nonsensical, since our courts are already constitutionally obliged to follow American laws and jurisprudence. Instead, it was a result of uninformed fear mongering that does nothing but stigmatize Muslim religious practices. Just three months earlier, 26 state governors across the country pledged to refuse the resettlement of Syrian refugees within their state borders in a move the Council on American-Islamic Relations called anti-Muslim.
At the national level, the Trump administration has already introduced radical policies that promote continued othering of minorities, including the controversial travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries and the withdrawal of federal protections for transgender students. Following his rhetoric, it’s easy to tell that these policies all create tensions and work against immigrants, Muslims and transgender people.
According to the SPLC, there were 1,094 bias-related incidents involving “harassment and intimidation” across the country in the month following last November’s presidential election. The incidents ranged from yells of “white power” from high school students in York, Pennsylvania, to spray-painted swastikas and racist graffiti in South Philadelphia and middle schoolers chanting “build that wall” in Michigan. A middle school in the South Hills also saw a rash of racially charged vandalism last December.
In this context, fears among minority groups in the United States are more than justifiable. Yet Trump and other political leaders continue to characterize threatened minorities as the perpetrators of terror, rather than its victims. This has generated a toxic environment and gravely impacted the malleable minds of future generations — perpetrators demonize minorities and scapegoat them for problems that are out of their control.
It’s clear that this culture of hate is only going to keep expanding without any action — half of all hate crimes in the United States today are committed by people between the ages of 15 and 24, according to a report this year from the National Crime Prevention Council. As college students, hate crimes aren’t something separated from us by a generational gap.
Education plays a big role in influencing the likelihood of hate crime onset, introducing subjects such as history of sexuality or even a new language in schools harbors respect for minorities and their respective cultures. A 2003 study from the University of Michigan found that college students who were exposed to diversity programing in their first year were significantly more interested in learning about other social groups and more likely to respond that they found it easier to see things from someone else’s perspective.
Initiatives like these — and promising words from judges like Manning — remind us that there is not one single mode, restricted to particular religions, races or sexualities, of being an American. This, if nothing else, is a good start for our efforts to ensure that people from all social and ethnic groups feel that their identities are respected and safe.
Rashi primarily writes on politics and social issues for The Pitt News.