Hate Crime

IV. Hate Crime Theory

It is important to note that although several explanations may be applicable to prejudice and hate crime occurrence, no existing criminological theory can fully account for the transformation from prejudice into criminal behavior. Experts argue that in order to explain hate crimes, consideration of the interplay of a number of different factors (social, psychological, criminogenic, and contextual) as well as a wide range of aspects that contribute to hate crime (i.e., perpetrators’ motives, victims’ characteristics, and cultural ideologies about the victims’ social groups) is necessary. The criminological theories most often employed to explain hate crime are group conflict theory, social learning theory, and strain theory.

A. Group Conflict Theory

This theory is based on the fact that humans are more likely to have relationships with other humans holding similar presuppositions for the purpose of comfort, ease, and friendliness, which in turn contributes to the formation of “in-groups” and “out-groups.” The formation and development of in-group loyalty serve strong individual desires for relationship and acceptance.

In-group versus out-group conflict strongly facilitates group cohesiveness, affiliation, and identity. In addition, such conflict increases out-group rejection, as revealed by group members’ tendencies to stress between-group dissimilarities and ignore between-group similarities. Out-groups are often stereotyped, dehumanized, or perceived as dishonest or malicious, whereas the in-group is idealized as good, powerful, and wholly justified in its views and actions toward others. Previous research has consistently shown that organized in-group preferences and out-group prejudices, and sometimes hostilities, even when the out-group was one with whom in-group members had never met, had never interacted, and about whom they knew very little.

B. Social Learning Theory

Social learning theories suggest that attitudes, values, and beliefs about individuals who belong to specific groups are learned through interaction with influencing figures, such as peers and family who reward for adopting their views. Some of the literature on perpetrators of hate crimes stresses the impact of intimate acquaintances and family members, and the influence of localized social norms on the development of a child’s prejudice. According to social learning theory, the attitudes of parents profoundly affect a child’s prejudice, as a child grows up listening to those views. That is, prejudice toward specific targets is learned and reinforced through children’s interactions with their parents, and those relations may even provide both justifications and rewards for committing acts of violence or harassment against out-group members.

C. Strain Theory

Strain theory holds that crime is a product of the gap between the culturally emphasized goals (e.g., success, wealth, and material possessions) and the legitimate means available to individuals to achieve those goals (e.g., access to high-quality education, participation in social networks). While society by its very nature pressures everyone to achieve those valued goals, not everyone is able to legitimately achieve success because of unemployment, poor education, lack of skills, and so on. Those who are unlikely to legitimately achieve the goals valued by society, according to strain theory, would be placed under a “strain.” In essence, then, the frustration, or strain, caused by the desire for “success” and the inability to achieve it legitimately gives rise to criminal behavior. It is achieving society’s goals that is important and not the means of achieving them.

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