Can You Commit a Hate Crime Against a White Person?

After assaulting a woman "because she was white," a black man in New York was charged with a hate crime. We asked a lawyer to explain how the controversial law is applied.

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Mar 24 2016, 7:25pm

Photo by Riley Joseph via Stocksy

On March 10, 2016, a 25-year-old black man named Gregory Alfred allegedly assaulted a white woman while she was walking in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park. Like a vision out of New York at its worst, reports say that Alfred's face was covered in an American flag bandana when he slashed 53-year-old Janina Popko across the back of her neck. Yesterday, the New York Daily News confirmed that Alfred has been charged with multiple counts of assault and attempted murder as a hate crime. The publication reports that Alfred confessed to the crime after his mother turned him in to the police.

"I cut her because she was white," Alfred told the authorities. Police sources also told the New York Post that Alfred had "set out to slash white people because he blamed them and 'the system' for preventing him from freely smoking weed."

Because his statements to police that defined his crime as racially motivated, Alfred, if convicted, faces harsher sentencing because his actions fit the legal definition of a "hate crime." And while it's intuitively shocking to see a black man tried for a hate crime, there's nothing within the law that precludes it.

State hate crime laws were widely enacted in the 1980s with the idea of protecting the civil rights of minority groups. Since then, the FBI has published a survey on all reported hate crimes in the United States. The majority, as one could imagine, are racially motivated. According to the survey, 47 percent of the 5,462 bias-motivated crimes reported in 2014 were based on race. The FBI statistics don't specify a further racial breakdown.

As defined by the state of New York, a hate crime occurs when a person "intentionally selects the person against whom the offense is committed or intended to be committed in whole or in substantial part because of a belief or perception regarding the race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation of a person, regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct."

Under this definition, a member of a minority group can commit a hate crime against a member of a privileged group. Indeed, the landmark case that set a precedent for hate crime laws as being not in opposition to free speech involved a group of young black Wisconsin teenagers who—after watching Mississippi Burning, a 1988 film about a hate crime committed against black Civil Rights activists—assaulted a 14-year-old white boy in 1989. Before the act took place, one of the boys, Todd Mitchell, turned to his friends and asked, "Do you feel all hyped up to move on some white people?''

Mitchell was sentenced to two years for aggravated battery and given an additional two years under the state's hate crime statue. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin overturned the ruling on the grounds of free speech, but it was ultimately upheld in the United States Supreme Court. The ACLU, an organization long recognized for its commitment to civil rights, praised the decision: "The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the judgment of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin; the Supreme Court reversed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win."

As demonstrated with Mitchell v. Wisconsin and Alfred's justifications for his crime, black people have a historically fraught relationship with hate crimes. In a paper titled, "Hate Crimes, Stress and Bigotry in the Late Twentieth Century: Where Are We Headed?," Tony Brown, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University, writes, "African Americans are the only group of persons categorized in significant numbers as both victims and perpetrators of hate crimes."

Although the racial prejudice that would drive a white person to commit a hate crime against a black person is the same tension that would drive a black person to commit a hate crime against a white person, James Jacobs, a professor of constitutional law at New York University and the courts director for the Center for Research in Crime and Justice, confirms that the term goes both ways. "There's nothing unusual about applying hate crime laws to black defendants who harbor racist motivations against their victims. That's never really been controversial," said Jacobs told Broadly over the phone.

In the case of Alfred, however, there may be one unusual factor: The New Jersey man was previously arrested for trespassing, but not deemed mentally fit to stand trial. He is currently being held without bail and has been ordered to undergo a psychiatric exam.