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  • Emanne Khan

Why are Hate Crimes Rising in the U.S.?

On August 30, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released its annual Hate Crime Statistics Report for 2020. Part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the 2020 report published data on hate crimes submitted by over 15,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. As the media was quick to report, the news was grim. “Hate crimes against Asian and Black people rise sharply in the U.S., FBI says,” CNBC reported. “Hate Crimes Reach the Highest Level In More Than A Decade,” NPR announced.

According to the FBI, 2020 saw 7,759 criminal incident reports for offenses motivated by bias toward race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender and gender identity — the most since 2008. Are hate crimes really rising in the U.S., or are law enforcement agencies just getting better at tracking them? What counts as a hate crime, and how does 2020 compare to the trends of the last decade?

A Brief History of Hate Crimes in Federal Legislation

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 is widely considered the first federal legislation to regulate hate crimes. Passed amidst the unrest following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Title I of the Act makes it a crime to use or threaten to use force to willfully injure, intimidate or interfere with any person because of race, color, religion or national origin. However, Title I includes an important condition. In order for the use of or threat of force against a person because of race, color, religion or national origin to be considered a federal crime, the person targeted must also be engaged in a federally protected activity, such as enrolling in public school, participating in a public service or program or applying for employment, among others. Additionally, the Civil Rights Act never explicitly uses the term “hate crime” to describe the biased behavior in question.

Through the end of the 20th century, several important pieces of federal legislation addressing hate crimes made their way through Congress, including the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990 that required the U.S. Attorney General to collect and publish data on crimes motivated by race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act of 1993 that imposed harsher judicial penalties for hate crimes.

2009 marked a watershed year in federal hate crime legislation. That year, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which “removed then existing jurisdictional obstacles to prosecutions of certain race- and religion-motivated violence, and added new federal protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” according to the Department of Justice. Bearing the names of two men who lost their lives to hate crimes in 1998, the Act removed the condition in the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that victims of hate crimes be engaged in a federally protected activity.

Today, the FBI defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity,” and has published in-depth data on hate crimes from 1995 through 2019 on its Universal Crime Reporting website.

Hate Crimes by the Numbers

As numerous outlets reported, 2020 was an exceptional year for hate crimes. But just how exceptional was it? Following the FBI’s announcement of the 2020 statistics, Statista published a chart tracking the number of hate crimes reported to the FBI since 2007, shown below.

As depicted in the chart, the FBI reported annual hate crimes less than 6,000 for only four of the last 14 years (2012-2015). The peak prior to 2020 occurred in 2008, when the FBI reported 7,783 hate crimes nationwide. After falling for several years post-2008, hate crimes have been on the rise again, culminating in 7,759 reported criminal incidents in 2020. And there’s a good chance that the real numbers are even higher due to underreporting. As Joe Hernandez wrote for NPR, “not every crime is reported to law enforcement, not every agency reports its data to the FBI and many agencies report no incidents.”

Last year’s numbers represent a six percent increase over the previous year. About 62 percent of reported hate crimes in 2020 were motivated by race/ethnicity/ancestry, followed by sexual orientation at 20 percent and religion at 13 percent. Just over half (53 percent) took the form of intimidation, about 28 percent were for simple assault and 18 percent were for aggravated assault.

Explaining the Spike

Several convergent factors are behind the increase in hate crimes over the past several years.

The first and perhaps easiest to come to terms with is the possibility that people are reporting hate crimes to the police more than they have in the past. The Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes its own data on hate crimes separate from the FBI, and rely on the National Crime Victimization Survey for their numbers rather than reporting from law enforcement agencies. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of unreported hate crime victimizations has been decreasing since 2011. Therefore, more frequent reporting by victims may be inflating the number of hate crimes that make their way into official datasets.

While more reporting could help explain higher hate crime numbers, it’s probably not the only reason hate crimes have been climbing steadily since 2014. Some have placed blame for the spike on former president Donald Trump and his use of inflammatory and racist rhetoric. The Statista chart shown above depicts a sharp increase in the FBI data from 2016 to 2017, the first year of Trump’s presidency. Hate-motivated murders reached their highest number in 30 years under Trump, and the Brookings Institution reported in 2019 that “an anomalous spike in hate crimes” occurred in counties where Trump won by larger margins. Brookings also reported that “counties that hosted a Trump campaign rally in 2016 saw hate crime rates more than double compared to similar counties that did not host a rally.” Correlation does not equal causation, and it’s difficult to say whether the rise in hate crimes can actually be attributed to the Trump presidency. However, it’s highly unlikely that the “anomalous spike” in pro-Trump counties derived solely from increased reporting. During 2020 especially, a couple of significant events sparked very real backlash against minority communities.

The first event was the COVID-19 pandemic, which provoked a rise in hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent. While Black Americans are still the most frequently-targeted racial group, anti-Asian hate crimes rose 73 percent last year. Amidst the pandemic, Asian Americans faced verbal harassment, shunning and physical assaults. One of the most famous and tragic incidents of anti-Asian hate occurred in March of this year, when a gunman killed six Asian women in a shooting spree in the greater Atlanta area.

In response to the rise in anti-Asian sentiment, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University launched a coalition called “Stop AAPI Hate” in March of 2020 to document hate incidents targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and advocate for policies protecting these communities.

The second notable event of the past year was the revitalization of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. Hate crimes against Black Americans also increased during 2020, driven by backlash against highly-visible Black Lives Matter protests. As evidence of the connection, some of the largest racial justice protests following Floyd’s death took place in California, and the state saw a stunning 87 percent increase in anti-Black hate crimes in 2020. In one incident, San Diego prosecutors filed hate crime charges at two men who insulted, threw eggs at, and physically assaulted protesters.

Hope for Change?

In May of this year, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a measure that would expedite the Justice Department’s reviews of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans and provide federal funds for addressing the issue. In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, the bill passed by a margin of 364-62 in the House and 94-1 in the Senate. "My message to all of those who are hurting is we see you. The Congress said we see you. And we are committed to stop the hatred and the bias," Biden said at the signing.

While the act may seem like a step forward, it sparked opposition from Asian American and LGBTQ+ groups for not going far enough to help victimized communities. A coalition of groups released a statement leading up to the act’s passage in which they criticized the act’s reliance on traditional law enforcement and lack of investment in community-based solutions.

With Congress currently preoccupied with Biden’s infrastructure and social spending bills, it’s unlikely that we’ll see significant federal legislation addressing hate crimes anytime soon. Interest groups like the coalition discussed above have raised questions about whether federal legislation is even the best vehicle for change. But the recent wave of news coverage of the issue should serve as an important reminder to lawmakers and citizens alike that bias is alive and well in our country, and deserves our attention even when it’s not the subject of FBI reports.


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