‘Some people are racist, and you just have to deal with it’ is the attitude that Suffolk County police seem to have. On Jan. 31, a Riverhead school district in New York charged three Caucasian high school students with hate crimes. County and police officials lowered the charges to second-degree harassment, for which the maximum penalty is 15 days in jail. Unlike Riverhead Chief of Police David Hegermiller, who views this sentence as justified, I support Police County Executive Steve Levy, who is currently arguing for the redrafting of New York legislation. As expressed by the New York Hate Crimes Act of 2000, a second-degree harassment crime is to ‘strike, shove, kick or otherwise subject another person to physical contact, or attempt to threaten to do the same because of a belief or perception regarding such person’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation.’ When the subjugation of a person or group of persons results in incalculable physical and emotional damage or tears the ‘fabric of society,’ it qualifies as a hate crime.
The actions committed by the 16-year-old and two 17-year-old boys deserve far more than a mere 15-day jail sentence. They publicly taunted two of their African- American classmates as they muzzled and handcuffed the hands and feet of a black doll while they strangled its neck with a noose, hanging the rope from their hands as they imagined the object to be dead. This act is incontestably villainous. In the context of several centuries of American slavery and legalized racial segregation, their actions were entirely out of line. The excuse cannot be given that they simply ‘didn’t know’ or ‘it was a joke.’ They did know and it wasn’t funny. All American high school students are required to know American history, and as slavery played a crucial part in that history it is irrefutable that the boys learned about it at some point in their academic lives; how else did they imagine this scene in the first place? Segregation and racist white America have become synonymous with an African- American being lynched while a group of Caucasians surround him with taunts and laughs. As the New York classroom paralleled such a scene (using a doll instead of a living person) it is certain that the boys were aware of the implications of their actions, and drew on these purposefully and with pride.
To recall such injustice in a supportive manner is to cause severe emotional damage. And, as this is one of several of the same acts committed in and outside of school by Caucasian adults and children, these acts threaten to tear the very ‘fabric of society.’ As such, it is arguable that the three teenagers did commit a hate crime and should be given a much harsher punishment.
Now, I do agree with New York University Professor James Jacobson in his belief that ‘people can’t expect punishment [to lead to individual] tolerance.’ He is correct in his judgment because it is in prison that people are most intolerant and continue to be such even after they have served their sentence. The prison system acts as merely a temporary place of holding rather than a rehabilitation center. For this reason, just as illegal drug abusers are sentenced to jail and/or are solely required to receive recovery treatment, perhaps persons convicted of hate crimes should be forced to undergo a treatment for social intolerance alongside their incarceration. Understandably, all individuals have the right to their own opinions, likes and dislikes. However, some form of intolerance treatment program is needed. Nothing that preaches the basic elementary school rule ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ but some type of program that involves community service, outreach, research and other activities that result in the increased tolerance of an individual. Next to this, jail sentence times should be increased greatly. Only after the implementation of these two can the ever-percolating tension of racism being to decrease.