Hate crimes have become a seemingly constant addition to daily news reports around the country and in Philadelphia. The number of hate crimes continues to rise even as we have been talking more about racism and bigotry.
In recent years, the national conversation on race has been driven forward by the resurgence of the phrase stay woke. The refrain became popular especially in 2014 in response to the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and woke was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017. Merriam-Webster defines woke — a term traced back to a 1962 article by black writer William Melvin Kelley — as being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”
Examining the ways mainstream media and culture took over the phrase, journalism Sam Sanders wrote: “The term’s resurgence in this decade can be most closely linked to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM activists have been striving, for years now, to convince people of all races to value and respect blackness, to take issues like the deaths of black people at the hands of police seriously. Woke became shorthand for a mind-set and a worldview that values black lives.”
Yet while language around social justice has entered the mainstream, that awareness has not translated to greater safety for marginalized people. Hate crimes have spiked nationwide since the election of President Donald Trump, and they’ve risen in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations received 85 reports of hate crimes and bias incidents in 2018, with 68 confirmed, an increase from past years. The majority were motivated by race. In contrast, the Philadelphia Tribune reported in March, the Philadelphia Police Department logged only 43 reports of hate crimes in 2018. This disparity suggests that police have not been appropriately counting hate crimes in the city.
At the state level, the American Civil Liberties Union reported last July that some Pennsylvania officers were bringing hate crime charges themselves — against people in their custody who lashed out with disrespectful, sometimes hateful, speech. Some of these charges of “ethnic intimidation” resulted in felonies.
These findings at the city and state level illustrate how much discretion the police have in deciding which instances of hate they want to document and pursue. It’s disturbing to see that in Philly, hate crimes may be undercounted, and across the state, officers have used these charges to punish people who were already in police custody.
Though the stay woke rallying cry has brought light to racism around the country, words are not enough to create change in our city. These problems demand action.
To reduce and eventually stop hate crimes in Philadelphia, we need to thoroughly count and investigate incidents of hate, start supporting the victims, pressure our leaders, stay engaged, and involved in our city’s politics, and most importantly, act publicly and speak out when we spot injustice. None of us can continue to sit idly by while members of our community face prejudice. It is not enough to only notice the unfairness around us, and it is crucial we use all platforms to speak on it. Philadelphia is our home and may be home to our children, our grandchildren. It is our job as members of Philadelphia’s communities to build a world for future generations that sees less, not more, hate.