Nat Hentoff gets it exactly right; hate crime laws are thought crime laws:
He is also right that such laws arguably violate the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. How are Americans equally protected under the law when certain groups (race, gender, religion, etc.) are given special protection and others aren't?
I was talking with a lawyer about these laws a while back (who seemed in favor of such laws) and he said that these are the only laws which take into account the reason why a crime is committed and punish people for acting on bad reasons. For instance, if a black man punches a white woman and gets fined, he could additionally face x number of years in jail because he did it out of racist motives.
But then, what is the argument for not putting him in jail for only his racist thoughts and motives? Why are racist thoughts that are acted upon punishable but not racist thoughts not acted upon? I don't know. Well, actually I sorta do. See Minority Report. (Have we collectively forgotten this film?)
Such laws bring to mind the following quotation from 1984's O'Brien:
We are not interested in those stupid crimes you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely
punishdestroy our enemies, we change them.
South Park nails it: