Hate crimes, it has been said, are 'message' crimes to which society needs to respond using the most powerful and unambiguous means of communication at its disposal, the criminal law. Using empirical data collected in the course of research conducted by the authors on racially motivated violence and harassment in North Staffordshire, this article sets out to interpret the messages about hate crime sent to perpetrators, and people from their local communities, by the creation, in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, of a new category of racially aggravated offences. To this end two possible anti-hate crime messages and three potential audiences are identified and evaluated in the light of data generated from biographical interviews with perpetrators and focus group discussions with other local people in and around the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Our conclusion is that the supposedly clear deterrent and denunciatory or declaratory messages contained in the 1998 Act are either drowned out or distorted by other signals coming from successive 'New' Labour governments about crime, immigration, nationality and 'community cohesion', and by the highly idiosyncratic and unpredictable ways in which they are mediated and interpreted by their intended recipients. © 2006 SAGE Publications.