Racists as victims of hate crime: the vulnerability account

15 mars 2012 | In Crime Hate Crime politics Self-indulgence | Comments?
Victim-centered accounts of hate crime

One of the main issues debated when it comes to hate crime is about its victim: Who are the victims of hate crimes? This can be taken as an empirical question about the most common victims of hate motivated attacks – a very relevant question that can and probably should drive policy measures – or it can be taken as a conceptual question regarding what counts as a hate crime. There is a widespread belief, for instance, that only minorities can be the victim of a hate crime. But in most legislations being targeted because of religion, for instance, includes being targeted for belonging to the majority religion. It’s just much less common.

Very few countries have an open-ended scope for victim, suggesting that it’s not merely the ”hate” or ”bias” aspect that makes these crimes of special interest. The sort of group that you hate must have some particular feature or history, that makes targeting them a particularly bad idea.

Perception matters

It is, in fact, not the actual group-membership of the victim that counts, but what group the perpetrator believe the victim belongs to. I’m not Jewish, but because of my name and some superficial features, one may perhaps be led to believe that I am, and if one attacks me because of this belief and bias toward Jewish people, I would be the victim of an anti-semitic hate crime. This, of course, makes sense if hate crime focuses on culpability of perpetrator: for all he/she knew, I’m Jewish and attacking me would tend to have the intended consequences of harming me and my group. In fact, the targeted group may still suffer, if they get to know that I was targeted because (mistakenly) believed to belong to them. One notable feature of this arrangement, however, is that I, presumably, would not suffer more because mistakenly being held to be Jewish than if I had been the target of some otherwise motivated crime. So harm-wise, it might be preferable that I be the victim of an anti-semitic attack than that an actual Jewish person is. But, of course, if targeted in such an attack, I would probably not have the typical supporting back-up of the Jewish community, so perhaps I would, in a sense, be worse off. Oh well.

The motive

There’s one further aspect: It’s not enough that the perpetrator believes that the victim belongs to a certain group, that must also be the reason why that victim was chosen. This is of considerable importance, as we shall see below.


Hate crime legislation was developed in support of certain groups that were very often targeted by bias-motivated crime. Certain ethnic and religious groups and certain groups based on sexual preference were, and still are suffering more than their share of bias motivated attacks, and something had to be done about it. Several things, in fact. But there are two rationales lurking here: 1) These people are being targeted more often, and we need to create incentive for this to decrease. And 2) These people suffer more as a result of being targeted than do other people. This is the ”hate crimes hurt more” account, which I’ve written about before. Both these accounts make room for limiting the ”hate crime” category to certain groups: those that are hurt more by being targeted. This is in line with the harm principle – punishing perpetrators in proportion to the harm they cause, or intend, or risk, to cause.

We may speculate that 2) is true because 1) is true, but let’s focus on 2). This suggest that certain groups are more vulnerable to harm. They may be such, in a sense developed by Wolff and De-Shalit, that their disadvantages cluster: They are not only more likely to be victims of crimes, but also less likely to secure jobs, more likely to be discriminated against, having less access to certain social goods etc. Targeting the vulnerable seems to add to your culpability (even if you could defend yourself by saying that they were already at such an disadvantage, that another attack wouldn’t make things that much worse). Let’s grant this, for the moment, and say that hate crime legislation is in place to protect groups that are at a disadvantage. Minorities often are, but not all minorities. The very rich, for instance, is a minority, but not a vulnerable one. Targeting them would not, on this account, count as a hate crime.

Vulnerability and motive

Now we come to a tricky issue: we’ve said that what’s important in hate crime is 1) Perception of the victims group and 2) Vulnerability of that group and 3) Hate/bias toward that group. If 3) is essential to hate crime, and this should fit into the ”vulnerability-as-prone-to-harm” account, we must show that targeting a group because of membership is worse than targeting them for some other reason. I.e. prone to cause more harm. We are currently not enhancing punishment just for knowingly attacking someone belonging to one of these group, so this seems to be an essential ingredient. The argument is usually that if I’m targeted because of group-membership, that means I and my group live under a constant threat of being targeted again. I won’t evaluate this claim here, but grant it and see what follows. For if this was a tricky issue, the following is even worse:

Vulnerability as perceived by victim

Let’s grant that for most societies, the majority is not at a disadvantage (this may be a conceptual claim, or an empirical one and as such is probably challenged by the 99% movement). So if I’m targeted because of belonging to that group, I’m not suffering any additional harm, and the perpetrator would not have deserved punishment enhancement. Despite fulfilling the other criteria, the ”hate” part, I’m not the victim of a hate crime. I don’t believe muslims, say, are a threat. I don’t think they are taking over the country I live in and intend to bring in Sharia law. But I know that some people do. Most of them are probably just paranoid and misinformed, a lot of them seem to be clear cut racists. These people think that they are under a real threat from muslims. So what happens when one of them is attacked by a muslim because of majority group-membership? Presumably perceived vulnerability matters to the harm experienced by a victim. So, again, attacking me for belonging to the majority would seem to be not as bad as attacking a racist for that same reason. The same sort of insecurity would tend to spread, at least in the racist community, and the harm would be, and should be foreseen to be, considerable.

Should this count as a hate crime? I’m guessing most people would say no. I tend to say ”no”. But this means the vulnerability account needs to be amended in some way. Perhaps the answer is that the attacker only thinks that the victim belongs to the majority, and that at least the majority of the majority does not perceive themselves to be threatened in this way. It’s only if they target the ”vulnerable” group of the majority that they are culpable. But then, of course, we’ve said that they are not targeted because they belong to the vulnerable subgroup of the majority.

I’ve not considered a case where racists are targeted because they are racists, partly because I don’t think many of them perceive themselves as such. But let’s say that a group is targeted because of their racists beliefs, and that the vulnerability-related harm ensues, for the reasons mentioned. Would this count as a hate crime? If you suggests ”no”, there is a further victim based account, and I will deal with it in another post.


One reason why hate-fuelled crime against racists would not count as a hate crime might be that their vulnerability is based on mistaken beliefs. But note that the same would seem to hold for at the very least most of religious groups as well. But perhaps it is because victims of hate crimes are supposed to be innocent. I.e. in no way deserving of hate? There is something morally wrong with being a racist, the same moral wrong that other hate crime concepts take as their justification. And hating the immoral might not add to culpability. In fact, some would say that it would be a mitigating, rather than aggravating circumstance. I’ll return to this in a later post.

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