Deeds or motives? Which matters most?

Every week there seems to be another racist graffiti hoax, with racist words getting traced back to a Black person. And every time, depending on whether progressives believe the graffitist to be a White racist or Black hoaxer, we see that race is the determining factor in deciding whether we should punish motives or just deeds.

I thought of this because of an op-ed article in my local newspaper headlined, “Racism isn’t innate. You’ve got to be taught.” The title alludes to a song from Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific—a favorite of mine. The lyrics continue, “Before it’s too late. Before you are six or seven or eight. To hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.” I sang that song and promoted it in my younger years as an antidote to the racism American Blacks experienced. In the local newspaper article, the author stated, “Racism doesn’t start in the womb. Kids learn it by hearing and observing.” I agree.

The writer tells of racist graffiti vandalism in a local high school. Student and staff outrage was quite intense until it was discovered that a Black student wrote the graffiti.

The reaction? Muted—no visible outrage. The opinion writer hopes “the principal and parents can ferret out his motives—possibly self-hate....” A student responded, “...discovering a fellow black student was responsible was ‘embarrassing, but it did not diminish the student protestor’s anti-racism message.’” The writer responded, “I so agree...the race of the criminal is less important than the core question of why racism exists in any environment....”

These are sympathetic messages towards the vandal but, in this case, is sympathy the most appropriate or wisest response? Which matter most—deeds or motives? This is a valid and crucial question today because our institutions are increasingly determining whether to penalize or excuse a crime based upon the actor’s perceived motives. In the op-ed, the person writing says that the graffiti writer’s racist words suddenly become “less important” (unspoken: because he’s black), redirecting the inquiry beyond his acts to societal racism.

But if “the race of the criminal is less important,” shouldn’t that be true for all races? Evidently, that principle is not practiced fairly or justly today. Throughout history, people were judged guilty or innocent based on deeds—not unknowable motives.

Consider this phenomenon based on diverse crimes. Take for instance a person murdered. Does the murderer’s motive alter the fact that a person is dead? Would a person be less dead if jealousy rather than hate was involved? 

The one thing we know is that different races receive different treatment. We live in a dark, funhouse world in which race matters just as much as it did during Jim Crow, although now Whites are the disfavored race. If a White person kills a Black or Asian person, “hate” immediately becomes a factor and an added charge. However, if a Black or Hispanic person kills a White person, hate never becomes an issue. Even those Asians whom Blacks murder are not treated as hate crimes.

Likewise, consider vandalism, such as the case discussed above. Is property less damaged or less expensive to repair if a Black person vandalizes it, rather than a White person or a member of another race? The answer is, “No.” There are many illustrations where both the deed and outcome of a crime are the same regardless of the perpetrator’s race.

The opinion writer was concerned with ferreting out the suspect’s motive, but she seemingly never considered hatred of another race. Or what about wishing to stir up more racial division? Statistically, hundreds of race-based hoaxes are committed annually by people intent upon stirring up racial division or hatred. Motives are elusive. Psychiatrists attest to the fact people often cannot identify their own motives related to their actions. Some criminals are coddled while others guilty of similar crimes are exaggeratedly accused and charged and penalized based on inscrutable or unfathomable motives.

Consider one last example of unfair or unjust usage of a hate crime accusation and penalty. Most people probably remember the Matthew Shepard case: a gay man in Wyoming allegedly murdered because of his sexual orientation. The media loudly contained that it was an anti-gay hate crime, but the facts showed otherwise. Indeed, one perpetrator apparently had prior sexual relations with Shepard. The defendants, acquainted with the victim, claimed it was a robbery of drug money gone awry. And though falsely considered as a hate crime (though not charged), we now have a hate crime law pertaining to gays named after Shepard.

There are too many fallible and intentionally false interpretations of motives as well as the unfair and unjust selectivity applied to different persons. It’s time to unbiasedly apply judgments based on actual and knowable actions and deeds.

Deeds or motives? Which matters most? The wisdom and universality of the ages that dealt only with deeds prove once again to be the fairest and just measure to judge people of attitudes or crimes regardless of any motive.

Image: Graffiti by Jason Dent. Unsplash license.

To comment, you can find the MeWe post for this article here.

If you experience technical problems, please write to