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Subcultures & Within-Group Hate Crimes

What exactly is a hate crime? And while we are at it, can a person commit hate crime against someone who is the same race, gender, religion, sexual orientation etc.? In this piece Sarah Michele Ford answers both of these questions by exploring the recent case where 16 Amish men and women were convicted of hate crimes against other Amish men and women.

Last month, sixteen Amish men and women were convicted of committing a series of hate crimes. While this already conflicts with the conventional image of the Amish, the details of the case are even more surprising. The victims of these crimes were also Amish, and the attacks took the form of home invasions followed by the forcible cutting of the victims’ hair and trimming of their beards. The attackers are members of a breakaway Amish sect led by Samuel Mullet.

This case has received significant media attention not only because these events fly in the face of our stereotypes about the Amish, but also because it challenges the conventional definition of a “hate crime”. The 2009 Shepard-Byrd Act, under which the attackers in this case were charged and convicted, ” criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury (or attempting to do so with fire, a firearm, or other dangerous weapon) when: (1) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, of any person or; (2) the crime was committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person, and the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce, or occurred on federal property. ” The prosecutors in this case were able to convince the jury that Samuel Mullet and his followers had, in fact, been motivated by the victims’ religion, although to “the English” (Note: This is what the Amish call non-Amish Americans) world, they all appear to belong to the same religious subculture.

So the question becomes, can we hate our own?

From a sociological perspective, this is really an issue of definitions. Certainly the Amish fit the conventional sociological definition of a subculture as well as that of a minority group:

  • The Amish have reduced social power
  • They are easily identifiable
  • They practice endogamy (i.e. they marry within the group)
  • They experience solidarity on the basis of their minority status, and membership is to a greater or lesser extent involuntary).

Minority groups are the most common victims of hate crimes; if this were a case of an English person attacking a member of the Amish community because of their minority status, there would be no question about whether or not it was a hate crime. But when the attacks happen within the subculture, we must examine the meaning of group membership. Is membership in a subculture, especially a minority subculture, decided by the members of that community or by the dominant group? Which is it?

The answer is, it’s both. Part of the definition of “minority” is involuntary membership. At the same time, there’s nothing that says there can’t be subcultures within subcultures. This happens in nearly every subculture – within the subculture of college students, there are as many subcultures as there are colleges and universities; within the subculture of Christians there are numerous subcultures ranging from Eastern Orthodox to Evangelical.

Why, then, couldn’t there be subcultures within the Amish subculture? In fact, this is the key point of this case. Samuel Mullet is the leader of a breakaway Amish sect and the hate crimes in this case were carried out in response to religious differences between Mullet’s followers and the more mainstream Amish community. In this particular instance, the differences between those nested subcultures manifested in extreme form. In the end, it turns out that it is possible to hate your own, especially when you don’t see the other members of your subcultural group as “your own”.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think of some other groups within the United States that meet the criteria discussed above to be classified a subculture. Come up with at least three examples not discussed in this article.
  2. Do you belong to any “nested” subcultures (i.e. a subculture within a subculture)?
  3. Do you believe that this case fits the definition of a hate crime as set out in the Shepard-Byrd Act? Why or why not?
  4. Where else do we see conflict and/or violence between two parts of the same subculture? Come up with a few examples.

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