THE presence of ``hate'' crimes in the United States today is sobering. But the situation is not hopeless. Reported incidents of violence, vandalism, and threats motivated by bias continue to increase. ``White supremacist'' groups number more than 200.
Most troubling, according to law enforcement officials and civil rights groups, is the growing number of ``skinhead'' gangs that have been noted in at least 100 cities. Such groups are marked by obsessive violence and a willingness to attack a broad range of ``enemies'' - blacks, Asians, Hispanics, homosexuals, Jews, and rival skinheads. (Last week in Vancouver, Wash., a skinhead was sentenced to 11 years in prison for beating a fellow gang member to death.)
At the same time, there are new efforts to curb hate crimes. More than 40 states now have laws banning such activities as paramilitary training and religious desecration. Federal officials are using civil rights laws to prosecute skinheads who attack minorities. (In March, the first such case resulted in five Dallas skinheads being convicted of civil rights violations, sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and ordered to pay reparations to a synagogue and Jewish community center that had been vandalized.)
Courts are awarding huge sums to victims or their heirs. Rallies by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups often bring out more counterprotesters than members, indicating growing public awareness and revulsion.
Comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, but reports from around the country indicate the problem is escalating:
The Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations reported 378 hate crimes in 1989, the highest figure in 10 years.
In New York City last year, crimes involving bias jumped to 541 - more than double the previous year.
The Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, reported that hate crimes in its five-state region jumped from 60 to 263.
In Boston, hate crimes are creeping back up after years of decline.
Oregon officials reported last week that hate crimes in the state had increased 40 percent in the second quarter of 1990 over the same period last year.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'Nai B'rith recorded 1,432 anti-Semitic incidents in 1989, the most in the 11 years the organization has been keeping such figures. These included a 200 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents involving skinheads and a 30 percent increase on college campuses.
``Who knows why there's been an increase in hate violence around the country in the last few years,'' says Danny Welch, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Klanwatch Project. ``A lot of people would say the general atmosphere in America has changed. Civil rights and racial toleration are not taught the way they were during the civil rights period.''
Mr. Welch, a 10-year veteran of the Montgomery, Ala., police department, observes that while membership in white supremacist groups appears to have stopped growing, the relatively new phenomenon of skinheads adds to the overall violence. ``A 17-year-old is not thinking about what's going to happen to him if he does this like a 35-year-old man with a wife and kids will,'' he says. ``That alone contributes to some of the violence and racial attacks that have been going on.''
In New York City, 70 percent of those arrested for bias crimes are younger than 19 and 40 percent are under 16.
Part of the problem, too, is that such attacks are not just the work of identifiable organizations. ``It isn't just the hate groups, it's the next door neighbor, it's the kid down the street. That's the scary thing,'' says Sgt. Bill Johnston, who heads up the bias investigation unit of the Boston Police Department. ``There's nothing that tears up the fabric of a community more than one of these crimes, and as the economic times get worse, this problem will get worse.''
The number of active skinheads in the US seems to have leveled off at about 3,000, according to the ADL. But recruiting continues (even among junior high school children) as the movement spreads to new locations, and experts estimate there are 10 passive supporters for every active gang member.
With passage of the federal Hate Crime Statistics Act in April, the US Justice Department has begun tracking crimes of bias nationwide. In the first two months of operation, the federal hate crime hot line took more than 1,800 calls.
A trial set to open next Monday in Portland, Ore., could set the pace for efforts to wipe out hate crime and white supremacist groups at their sources.
Charged with instigating the 1988 murder of an Ethiopian student by neo-Nazi skinheads are Tom and John Metzger, leaders of the San Diego-based White Aryan Resistance (WAR). In a $10 million lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ADL on behalf of the victim's family, the Metzgers (father and son) are alleged to have sent agents to Portland just days before the brutal beating that left Mulugeta Seraw dead.
Evidence in the case includes a statement by a former WAR member who was sent to Portland to meet with the ``East Side White Pride Skinheads.''
``We told them to use violence if they got an opportunity, and to be sure and beat the hell out of the enemy,'' the former WAR member said in a pretrial statement. ``We were telling them what Tom and John Metzger told us to say to skinheads we were organizing.'' The three attackers pleaded guilty and are serving lengthy prison terms.
The Metzgers deny any involvement, but have been unsuccessful in getting the trial delayed or the charges thrown out. Tom Metzger is a television repairer and former member of the Ku Klux Klan who now ridicules the Klan as wimpy and old-fashioned. He made news in 1980 when he won the Democratic primary in a California congressional race, even though he was swamped by the Republican incumbent in the general election. Two years later, he garnered 75,000 votes in the state's Democratic primary for US Senate. Mr. Metzger has appeared on several TV talk shows (his son was involved in the racial brawl on the Geraldo Rivera show), and he now hosts his own show, ``Race and Reason,'' seen on several cable networks.
Prosecuting attorneys are reluctant to talk about legal tactics in the Metzger case, but similar cases of 1987 are models. In one, the United Klans of America was ordered to pay $7 million to the mother of a black 19-year-old lynched in Mobile, Ala., by two Klan members. In the other case, the Southern White Knights and the Invisible Empire were ordered to pay $800,000 in damages for an attack on civil rights marchers in Forsythe, Ga.
Those who brought suit against the Metzgers say their hope is to put WAR out of business through heavy financial penalties and thereby halt some of the skinhead violence in the US.