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Renée Graham

A ‘hate crime’ meant to sow terror

The graduation gown of Richard Collins III was draped over front-row chairs at the Bowie State University commencement ceremony on Tuesday.
The graduation gown of Richard Collins III was draped over front-row chairs at the Bowie State University commencement ceremony on Tuesday. Neal Augenstein/WTOP via AP

Don’t mourn Richard Collins III because he was due to graduate this week from Bowie State University or because he was recently commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. Mourn him because no life deserves to be snuffed out by a perverse act of hate.

Collins, who was black, was stabbed to death Saturday on the University of Maryland campus, allegedly by a young white man who belonged to “Alt-Reich: Nation,” a racist Facebook group. According to police, its members regularly disparaged “women, Latinos, persons of Jewish faith, and especially African-Americans.” (As of Monday, that page had been removed from the social media site.)

The Rev. Darryl L. Godlock, a Collins family spokesman, told reporters that Collins “was not a thug. This was a very caring individual. He was highly intelligent, and he was at the peak of his career. He loved his family, he loved people that he came in contact with, and more importantly, he loved his God.”

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Godlock shouldn’t have to make such an assertion. If Collins had a criminal record or was a high school dropout, his murder would be no less devastating. Yet Godlock likely understood how easily black victims are vilified, as if to prove that they were somehow responsible for their own deaths. Even though police called Collins’s murder unprovoked, Godlock still felt the need to stress that this was an upstanding young man devoted to his family and faith.

From Trayvon Martin, in 2012, to Terence Crutcher, shot dead last year by an Oklahoma cop (who has since been aquitted), there’s a sickening tendency to spend more time critiquing the backgrounds of the dead than those who ended their lives. Not that any of this is new. After Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed African-American, was shot to death by a New York City police officer in 2000, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani inexplicably released Dorismond’s sealed juvenile record to prove the dead man was “no altar boy.” Dorismond, it turned out, had been an altar boy — at the same Catholic school Giuliani had attended years earlier.

Such subterfuge is deliberate. While the victim’s reputation is tarnished, there’s less attention paid to the systemic maladies that allow such acts, whether it’s police violence or racist killings, to be normalized. Though authorities aren’t yet calling Collins’s murder a hate crime, it’s impossible to fathom that the suspect, UMD student Sean Urbanski, wasn’t spurred by racism.

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Even more than a hate crime, this should be investigated as an act of terrorism. Imagine the reaction if Urbanski had frequented an ISIS website: Was he self-radicalized? What other websites did he visit? What other groups, on or offline, did he belong to? Is he part of a larger cell? Of course, since he was a member of a white supremacist group, not ISIS or Al Qaeda, few if any of those questions will be asked. And certainly no one should expect President Trump to publicly condemn his crime, as he would if the suspect were Muslim.

Urbanski should be charged with terrorism as well as murder, like James Jackson, an avowed white supremacist who traveled in March from Baltimore to New York specifically to kill black men. Jackson allegedly stabbed Timothy Caughman to death with a sword.

Much has been said and written about the alarming spike in hate crimes and racist activity since last fall’s election. Colleges and universities have been especially vulnerable, with white supremacists leaving their propaganda at various schools, including the University of Massachusetts Boston.

This is the essence of terrorism: to intimidate, to instill fear, to force those targeted to kneel at the threat of violence. Neither Caughman’s killing in New York, nor Collins’s murder in Maryland are isolated, unconnected events. There’s a burgeoning pattern with homegrown terrorists and thugs willing to act on racist provocations. We’ve reached the point where silence equals complicity and, left unchecked, this bloodshed now staining our communities and campuses may only be the beginning.

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Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham