An interdisciplinary thought about hate crime

By Joanna Perry

Joanna Perry is an independent consultant and co-chair of the advisory board of the International Network for Hate Studies

Joanna Perry

I am currently studying for a post graduate certificate in Online and Distance Education at the Open University. One of the things that I am enjoying the most are the unexpected connections between what we are learning about learning and my own work over the years.


We were set a reading by John Seeley Brown et al. early on in the course.


One of several ideas that grabbed my attention was:


‘… a concept…is always under construction’


A lot of my working life has been spent on understanding and implementing various aspects of ‘hate crime’ as a way to understand and respond to often bigoted and always targeted violence against marginalised and socially excluded groups. In other words, learning and raising awareness about ‘hate crime’ not just as a phenomenon but as a conceptual ‘tool’. I should say that the relatively straightforward description of hate crime that I have offered here belies the lively and complex debates about the nature of identity, freedom of expression and prejudice contained within it. Certainly, when I have designed and delivered ‘training’ and ‘capacity building’ activities on ‘understanding and responding to hate crime’, my most common experience is that the diverse communities affected by targeted violence and the police and prosecutors tasked with their protection will have strong and often conflicting opinions about hate crime’s prevalence, impact, appropriate responses and definition, thus raising questions about its use and very relevance as a conceptual tool.


Brown et al. go on to explain, ‘…it is not possible to use a tool appropriately without understanding the community or culture in which it is used…Activity, concept and culture are interdependent…learning must involve all three’.


And that made me think more.


While the focus of Brown et al.’s argument was on the need for students to be taught not just the ‘know what’ of a subject but also the ‘know how’, I found it equally powerful when it comes to thinking about how ‘international experts’ like me can fulfil the role of teacher in contexts with which they have limited familiarity. Using Brown et al.’s lingo, the teacher needs to be ‘inculturated’ into the lived reality of the police officers and prosecutors that s/he is teaching as much as his or her students need to be inculturated into the idea that the conceptual tool of hate crime is the best way to explore, understand and – most importantly – to prevent targeted, bigoted violence.


These connections helped me further develop and articulate my existing beliefs: firstly that hate crime cannot be implemented as an international concept unless it is accepted that it is and should always be ‘under construction’ and; secondly that the various stakeholders across disciplines and countries should have an equal and meaningful stake in this process of construction, as opposed to it being ‘delivered’ to them as a pre-determined set of laws, procedures and approaches.


This is a challenging proposition. How can international organisations measure the implementation of something that is in a perpetual state of renovation by so many different stakeholders? Surely stable concepts are the necessary foundation for legal and monitoring definitions, laws, procedures and statistics. Yet, we cannot ignore context and its influence on people’s understanding, use and perception of, in this case, criminological and criminal justice concepts. What is being suggested here is that conceptual tools should be understood and implemented through and influenced by a prism of diverse cultural, social and historical realities. And, that a learning environment is possibly an ideal place for this process to take place.


I found that examining a familiar problem through the lens of learning removed the political norms and power dynamics often connected to discussions about the hate crime concept and its implementation. It made me think more about the context in which I and many others work, and its influence on our needs as policy advisors, teachers, learning designers and trainers. It also made me think more about the needs of our ‘target groups’, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘participants’ and how taking a rooted and contextual approach will influence their learning and should influence our teaching.

5 comments on “An interdisciplinary thought about hate crime

  1. Paul Giannasi

    This is very interesting.

    In the UK we spent lots of time from the 1999, Stephen Lawrence Inquiry until 2007 deciding the definition and parameters of racist (and eventually other) hate crime. Even 17 years on there is still no consensus.

    Whilst there was a need to have something to help deliver consistent policy and to begin to gather data, definitional boundaries appear to be exclusionary the moment they are agreed. Evidence of this in the UK came with the tragic murder of Sophie Lancaster in 2007 who poignantly, died just as the definitions paper was submitted to criminal justice executives for approval. Most would agree that her victimisation had all of the hallmarks of a hate crime but fell outside the agreed parameters.

    I would still advocate that states should ‘draw a line around’ what they will measure but they also need to keep an open mind on the ever changing landscape of hate to ensure that those excluded are not left feeling doubly victimised.

  2. Thank you very much for this post! It seems to me that there is a tension between the need for conceptual clarity on the one hand and the need for contextual sensitivity on the other. In the European perspective, for instance, there is the 2008 Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law, which require of the EU member-states that they offer some sort of hate crime legislation. The terms are kept deliberatively vague, however, as a recognition of the variations between member states when it comes to hate crime dynamics, but also in order not to overstep the competencies of the Union.

    This is problematic, though: if too much is left open for the member states, for instance deciding what groups to include as protected under the hate crime umbrella, the terms of the framework decision can not be used to effectively criticize those states if they fail to offer protection to certain targeted groups.

    I’d say that while it is desirable to keep the hate crime somewhat fluid to reflect the realities of the local context, this should not result in vagueness concerning what a state should offer when it comes to protection of its citizens. Again with a focus on the issue of protected groups: what a pan-European hate crime conception should offer is a practical criteria for inclusion. This criteria would play out differently in different states (for instance: atheists may still qualify for such protection in Poland, whereas they probably would not in Sweden), but there would be a possibility for a targeted community that is currently not protected to complain, using this criteria to prove that they ought to be included according to the European standard.

    Now, the OSCE-ODIHR and FRA are, of course, offering advice to countries when it comes to implementing hate crime legislation, but this seems to require the good will and cooperation of the member state in question. The point of a legally binding decision, I gather, is that the protection offered to groups and individuals should not be contingent on such matters.

  3. AGH

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.
    I agree with David that some certainty as to what we mean when we say “hate crime” is necessary and I see benefits of having a normative or at least “softly agreed” (like in case of the OSCE definition) concept. Each context prioritizes protection of different groups, of course. For me, however, conceptual variations are not only – or primarily – about protected groups.
    Many countries’ (including most EU members) criminal justice agencies are struggling with recording, investigating, and prosecuting hate crimes, and many hate crimes go unrecognized and unaddressed as such. In my opinion, one of the main reasons for this is that a hate crime model is not entering a vacuum in those countries – there are pre-existing frameworks for dealing with related, but conceptually quite different, phenomena. In Central and Eastern Europe, for example, the extremism model predates all attempts to address hate crimes. Hate crime model is entering an arena where the whole criminal justice systems are attuned to identifying manifestation of “harmful” ideology in offenders. Offender’s tattoos and political views may be more important than their actual motivation.
    In such context, agreeing that more voice should be given to local interpretations of the hate crime concept, could result in the destruction of the hate crime concept, rather than its strengthening. That would be a shame, when there are already positive examples demonstrating that “extremist” or “politically motivated” crimes approach can be combined with the hate crime model (e.g. Slovakia, Germany). Both approaches can co-exist in one jurisdiction but that requires conceptual clarity and integrity – which is easier preserved in an “imported” solution.
    I would agree that the OPERATIONALIZATION of the concept needs to be context-specific, but not necessarily its interpretation.

  4. Joanna Perry

    There are so many good points here, I can’t do them all justice. Just to pick up on a few. Paul of course brings up the essential victim perspective. You also remind us that taking a more flexible approach, underpinned by the overarching aim of not excluding affected groups can lead to diverse yet relevant local policy decisions. For example, Greater Manchester Police’ decision to record alternative sub-culture hate crimes following the murder of Sophie Lancaster thus making this bias motivation part of its hate crime concept, if not the national concept.

    David, I like that phrase, ‘a pan European hate crime conception should offer practical criteria for inclusion’. I think that this works really well at the legal level. Then, as AGH gets into the operational level, we can see the host of other issues that come in as the legal concept is transformed into the operational concept and placed in the operational context. AGH gets into the police perspective as they think about the type of evidence that they perceive that they need to prove the bias element in hate crimes and how the ‘extremist’ model can really influence this stage, but that it can be done alongside and be positively influenced by the more newly arrived hate crime concept.
    On AGH’s point that the ‘operationalization of the concept should be context-specific but not necessarily its interpretation’. I see where you are coming from but at the end of the day, it is the police, prosecutors, judges, NGOs, victims, scholars, broader society, or all of us, who are the ‘interpreters’ of ‘hate crime’. In other words, it is being interpreted all the time whatever the international or national framework that is put in place (literally in the case of translating the term into other languages, which has its own pitfalls!).

    I think I am exploring how one (we) might create learning ‘spaces’ that can hold these diverse interpreters and connect them to each other, and to the hate crime concept. Perhaps I believe that those in this space will come to the same conclusion as we are arriving at here: the hate crime concept is the best way that
    we currently have to explain, understand and respond to targeted violence. But I think we need to do more to create that space, time and connection so that all of our understanding of this area will deepen, become more adaptable to diverse contexts and reveal more contextually-specific hooks and levers for effective and rooted implementation.

    Often the two/ five day capacity building activities or short field visits to assess the ‘national situation’ are not conducive to these types of approaches and connections. And, notwithstanding the political and financial barriers that would often preclude this approach, thinking about learning – and the type of learning the different ‘interpreters might need – got me to this thought.

    A small example, I would argue that the ‘soft’ international standard that hate crime data should be published is part of the international hate crime concept, say under the heading of ‘responses to hate crime’. This of course makes sense- affected communities and the general public should know the nature of the problem, be aware of the barriers of under-recording and under reporting, have a sense of which groups are at risk, the impact on them and how the authorities measure and address the problem. This is an important point of transparency. However, in some contexts, say for example those that are still emerging from a past of ethnic conflict, this may not be the right approach. This data can become highly politicised and even increase tensions among communities. Perhaps it is better to take the policy decision to not publish some figures for this reason, yet use them to assess the problem and engage with NGOs working on the issue and supporting victim communities. Thus, we have the situation where although transparency is part of the international hate crime concept, it might undermine the effectiveness of its implementation in some national contexts. Perhaps these realities should be reflected in the international framework, perhaps through context-specific guidance. The voice of the ‘interpreters’ at the national level should be able to influence the international concept. Again, taking a learning perspective, I imagine using learning techniques to bring these voices in to influence and nuance, in this case the concept of hate crime, with the outcome of it emerging stronger and more relevant to increasingly diverse contexts of always targeted and often bigoted violence.

  5. Great words by great minds. I would argue that hate crime law should be about ensuring the safety of everyone who is different from another in an identifiable way. We would lose the focus the moment we think about categorising the victims instead of the heinous criminal act.

    An ever-changing concept is far from ideal and would further leave the subject to controversy and injustice. However, focusing on the criminal act and its biased motive (nevermind towards which group) should establish the message that bigotry is not accepted and can be punished severely.

    Many assume that it would overload the criminal justice system if a broader approach is taken. However, I would argue that bigotry should be punished as the only aspect of hate crime not the many numbers of vulnerable groups. It will undoubtedly complicate the matter if we want to list all the groups.

    However, my point is that we remove them all from the equation and instead focus on the bigotry which would simplify the process, decrease the workload, and ensure the protection of everyone’s freedom with their identity characteristic, and it is applicable to any country and culture on the basis of moral values.


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