Four weeks ago a student in Belleville suffered a severe beating on a school bus. After a videotape of the incident was seen all across America, people everywhere began asking whether the attack was racially motivated. There's no denying that the ensuing discussion has been both divisive and counterproductive. Ironically, this discussion was also inevitable under current state and federal laws.
The reason is so-called "hate crime" legislation that provides for enhanced sentencing when an attack is racially motivated. Under most "hate crime" laws a beating that is inflicted because of a person's race must be punished more severely than an identical beating for other reasons. It's not just the severity of the victim's injuries that determines the punishment. The length of the sentence will also depend on what motivates attackers. If their motive is race, the law can require more time behind bars.
Given this disparity in sentencing for two otherwise identical beatings, prosecutors have no choice but to investigate potential racial motivation for any attack. Considering that the legal consequences can vary tremendously depending on the motive for an assault, it's not surprising that the media and members of the general public would take an interest. These discussions about racial motivation for an assault are certainly unhelpful. But the legal implications if race is in fact a motive make these discussions unavoidable.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.