Thirty years ago this week, a 27 year-old Chinese-American named Vincent Chin was brutally murdered. Two assailants beat him with a baseball bat, matching their physical violence with a stream of racial epithets. He died four days later, shortly before what would have been his wedding day. Despite the heinous nature of the crime, the state court imposed lenient sentences, so the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice charged the assailants under the federal hate crimes law on the books at the time. One of the two was convicted, and although his conviction was overturned, the story of Vincent Chin serves as an important moment in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community and civil rights history.
Hate crimes enforcement is among the earliest of our responsibilities in the Civil Rights Division. Regrettably, hate crimes remain all too prevalent in communities across the country today. I have seen firsthand the devastating impact of hate crimes - and not only on victims and their families. Acts of bigotry can tear entire communities apart. Hate crimes are an unconscionable reminder that we have not yet achieved the ideal of equal justice for all.
In 2009, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This landmark law was named in the memory of two men who, like Vincent Chin, were brutally murdered by assailants filled with hate. James Byrd, Jr. was a 49-year-old African-American man living in Jasper, Texas, who accepted a ride home from three men on June 7, 1998. They did not take him home. Instead, they drove him to the remote edge of town where they beat him severely, urinated on him, chained him by the ankles to the back of a pickup truck, and then drove the pickup truck for three miles, dragging him to his death. Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old gay man studying at the University of Wyoming, when he went to a local bar and met two men who offered him a ride home on October 6, 1998. Instead of taking him home, they drove him to a remote area outside of town, where he was tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die.
While the men responsible for the Byrd and Shepard murders were convicted of murder, none of them were prosecuted for committing a hate crime. Neither state had a hate crimes law at the time the murders occurred, and federal law did not apply. A now two-year-old federal law, 18 U.S.C. Section 249 enables the Justice Department to prosecute cases involving hate crimes motivated by the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or disability of the victim. Crucially, for particular cases the law removes the requirement that the Department show that the defendant was engaged in a "federally protected activity," which was required under the previous hate crimes statute, 18 U.S.C. Section 245, passed shortly after the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
In a diverse, democratic nation like ours, we all must be able to live and work in our communities without fear of being attacked because of how we look, what we believe, where we are from, or who we love. Despite our nation's great progress in advancing civil rights, brutal assaults made more vicious by racial epithets still occur in big cities and small towns. Crosses are still burned on the lawns of people minding their own business. Mosques, synagogues and churches still are desecrated and sometimes destroyed. Incidents that belong only in our history books still appear in the pages of our newspapers.
The prosecution of hate crimes must be one element in a broader effort of community engagement and empowerment. We need prevention, intervention and reporting strategies to move communities forward in a meaningful way. We have had to battle these acts of bigotry for too long, and in the 21st century, we must focus on eradicating hate from our communities altogether, stopping these acts before they occur.
Prosecuting hate crimes therefore is a top priority for the Attorney General and the Civil Rights Division, and we have expanded our efforts to prosecute hate crimes. So far, the Division has indicted 10 cases and charged 35 defendants under the Shepard-Byrd law.
Vincent Chin, James Byrd, Jr., and Matthew Shepard remain powerful reminders of why, in 2012, we continue to stand beside those in our nation who cannot make their voices heard alone. We will continue to enforce these essential laws to ensure that all individuals can realize the promise of equal justice under the law.
Thomas E. Perez is Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.