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Situation Room: Hate Crimes

People have been tossing this phrase around a lot lately — but does it mean what they think it does?

When events warrant, the MTV News team gathers together in our virtual secure bunker to discuss the political news of the day. Today's topic: Some people are calling the Dallas shooting a "hate crime." How is that designation a modern legal tool, and has the concept been distorted by digital echo chambers? Here with us today: Carvell Wallace, Ezekiel Kweku, Jane Coaston, and Ana Marie Cox.

Wallace: We’ve reached this odd point where public figures have to say things that seem absolutely insane to one side of the political spectrum in order to hang on to what little wisps of credibility they maintain with the center/other side. This maybe has to do with how far apart we’ve grown as a country in our views. (The Wall Street Journal has an interesting interactive on how big a role social media algorithms play in this.) I’ve heard some people blaming Obama for spouting off divisive rhetoric, but it seems to me that he’s actually just in something of an impossible position. A not insignificant number of people actually suspect he’s a terrorist sympathizer. There are others who believe he’s the ultimate symbol of American imperial violence. In order for him to manage, he has to somehow speak defensively against both of these points of view. So it strikes me that the use of “hate crime” is a capitulation to a portion of the population that sees police as an identity rather than a profession. In the public view, “hate crime” connotes any act of violence against a person for who they are. But I would imagine there are more complex legal reasons for the distinctions that are lost on those of us who are not lawyers. Obviously, all murder is deeply wrong. And yet I wonder if there are valid legal reasons (ability to prosecute, historically uneven sentencing standards) to separate out murders that are committed in response to someone’s chosen profession from murders that are committed in response to the body someone was born with.

Kweku: In general, I find the concept of creating a special category called "hate crimes" to be problematic, although I understand the rationale for their existence. To me, saying that an act can only qualify as a hate crime because of innate qualities rather than something chosen by the person doesn’t make sense. Can’t a crime against someone because they are Muslim be equally motivated by hatred as one against someone because they are black, even though one does not choose their religion? Even more difficult for this definition, can't a crime against a sex worker be a hate crime, even though sex work is a profession?

It seems to me that we understand hate crimes to be crimes committed against historically marginalized groups because of their membership in that group, whether that membership is voluntary or not. Even given this modified definition, I'm still a little skeptical that such a privileged legal category should exist, but it's clear that cops do not qualify.

Coaston: I agree. I also get the reasoning: Hate crimes not only injure a person, they injure a community by spreading fear and terror. But one could also say that domestic violence does the same, as do premeditated crimes of other kinds. And I am really not sure that police officers — who have the unique training and ability to retaliate in kind — would or should be included.

Cox: I think in general, when we try to create categories of crime based on identities (however you define them), you get situations that boomerang in the direction of the oppressed, no matter how well intentioned the creation of the law is. Also when we create categories of punishment that deem some criminals "worse" than others. Everyone now recognizes that this happened with the drug war and disproportionate sentencing for crack versus powdered cocaine. But it's now happening with sex-offender registries, too: Great idea, because who wants sex offenders in their neighborhoods? But it turns out that in practice, black men are disproportionately registered as sex offenders — indeed, one study has it that 1 percent of all black men in America are on a sex-offender registry (Alton Sterling was one of them), and I don't think anyone here believes that's because they're more prone to sex crimes. I suspect it has to do with inadequate defense representation and inflated charges, as well as juries finding black men guilty more often than they find white men.

So, I'm not surprised that white supremacy has surfaced in how "hate crime" might be defined. That said, I get that it's a useful designation. Back when I had a more hardline libertarian view against hate-crime designations, lawyer friends explained to me that it was admittedly an imprecise tool but one that was needed — the federal hate-crime law allows the federal government to step in when local governments might take a more, um, lackadaisical approach to prosecution [coughthesouthcough].

Even so, it's the slipperiness of the divining motives that still bothers me. Maybe I just have a problem with calling it "hate crime"? The problem isn't the motive, after all, it's that violence against blacks, women, LGBTQ people, etc. is violence that perpetuates a history of injustice and inequality — which is not the problem with violence against police officers. Maybe that kind of violence deserves a special designation, but it's not the same kind of oppression.