Racial inequity isn't the problem with "namesake laws"

You’re all probably familiar with the law that created the Amber Alerts that we take for granted today, or Megan’s law that made sex offender registry list information available to the public. These “namesake laws,” as they are known (alternately “apostrophe laws”) have popped up across the country for years, most commonly named after children who fell victim to tragic crimes. But now, as the Associated Press points out, some critics are bothered by one thing most of them have in common. They are almost all named after white victims, with few laws being named after minorities.

That disparity in so-called namesake laws represents a national trend: White crime victims are much more likely to get crime bills named after them than black victims.

An Associated Press analysis found that more than eight in 10 stand-alone laws named for victims of violent crime since 1990 honored white victims or groups of victims that included at least one white person…

Racial disparity in such laws has left black victims such as (Alianna) DeFreeze underrepresented. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, black young people in her age range — from 12 to 19 — experience violent crime at significantly higher rates than their white peers, including being five times more likely to be victims of homicide. The AP’s analysis showed that only about 6 percent of namesake bills related to violent crimes were named after black victims.

The tendency for such laws to be named after white victims is probably a side effect of one half of a dueling trend in how mainstream media covers crime. If someone goes missing, particularly if it’s either a (usually white) child or an attractive blond white woman, it can absorb the fascination of the media for weeks on end. You may recall when Natalee Ann Holloway went missing in Aruba back in 2005. It was nearly all the cable news networks could talk about for weeks or even months. Similar coverage of black women going missing is almost nonexistent.

Conversely, if some random white person gets shot, that winds up being a “local news story.” But in the specific instance of a black person being shot by a white person (ideally a white police officer), it’s national news with plenty of legs. But laws don’t tend to get named after those types of victims. Perhaps that’s where the racial disparity in namesake laws comes from.

But if we’re really interested in picking this apart, a lack of diversity in the race of the victims being so honored shouldn’t be the issue here. What’s really wrong is that we probably shouldn’t be naming laws after victims of terrible crimes to begin with.

As has been pointed out by others in the past, tying such heavy emotional baggage to the name of a new bill tends to mute discussion of the actual merits of the proposal. (“What kind of monster would oppose a law helping innocent children like Megan!?!?!“) And crafting laws seen as revenge for a high-profile victim can wind up dealing out disproportionately harsh sentences for others who come after but may commit less serious crimes.

Fortunately, the practice of creating such apostrophe laws has been on the wane in recent years. While not gone entirely, we’re not seeing nearly as many of them. In fact, in 2017, the South Carolina state senate banned the practice of passing any new laws named after people or animals.

Perhaps the rest of the country should follow their example. If we can get away from the practice of creating these emotionally-laden bits of legislation, new laws regarding criminal behavior can be more honestly and seriously debated. And as an added benefit, you won’t have to argue about the race of the victims being commemorated.