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Image: Keith Tucker

When it comes to bigotry and violence in Hawai‘i, confusion abounds

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Cover image for Jan 20, 2010

As the civil unions debate keeps our attention focused on questions of fundamental equality in the erstwhile “Aloha State,” recent reports on hate crimes in Hawaii raise questions about how committed local officials are to applying existing laws designed to protect vulnerable minorities. The local incidence of hate crimes appears low, at least according to government data, but peculiarities of both state law and reporting methods leave the actual picture of bigotry-related violence unclear, and at least one mainland researcher believes Hawaii is “in denial” about the problem.

In November, the FBI released its annual survey of hate crimes. The agency’s numbers are based on reporting from every state but one. Hawaii is the only state that does not participate in the FBI’s hate crimes program, for reasons that, depending on whom you ask, are either nefarious or simply logistical.

Those issues aside, the state does gather and release its own hate crimes data, and according to those numbers, hate crimes held steady in 2008, matching the previous year’s total: one.

With a population of 1.3 million people, Hawaii reported one hate crime in both 2007 and 2008, putting it among the states with the lowest rates of such offenses. By way of comparison, Maine, home to a population almost identical in size, reported 136 hate crimes over the same two-year period. Only Mississippi reports a lower rate of hate crimes than does Hawaii.

While those numbers, taken at a glance, may conform to some of our deepest beliefs–that Hawaii is a model of tolerance–a closer look raises questions. Is Maine really a hotbed of bigoted racial and sexual violence? Is Mississippi–one of the poorest states in the union and the site of some of the most murderous violence of the civil rights era–really home to the fewest hate crimes in the nation?

It’s complicated

Understanding the hate crimes problem, both here in Hawaii and elsewhere in the U.S., turns out to be complicated. Thanks to differences in both police and prosecutorial reporting standards in various areas, reported data is in many ways unreliable as a measure of the actual extent of crimes of bigotry. Those 136 hate crimes in Maine, for example, are crimes reported by police agencies in that state. Hawaii’s one incident per year reflects the number of hate crimes prosecutions.

Paul Perrone, chief of Research and Statistics at the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General, explains the difference.

“Most state reports are based on offenses reported to the police,” he says. “Our program, by contrast, is based on cases reported by prosecutors. That’s a much different standard.”

Perrone uses a hypothetical case to illustrate the challenges prosecutors face in attempting to establish whether a hate crime has been committed.

“Say you have a case where a guy who’s sitting outside of a gay bar in Waikiki tells the police, ‘This guy came up and said such and such and hit me.’” In most states, Perrone says, such an incident would count as a hate crime, because the victim reported it that way to the police. According to Hawaii standards, however, the designation would not be applied until prosecutors reviewed the arrest.

“Let’s say you make an arrest,” Perrone continues, “and it turns out something else happened, or there are conflicting witness statements about who started it, who said what to whom, that sort of thing. These things are very hard to sort out at the police level.”

Honolulu prosecutor Peter Carlisle says the process doesn’t get much easier at the prosecution level, stressing that Hawaii’s hate crimes law requires a very specific standard.

“The question has to do with how you define a hate crime.” Carlisle and others point to the requirement under state law that in order for a hate crime to have occurred, the perpetrator must have specifically intended to do harm because of the victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation or other protected status.

“The way we look at it,” Carlisle says, “is that the prime motivator has to be going after someone in one of those categories. ‘I’m out to get a white person, I’m out to get a Hawaiian person,’ something like that.”

Carlisle says that sets an unusually high standard, and employs another hypothetical to the same effect.

“The typical scenario is something like road rage,” he says. “Two idiots start to duke it out, and the first thing that comes out of each of their mouths is something derogatory about the other’s race or ethnicity.”

Carlisle says this type of incident–an assault unrelated to any category of hatred but that devolves into racial name-calling–is common.

“That happens all the time in Hawaii,” he says. “The first thing hotheads do is start degrading each other using any words they can think of. Now, these guys are idiots, but is this really a hate crime? You’re walking on very thin ice there.”

A faltering standard?

Brian Levin, who is director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, says the net result of these seemingly procedural issues is a serious undercounting of hate crimes in Hawaii. He says years in which Hawaii has reported a single hate crime reflect not an absence of bigoted violence, but a failure to take it seriously.

“Reporting only one incident, two years in a row, makes Hawaii the worst state in the United States with regard to hate crime reporting,” he says. “Neck-and-neck with Mississippi.” Levin–who points out that Mississippi is a state with a high level of racial violence but a very low level of hate crimes reports–says he believes the narrowness of Hawaii’s law and its failure to participate in the FBI’s program share a single cause.

“Hawaii has always had difficulty in identifying prejudice,” he says, “and of really dealing with it in a forthright manner. I think Hawaii is sensitive based on the fact that it’s a unique place, and to really acknowledge that there’s any kind of problem interferes with the laid back, ‘we all get along’ reputation that in many cases is well-deserved.”

Levin says regardless of the general tenor of social attitudes here, the reporting is simply not credible.

“I love Hawaii,” Levin says, “but I’m in my third decade of studying hate and extremism. For a state with about 1.3 million people to have one reported hate crime strains all credulity.”

The solution, Levin says, could be new legislation aimed at broadening the definition of hate crimes and freeing prosecutors to bring more charges.

Carlisle, however, believes that’s a solution in search of a problem.

“I couldn’t agree with [Levin’s] statement less,” he says. “I don’t think we need new statutes.”

While Carlisle acknowledges that hate crimes are underreported in Hawaii as elsewhere, he says he believes Hawaii is different.

“My guess is we do have fewer hate crimes,” Carlisle says, pointing to the many cultural and social differences between Hawaii and other states. “At least as far as I can see, in terms of having lived in very segregated communities in New England, because we are so close to one another and because there is so much intermarriage, and because we are so diverse, Hawaii is different.

How many other states have more interracial marriages than intraracial marriages? You have so many people of mixed-race parentage–all of that tends to blur the primacy of race.”