The Society for the
Study of Social Issues


Passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

On October 28, 2009 President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. Eleven years ago, Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. were brutally murdered in two separate hate crimes.  After more than a decade of advocacy, inclusive hate crimes legislation has become law.  The new law now provides federal support for the prosecution of felony or violent acts directed at an individual because of race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability. Hate crimes differ qualitatively from other felonies and violent crimes, having broader and longer-lasting effects which make this law necessary.

As we will highlight, victims of hate crimes experience more severe health consequences compared to victims of other types of violent crimes.  Moreover, hate crimes affect other people in addition to the direct victims.  These crimes can have profound effects for those who share the identity of victims, people who consider themselves allies of the targeted group, and communities as a whole.

If someone is attacked on the basis of an identity – who they are, who they love, how they worship, what they look like – versus being attacked in a robbery, the psychological ramifications differ. Victims of hate crimes are at heightened risk for psychological distress (depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder) beyond the risks resulting from general violent crime victimization.  Victims of hate crimes experience greater symptom severity and duration compared to victims of other violent crimes.

Additionally, hate crimes affect people who share the victim’s group identity (e.g., same race, same sexual orientation, etc.). People who share the targeted identity also feel threatened after a fellow group member is targeted. Witnessing discrimination against a fellow group member can lead to depressive symptoms and lower self-esteem. Compared to seeing a random act of violence, hate crime suggests to victims and those sharing the targeted identity that they may experience subsequent violence and are not safe.

Hate crimes affect entire communities in addition to the individual victims and targeted groups. In our own work, even the psychological well-being of allies (those who are not a group member, but support the group) is harmed by hate speech.

On the basis of a wide range of social psychological research, hate crimes have much broader effects than other violent crimes. For hate crime victims, affected communities, and allies, the new legislation is an important step forward. We applaud the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Julie Garcia, Ph.D.
Carrie Langner, Ph.D.
Psychology and Child Development Department
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin