Economic System Wreaks


By Suzanne Holland

Seattle Post-Intelligencer/ Common Dreams News Center
October 23, 1999

It's the anniversary of last year's tragic killing of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard. I read that there have been 350 Stop the Hate rallies across the country this week. Shepard, you remember, was homosexual; it appears he was murdered for that fact. That's what constitutes a "hate crime" inflicting violence upon a person simply because his or her identity as a member of an outcast group incites someone's rage.

Acts of hate are not limited to gays and lesbians, of course. There is also the grisly dragging and decapitation of an African American man, James Byrd, in Texas last year; and the random shooting of Jewish children and murder of a Filipino postman in Los Angeles this summer. All of us can conjure recent memories of such hate-filled episodes. But in some ways it is easier to focus our attention on these clearly heinous acts than it is to rally the same level of outrage against issues less overtly evil, though perhaps more pernicious.

For example, I'm wondering why we don't see hundreds of rallies protesting the fact that our socio-economic system is structured to inflict severe suffering against the poor, particularly women and children. Isn't that a kind of "hate crime," too?

I'm talking about the news that even though poverty rates are on the decline while incomes are on the rise, the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. I'm wondering why, in this bullish economy, no one considers it a "hate crime" that a full one-third of the poor in America had no health insurance at all last year, or, according to the Census Bureau, in the past five years, the number of women without health insurance has increased by 3.2 million, while the number of men without insurance went up only 1.4 million.

But wait, you say, the House of Representatives just passed a bill giving those with insurance the right to sue their insurers; isn't that better than nothing? Not when "nothing" is your daily bread. What about fair wages? Some Democrats want to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour by 2001. I don't know about you, but that seems excessively modest to me; I would really have to scramble to learn to live at the level of either of these minimum wages -- and I don't even have children.

For females in the labor force in the United States in 1998, the average wage was $5.64 and the majority of those women were working at part-time jobs. Most part-time jobs carry no health benefits. Add the fact that single women filing for bankruptcy today account for 40 percent of all bankruptcies, twice the growth-rate of men filing alone. That means single or divorced women are more vulnerable in the market economy than men; it also means that as Republicans fight to suppress the minimum wage increase and to pass new bankruptcy legislation favoring creditors, women will be the real victims.

And that isn't a hate crime?

If this seems like a digression from the issue of the Stop the Hate rallies, it isn't. It's only a digression if you don't see any connection between individual crimes of hate and structural or systemic crimes of hate. Both such "crimes" target groups that threaten our sense of the normative, whether cultural, economic, religious or psycho-social norms.

What I'm getting at is that there's a connection between crimes of hate that cry out for protection and evoke our compassion, and these seemingly isolated, but systematic incidences of violence against women, the poor and their children. It seems to me that if justice really is the fulfillment of religious promise in Western tradition, it's up to people of faith to do something to bring it about. Stop the Hate rallies are a good start. But we need to make those deeper connections between deplorable crimes of violence against people such as homosexuals, and equally deplorable acts of economic violence against poor and struggling women.

We must stop hate crimes against gays, Jews and people of color. But can we do less for "crimes" of economic hate structured against women, children and the working poor?

Suzanne Holland teaches religious and social ethics at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. Copyright 1999 Religion News Service.

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