Classism, Hate Crime and the Law Commission’s Consultation Paper 250: Lessons from Discrimination Law
In the context of hate crime, class has two main analytical roles. First, it can be a ground of hate crime in itself, though the current law fails to recognise that. Second, it can be a factor that increases the likelihood of experiencing hate crime on other (legally recognised) grounds, such as race.
In Consultation Paper 250 on reforming the law of hate crime, the Law Commission entirely misses the first. The paper makes some cursory points about the second. At footnote 88, the paper refers to research that perpetrators of hate crime are ‘commonly middle-class, with no criminal record’. Similarly, the paper contextualises experiences of misogyny by referring to class, with footnote 139 citing research including Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class (1981). Yet, in Davis’ work, class isn’t a background factor of likelihood; Davis gives it the analytical priority that she gives to race and gender. By contrast, the Law Commission reduces class to footnotes.
The ‘What’ Objection
At page 218, the paper briefly remarks that protecting caste would be ‘as divisive as legislating for “class” to become a protected characteristic … across British society’. The paper offers no elaboration. It might be that this hints at a common objection about the meaning of class, which I call the ‘what’ objection in my article proposing class as a ground in discrimination law. That objection is weak. Class is a distinctive status based on social, cultural and economic capital. Classism is discrimination relating to that status and classist criminal behaviour, especially violence, is more common than you might expect. Assaulting someone because you think that they’re a ‘chav’ is classist. The same goes for harassing someone because they are poor. Think of the film, The Riot Club (2014), and the crimes that the upper-class characters commit against restaurant workers and against Lauren, a lower-class student from Huddersfield. The lesson for the Law Commission is this: it’s usually easy to know classism when you see or hear it.
Discrimination and Hate Crime
It might be that, while my arguments work for discrimination law, they collapse in the context of hate crime. Conceptually, hate crime may require us to pay more attention to hostility or motivation than discrimination does. Still, it’s difficult to understand why that prevents us from addressing classism. Procedurally, prosecutors would likely find a classist hate crime hard to prove, especially given the burden and standard of proof in criminal courts. However, it is important not to build this objection too high. Do we have to categorise defendants and complainants into boxes of class? No, we don’t. We can recognise classism as hate crime without doing a comprehensive sociological analysis of everyone’s class status. It should be enough to point to evidence—such as a defendant punching someone while calling them a ‘dirty chav’—to make class relevant.
Homelessness and Class
The Law Commission considers homelessness in its consultation. Rather than addressing class, would protecting homelessness be enough?
The first part of my answer focuses on recognition. At page 163, the paper mentions a comment by Crisis, the homelessness charity. While accepting the severity of the abuse that homeless people encounter, Crisis worries that introducing homelessness as a ground of hate crime might reinforce homelessness in society. In discrimination law, similar arguments appear. Some academics consider that using the law to target discrimination can entrench categories and create more division. But recognising that hateful behaviour exists, rising to the level of crime, isn’t likely to reinforce homelessness or classism. It’s difficult to solve problems without confronting them. If the law of hate crime shies away from addressing behaviour towards homeless people (or, for that matter, lower-class people overall), criminal law loses the ability to articulate that kind of discrimination.
The second part focuses on the relationship between homelessness and class. It’s not clear why the Law Commission accepts the relevance of homelessness, but not of class. Stereotypes and prejudices about homeless people are very similar to those about lower-class people more generally. Dissociating homelessness from class fails to recognise the classist system that creates and sustains homelessness. Discrimination of all kinds (including racism, homophobia and ableism) affects homeless people, yes, in terms of both becoming and living homeless. An essential feature of discrimination towards homeless people, though, is unfair treatment of people because they are very poor—because they have so little social, cultural and economic capital.
The Law Commission’s research on hate crime continues, with a final report coming. The topic is clearly complex. That said, the Equality Act 2010 has made the mistake of ignoring class. The law of hate crime should not make the same one.