Written by: Stewart Kwoh, President and Executive Director, Asian Pacific American Legal Center; Titi Liu, Executive Director, Asian Law Caucus; and Ben de Guzman, Kaya: Filipino Americans for Progress and the National Federation of Filipino American Associations
August 10th marks one decade since the brutal and senseless hate crime spree of an avowed white supremacist in Southern California. That rampage in 1999 left five people wounded (including four children) at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and ended the life of Filipino American letter carrier Joseph Ileto. This tragedy shocked Californians, who live in one of the most racially and religiously diverse states in the nation. Over the past ten years, much has happened to remind us that intolerance remains a deeply-rooted problem in the United States. The September 11 attacks on the East Coast and the subsequent backlash across the nation served as a chilling reminder that innocent Muslim, Arab and South Asian Americans are easy hate crimes targets because of the rampant stereotype that they “look like” terrorists. In recent years, hate crimes against Latinos have risen sharply in response to the anti-immigrant sentiment spurred on by efforts to reform the immigration system as well as the downturn in the economy. Efforts to secure equal treatment for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have unfortunately fueled violence, often among the most violent of all hate crimes committed, against members of these communities.
If we have learned anything over the past decade, it is that hate does not happen in a vacuum. In a polarized climate of “culture wars,” the differences and chasms between us overshadow what should bring us together to recognize our common humanity. In such a climate, even the measures intended to prevent hate crimes and address intolerance are politicized. The hate crimes bill that is moving its way through Congress seeks to improve the federal government’s ability to enforce hate crimes laws with local law enforcement and has been named after Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally murdered in 1998. The bill includes protections for victims of bias based on sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, and disability.
Unfortunately, there is an effort by the bill’s opponents to enforce the death penalty through this bill, which runs counter to the spirit that more rightly animates opposition to bigotry and violence. In addition, the bill itself includes a problematic sentencing enhancement provision that fails to account for the reality that more time in prisons that are undeniably fraught with race-based divisions and violence increases rather than decreases hate in offenders. In its eagerness to condemn hate violence, the bill fails to harness restorative justice and other community-centered approaches that more effectively prevent recidivism and focus on repairing the harm caused to families and communities by hate violence. We must not forget that families who have survived hate violence such as Matthew Shepard and Joseph Ileto choose to create a positive legacy of acceptance and inclusion rather than bitterness and vengeance, which was shown by the Shepard family’s decision to not pursue the death penalty against their son’s murderers.
As we look back on the ten years since August 10, 1999, we see both how far we have come and yet how far we have yet to go. This past February, Filipino Americans secured U.S. military recognition and payments for their WWII veterans who had been denied veterans status for over 60 years by the U.S. government. Although grateful for recognition at last, the benefits come decades too late for many Filipino veterans who have already passed. For Jewish communities, the shootings at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, DC this past June are a chilling reminder that hate crimes are still all too real in even the most solemn places. On this tenth anniversary of the death of Joseph Ileto, we urge lawmakers to do the right thing and pass a thoughtfully-crafted, effective hate crimes bill in memory of those whom we have already lost so that we may stem the tide of further hate violence.