Is This Really A Hate Crime?

Some of you are no doubt aware of the story out of Montgomery, Alabama surrounding the vandalizing of a Confederate statue.  Last week the faces of Confederate soldiers were painted black with “N.T. 11 11 31” spray painted in reference to the anniversary of Nat Turner’s insurrection execution in Southampton County, Virginia.  Before proceeding I want to make it clear that this type of behavior is unacceptable and if caught the perpetrators ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

That said, I am intrigued by the talk of “hate crime” as a proper characterization of the act.  From today’s Montgomery Advertiser:

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said while the action was “very objectionable,” painting over the face of a statue of a Confederate soldier was not an attack on all white people. The vandalism insulted people who respect the rule of law or admire the memories of the old South, said Potok, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project.  “It’s more an attack on the principle of the old Confederacy, but not to all white people in general,” Potok said Thursday.  He said a hate crime targets an entire group of people who share a common link such as race, religion, disability, nationality, gender, or sexual preference.  “If these vandals had written ‘death to whitey’ or ‘all whites must die’ it would have been a hate crime because it attacked an entire class of people,” Potok said.

Of course, representatives of the SCV and UDC disagree:

But representatives of the Alabama Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans want the defacement to be investigated as a hate crime.  The historical group is offering a $1,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the vandalism that occurred sometime last Saturday night.  Pat Godwin, a Selma resident and a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, inspected the damage Thursday.  She said she believes the reference to Turner is what makes the incident a hate crime.  Godwin said the numbers represent the date of Nov. 11, 1831, when Turner was executed for leading a slave insurrection in Virginia. The revolt resulted in the death of 57 whites.  “This speaks loudly to me as a white person that whoever defaced this monument must hate all whites by honoring Nat Turner, who slaughtered innocent white children by decapitating them in 1831,” Godwin said.

On the face of it I tend to agree with Potok.  This is not necessarily directed at all white people given that not all white people identify with the symbolism or history of the statue.  Godwin’s argument is on shaky ground for the simple reason that the reference to Turner could have been intended to honor a “freedom fighter” along with a statement pointing to the lack of statues honoring African-American history.

On the other hand, what both statements have in common is the implicit assumption that the perpetrators are black.  Now if I were a betting man I probably would agree, but it is worth asking whether that assumption tells us more about ourselves than anything about this particular crime.  It could very well be white southerners that are responsible for this incident, and it may also be the case that they are making the very same point that might motivate black southerners.

7 comments… add one
  • John Maass Feb 27, 2008 @ 22:31

    From a Montgomery, Ala. news site:
    An April trial date has been set for three teenagers charged in juvenile court with vandalizing a 109-year-old Confederate monument at the state Capitol.

    Montgomery attorney Richard Keith represents one of the teens and said they had their initial appearance in juvenile court Thursday.

    Keith said they’re set to go to trial on April 10, but he hopes to resolve his client’s case without a trial.

    He said they are good kids who’ve never been in trouble and they’re not terrorists or extremists.

    The suspects are all 17 and were charged with first-degree criminal mischief. Their names have not been released because of their age.

  • Mannie Gentile Nov 20, 2007 @ 17:39

    this just in from the lowbrow dept:


    I’m startled that you missed the obvious…

    At last, tangible evidence of that black confederate we’ve been hearing so much about.


  • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2007 @ 16:30

    Alfred, — Thanks so much for the correction. I should no better as I just finished discussing the event with my students last week – very sloppy indeed.

  • Alfred Nov 20, 2007 @ 16:22

    Thanks for this important discussion. It’s the anniversary of Nat Turner’s execution, not his insurrection, which might change how we think about this, no? If it commemorated Turner’s insurrection, it might be taken differently from commemoration of his execution.

  • Chris Paysinger Nov 20, 2007 @ 10:06

    Being from Alabama, I wondered how this event would be handled by the local press. The North Alabama news stations have had very little on it. I didn’t even know about the Nat Turner reference from what I had read about it thus far.

    Being a high school teacher, I just read this to my students. They seemed indifferent that it had occured. Then I told them about the Nat Turner reference and they thought that part of it was was interesting. I think they agree that the chances of your average vandal being history literate is pretty astonishing. Thanks for the update. Chris

  • Ken Noe Nov 20, 2007 @ 8:32


    When the local press wants good copy on Confederate issues, they turn to Patricia Godwin. She has, shall we say, a track record:


  • John Maass Nov 20, 2007 @ 7:35

    Vandals who know history (hence the Nat Turner reference)–who’d have thunk it!?!?!

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