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Why Do Young Men Commit Hate Crimes?

ED GORDON, host:

For more, we're joined now by Mark Potok, Director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Dr. Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. I thank you both for joining us. I appreciate it.

Dr. ALVIN POUSSAINT (Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School) Thank you for having us

GORDON: Dr. Poussaint, let me start with you. One of the things that we're finding interesting with this fate in hate crimes of late is the idea of the perpetrator. We're finding that it isn't necessarily a skinhead, it isn't from a gang, these are just typically white males in suburbs with nothing to do.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Who are acting on impulse, and most of them pretty young, about two-thirds of the young people below the age of 24. And sometimes it's a way of expressing their own insecurities, their own feelings of inadequacy, by making others victims and looking down on other groups for religious or ethnic reasons to give themselves a boost in ego.

GORDON: Usually, we believe it's tied into some economic situation. Immigrants or African-Americans taking money off of my table by getting jobs through affirmative action, et cetera. But we're not seeing that necessarily to be the case with this group.

Dr. POUSSAINT: No. It's not necessarily economic. I think that the bigotry goes much deeper than that. It has to do with insecurities, or it may have to do with what they have been taught and what they have learned in their own home or their own community.

GORDON: Mark Potok, there are those who believe that this generation, the generation we're speaking of, under 21, we're seeing more tolerance, were more diverse than generations previous. But this does not necessarily play itself out.

Mr. POTOK: (Director, Intelligence Project, Southern Poverty Law Center) Well, I think really what you're seeing is two things. On the one hand, certainly you see, and studies reflect this, that kids today, for instance, are vastly more accepting of interracial relationships. There's no question about that. At the same time, I do believe, though, that a lot of things are happening in the larger society.

I mean, there is no question that, for instance, families who are headed by a high school dropout or merely high school degree people but with not higher degrees are in very bad shape and doing worse. I think also that a lot of white kids perceive the world as having somehow turned against them. Of course, in many ways, it's essentially a loss of white privilege.

But it's this idea of sort of the country that my forefathers created is being taken away from me; it's changing right before my eyes. The black kids have a black student union, why can't we have a white student union? You know, a lot of attitudes that come out of a kind of profound ignorance about our history, our racial history as a nation.

And I also think that it's certainly true that only a tiny minority of people who engage in hate crimes are actually members of hate groups. At the same time, there is a lot work done by these groups to reach out to young kids, and there are some very powerful lures. I would say that the white power music scene is probably the chief among them.

GORDON: And, Mark, we should note for those how aren't familiar, the white power music scene. What we have seen over the course of last few years is these groups finding ways to indoctrinate these young people through music, literally.

Mr. POTOK: Well, the white power music scene began as essentially a tiny cottage industry; it largely came out of Britain. It really has exploded into a kind of multinational major business operation. Many of these kids who actually become part of the movement, the white power movement, the white supremacy movement, really come in not so much on the basis of the racism - it's fairly thin with them - they're really looking for a kind of alternative family. They have got often problems at home for one reason or another, and they're essentially looking to create another life. And one thing about this movement is that it really does create a kind of welcoming atmosphere. It's kind of girls and drugs and the music scene - there's a whole world out there.

GORDON: Dr. Poussaint, this really is a microcosm or reflection of what many of these young people see as the, quote, "true world" today. Particularly after 9/11, we saw an increase in hate crimes. Of course, the ongoing immigration debate, the question of affirmative action - all of this plays out to the fears of not necessarily the these young people, but their parents and usually by extension to them.

Dr. POUSSAINT: I think their parents, as well, and as noted to politicians who use some of these things, who have anti-gay agendas and so on, will help legitimate these young people hating particular groups. There's no question in my mind that the immigration is fueling it. I think 9/11 fueled a lot of it, so there's this anger towards Muslims. We don't yet have the statistics, that I know of, on how many hate crimes in the last couple of years were directly against Muslims, as a religious group. Usually, it's directed about 40 percent of these religious hate crimes against Jewish organizations and Jewish people.

GORDON: Mark how optimistic are you, if at all, when you decipher these numbers.

Mr. POTOK: Well, first of all, I don't think the numbers are essentially any good. Hate crime statistics have shown between about 6,000 and 10,000 hate crimes a year. A study came out last fall, very important study, out of the Department of Justice that showed the real level's probably about 190,000 hate crimes a year.

GORDON: And why is that? Because of the way they're reported, under reported, the fine line between a hate crime and just a crime.

Mr. POTOK: Well there're a whole series of reasons, but the probably most important reason is that the whole reporting system is voluntary.

Dr. POUSSAINT: There's not even a pretense, in fact, that they're collecting all of the data from all across the nation, in fact. There's designated agencies reporting to the FBI, so the data their getting is rather limited. And so I agree, we really don't know what the number is and it could be quite high.

The other issue is that in some states, you know, you can - if it's a hate crime you may get a stiffer sentence and so on. And this may be influencing how hates crimes are reported or not reported in relationship to criminal activity or assaults.

GORDON: Dr. Poussaint, though, the one thing that we do see in hate crimes that has remained constant is the idea that disproportionably hate crimes are committed against African-Americans in this country.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Usually by white youths.

Mr. POTOK: It's probably more adding that it seems - I mean this is only anecdotally known at this point - but certainly there is a swing towards people with brown skin right now. You know, the immigration debate, I think without any doubt at all, has really given kind of a white hot feel to this whole idea that, you know, Mexicans, in particular, are coming to sort of destroy the country and take away our culture and so on. We've seen some just amazing hate crimes involving attacks on Hispanic kids. And the perpetrators are not always white. There's a lot of conflict between black and Hispanic kids. Particularly in California, but other places as well.

Dr. POUSSAINT: I grew up in east Harlem, New York City, which is Spanish Harlem and I remember growing up the conflicts between Puerto Ricans and blacks in that community, despite the fact that we were all very, very poor and at the bottom of the heap in many ways. So we have a propensity to use the prejudice mechanism as a defense and as a way of avoiding problems, a way of releasing our anger, a way of blaming someone else to whatever problems we feel we are experiencing.

GORDON: Well, one can only hope, after all these years, we will somehow find the road to tolerance. Mark Potok is Director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Dr. Alvin Poussaint is professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. I thank you both.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Okay, thank you.

Mr. POTOK: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, will a diamond company hire Nelson Mandela to deflect bad publicity? And a plot to kill Newark's newly elected mayor leads to a lockdown in several New Jersey prisons. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.