Rediscovering a Very Old Problem

A 15-year-old boy comes out and tells classmates that he is a homosexual. When he begins to wear makeup and jewelry, he has to endure teasing and bullying from some of the boys at the junior high school. During a computer lab, in front of 24 other eighth graders, a 14-year-old pulls out a gun and shoots the boy in the head. The prosecutor charges the teenage killer with a hate crime, arguing that he was moti- vated by homophobia and white supremacist views. The youth pleads guilty to second degree murder and is sentenced to 25 years behind bars. (Cathcart, 2008; and Lovett, 2011)

After drinking in a park, seven high school students go hunting for a “Mexican” to attack (a “sport” they call “beaner hopping”). They chase several young Hispanic men before closing in on a

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F I G U R E 11.2 Trends in Work-Related Murders, United States, 1992–2013 SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Industries, 2013.


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37-year-old recent immigrant from Ecuador who works at a dry cleaning shop and stab him to death. After the slaying, a number of Hispanic residents come forward and report incidents of harassment and assault. The police department is the subject of a federal investigation but pledges to repair its strained relations with recent immigrants. The hate crime so shocks the conscience of the community that the leading local elected official, known for his tough stance against illegal immigration, declares “that this brutal killing of an innocent, hardworking man for no other reason than he was Hispanic … can be the spark for all of us—yours truly included—to admit our faults, to work more closely with one another, to pay more attention to what our children are doing, and to pay more attention to what we say.” The group’s ringleader, who has a Hispanic girlfriend and claims that a friend paid for a swas- tika tattoo on his leg “as a dare” and “as a joke,” is convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime and is sentenced to 25 years in prison. The victim’s family sues the police force, arguing that it failed to accord equal protection to Hispanics, since the teenage mob had been questioned by officers about earlier assaults that night but released before the stabbing took place. (Applebome, 2008; and Fernandez, 2010)

During the 1980s, a long-standing problem finally began to receive the attention it deserved: violence and vandalism motivated by the offen- der’s hatred of the victim’s “kind” of person, in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual prefer- ence. Throughout world history, assailants from one group have attacked such “enemies” and suf- fered counterattacks as reprisals. An examination of U.S. history reveals that significant proportions of murders, assaults, and acts of vandalism and des- ecration were fueled by bigotry. Intergroup ten- sions break out periodically in mob actions, race riots, lynchings, looting, intentionally set fires, street battles, and even vicious schoolyard fights. Some bias-driven attacks have been spontaneous and isolated while others were planned by orga- nized hate groups as part of a campaign of political intimidation.

Usually, aggressors went after members of groups that lacked social and political influence. In the past, the suffering of these individuals and the fears that others who identified with them shared did not often arouse public sympathy or attract media attention. Law enforcement officials did not assign a high priority to investigating these break- downs in intergroup relations, catching the culprits, and preventing further shockwaves. Many victims felt reluctant to turn to the authorities for help, and many police departments failed to keep accurate records of the incidents that were brought to their attention. Without a standard definition and an appropriate label for this type of crime, no govern- ment agency could issue official estimates of the scope of the violence and destruction of property that fell into this category. Therefore, no one knew for sure which groups were being singled out for attack most often and whether this rediscovered problem was growing or subsiding.

That situation changed during the 1980s. Organizations representing constituencies that per- ceived that they were being targeted (such as racial and religious minorities) began to compile their own statistics and to issue reports. These political activists asserted that the problems of victims of hate-fueled crimes merited special solutions. They advanced the following argument: Recognizing bias crime or hate crime as a distinct category implies that its impact on the victim and on the community at large goes far beyond the specific harm inflicted. In other words, burning a cross on the lawn of a home that was just purchased by a black family in a predominantly white neighbor- hood is more than mere criminal mischief; spray painting a swastika on the wall of a Jewish syna- gogue is much more than a minor act of vandalism; and an unprovoked gang attack on a gay couple symbolizes more than simply a random assault by complete strangers.

In 1990, the rediscovery process was propelled forward when Congress enacted the Hate Crime Statistics Act to generate data that might dispel misperceptions about patterns and trends. The fed- eral legislation authorized the U.S. attorney gen- eral to preside over the collection of the data. The

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attorney general delegated that responsibility to the FBI; its Uniform Crime Reporting Program has issued annual reports on hate crimes reported to the police since 1992. Because hate crimes are not different from ordinary street crimes except for the perpetrator’s motive, yearly compilations monitor the same set of offenses as the UCR: mur- der and manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated and simple assault, robbery, burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

The reporting system also closely tracks crimes of intimidation (threats that place the recipient in reasonable fear of physical injury) and vandalism (damage to and destruction of property, including defacing surfaces with graffiti). Bias incidents that involve constitutionally protected speech, such as handing out hate-filled leaflets, no matter how offensive and insulting, don’t qualify as criminal activity and are not reported or counted. In 1994, Congress instructed law enforcement agencies to not only keep track of ordinary crimes that were fueled by the offender’s bigotry against the victim’s race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation but also to monitor attacks on indivi- duals because of perceived mental and physical dis- abilities (Harlow, 2005). In 2009, the Hate Crime Statistics Act was amended a second time to now include acts driven by the perpetrators’ prejudices against the targets’ gender or gender identity (Langton and Planty, 2011).

Before the government took on this responsi- bility, civil rights organizations and human relations commissions solicited reports from victims, col- lected information from police sources, and scanned news media accounts for new cases. When Con- gress first debated the issue of compiling a national data bank of hate-fueled incidents in 1985, the FBI initially resisted the assignment mainly because of the additional expenses it would impose. Local police departments also wanted to opt out because of unreimbursed start-up costs and administrative overhead (“Lukewarm Reception,” 1988). The FBI began to issue reports in 1997.

Hate crimes are assumed to have more profound and enduring consequences than comparable “ordi- nary” offenses. Hate crimes can be interpreted as

symbolic affronts to members of the victim’s racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual preference group. People who share the same characteristics as the targets of bias crimes might sense that they are vulnerable too, and even may feel directly harmed themselves. Thus, they tend to identify with and rally around the victim. If other people side with the aggressor, then the com- munity, or even the entire society, becomes polar- ized. At that point, intergroup relations, which are delicately balanced in a pluralistic society in the best of times, quickly become strained. The resulting rifts could trigger a cycle of aggressive initiatives and violent responses, and perhaps a dangerous escalation in the level of force used in retaliatory attacks. The original act also can inspire copycat crimes by members of the offender’s group, which, in turn, could touch off acts of vengeance by members of the victim’s group. Therefore, when bias is recognized as a motivation behind an offense, the police and prosecutors must assign a high priority to resolving the case before the situa- tion spirals out of control. Members of the victim’s group and of the community at large could misin- terpret the authorities’ apparent indifference, skep- ticism, or tendency to blame the victim as tacit official approval of the offender’s spiteful actions. The opposite response—taking the crimes very seriously—indicates the government’s resolve to provide what the constitution pledges: equal pro- tection under the law (Wexler and Marx, 1986; and Anti-Defamation League, 2003).

Pressures from below finally compelled those at the helm of the criminal justice system to confront this challenge by taking a series of steps: initiating efforts to monitor and measure the frequency and intensity of incidents motivated by raw bigotry; improving the response of police and prosecutors to the victims’ plights; and developing community level solutions to head off or at least defuse these polarizing events.

How Much Hate?

Bias crimes are motivated in whole or in part by the perpetrator’s hatred of the victim’s entire group. Those on the receiving end of bigots’ wrath usually


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are members of negatively stereotyped out-groups, in terms of race, ethnicity and national origin, reli- gion, or sexual orientation. Aggressors generally belong to what they consider in-groups. Targets of outbursts of group hatred may be individuals and their personal possessions; commercial property such as stores; or institutional property such as houses of worship, religious schools, and cemeter- ies. The offenses range from beatings to murders and from criminal mischief to arson and bombings. The perpetrators may be isolated individuals, spon- taneously formed mobs, groups of teenagers, loosely structured gangs, or organized hate groups immersed in a subculture built around intense and explicit antagonism directed at their “enemies.” Hate crimes often stand out from ordinary acts of interpersonal violence in several ways: The level of brutality can be extreme or excessive, the target is frequently a stranger singled out at random for being “one of them,” and offenders often prowl around and lash out in a group rather than as iso- lated bigots (Levin and McDevitt, 2003).

Data about people who have been subjected to bias crimes can indicate the intensity of racist, anti- Jewish, anti-Muslim, homophobic, and other big- oted sentiments at various times and places. Rough estimates about bias crimes can serve as an early warning system for pinpointing areas where rela- tions are strained and trouble is brewing; they can also serve as criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of outreach efforts to defuse potentially explosive intergroup conflicts. But measuring victimization rates reliably and calculating differential risks for experiencing bias crimes is difficult for several rea- sons. First, many victims still do not report such incidents to the authorities. Second, not all police departments are as yet committed to keeping records of the numbers and types of bias crimes reported to them. Entire states still do not report hate crimes to the FBI. Third, some attacks inspired by bigotry might not be recognized as such by detectives who do not thoroughly investigate sus- pected cases to discern the offenders’ motives (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2001).

The general reluctance of injured parties to report offenses to the police might be magnified

when it comes to hate crimes because of the wide- spread perception that officials will respond with indifference or hostility. People singled out for attack because of their true or assumed sexual preference (victims of “gay bashing”) might be especially reticent to press charges and thereby pub- licize the incident (Maghan and Sagarin, 1983). Sometimes victims who are unwilling to disclose such incidents to the police will provide the infor- mation to civil rights groups defending their interests.

Establishing motivation (for purposes of inves- tigation, classification, and record keeping, and later as the basis for harsher sentences after successful prosecutions) can be quite difficult. People who have been targeted for bias crimes might not know why their assailants singled them out. Mere differences in skin color, ethnicity, religion, or sex- ual preference between offender and victim are not necessarily indications of bigotry, of course. The police and the prosecution, with the assistance of the injured party, must discover the underlying basis for the offender’s actions. The clearest evi- dence would be explicit utterances during the attack or the scrawling of graffiti containing slurs against the victim’s group by the offender before the assault, or the perpetrators’ use of well-known symbols of hate such as a burning cross, a swastika, or the initials KKK.

Another clue to the offender’s motivation might be that the target was a prominent figure in promoting or defending the interests of his or her group, or the offender was active in an organized hate group. Perhaps the incident occurred on a day of special significance to the victim’s or the offen- der’s group, such as an anniversary or holiday. The incident might have broken out at a symbolic loca- tion, such as a gay bar, a house of worship, or a park frequented by members of a certain group. The target might be one member of a small group vastly outnumbered by members of the offender’s group in the immediate area of the crime scene. The per- son singled out for negative treatment might have received warnings or endured prior acts of harass- ment or intimidation. Otherwise, the investigators must concentrate on issues such as ongoing

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neighborhood tensions, patterns of previous inci- dents, ways the victim stands out from other poten- tial targets, statements made about the offender’s behavior by witnesses, or an absence of any other logical motivation such as economic gain (Wessler and Moss, 2001; Turner, 2002; Nolan, McDevitt, and Cronin, 2004).

The difficulty in establishing the offender’s motive and whether a reported incident is a hate crime was dramatized when an independent group, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) issued annual reports for 2003 and 2004 covering incidents reported to its chapters in certain metropolitan areas (where a little more than 25 per- cent of the population of the United States resided). The NCAVP, which closely monitors attacks against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered, considered 18 murders in 2003 to embody antihomosexual bias, whereas the FBI’s annual hate crimes report cited six. For 2004, the discrepancy was greater: The NCAVP deemed 20 killings to be antigay. But the FBI reported that a mere five murders across the entire country were considered by detectives at local police departments to be fueled by any kind of bias—race, religion, national origin, mental or physical disability, or presumed sexual preference (Patton, 2005). Starting in 2014, police departments began to identify attacks motivated by the offender’s bias against the victim’s gender identity, as required by the Mathew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act.

According to the FBI’s annual report on hate crimes for 2012, over 14,000 law enforcement agencies voluntarily participated in the program but only 1,730 agencies actually sent in information about close to 5,800 incidents (down from close to 6,600 in 2010). Nearly 4,000 offenses were directed at persons (many of the other hate crimes were acts of vandalism directed against property or houses of worship, gravestones, and other symbolic targets). Only 10 murders (up from 7 in 2010) were attrib- uted to the offender’s hatred of the victim’s “kind,” as were 15 forcible rapes (way up from just 4 two years earlier). Over 850 people were hurt in aggra- vated assaults. But most of the interpersonal

violence took the form of acts of intimidation or simple assaults. As for the offenders’ reasons in 2012, almost 50 percent of all offenses against per- sons or their property were motivated by racial ani- mosity, nearly 20 percent by religious prejudices, and close to 20 percent by biases surrounding sexual orientation, the same proportions as in 2010. The remainder seemed to be reflections of the perpetra- tors’ dislike of their targets’ nationality or ethnicity. Almost 2 percent was motivated by a disdain for physical or mental disabilities (FBI, 2013a).

Of the offenses motivated by racial bias, nearly 67 percent were directed at Americans of African descent. Bias against whites fueled a little over 20 percent of the cases, and anti-Asian prejudices inflamed close to 4 percent of the incidents (the remainder were hard to categorize.). As for national and ethnic backgrounds, Hispanics were the main targets (close to 60 percent) of other people’s wrath. Of the victims of crimes driven by religious intol- erance, the majority (60 percent) were Jewish Americans. About 13 percent of targeted indivi- duals were followers of Islam, 7 percent were Catholics, and 3 percent were Protestants. The remainder of the cases reflected hatred for adherents of various other religions and atheists (FBI, 2013).

Over the years, racial animosity consistently has been the leading motivation, followed by religious intolerance, with hatred of the victim’s sexual ori- entation coming in third. Nearly all the cases embodying the offender’s bias against the victim’s perceived sexual orientation were attacks by het- erosexuals on homosexuals, mostly directed at gay males rather than at lesbians.

Besides the FBI’s UCR, the BJS’s NCVS (since 2000) also can be used to gauge the extent and seriousness of certain hate-driven activities. Whereas the UCR measures incidents that detec- tives considered to be bias-motivated, the NCVS takes the victims’ perceptions at face value. Most of the respondents who felt that they were victims of bias crimes based their impression on the derog- atory slurs their attackers uttered, or far less often, the symbolic evidence (for example, graffiti) that vandals left behind in hate-fueled property crimes. Using these criteria, an analysis of NCVS data for


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the period 2004–2012 revealed that in most of the incidents, the injured party believed the offender was motivated by racial or ethnic (ancestral, cul- tural, nationality) hatred. Religious intolerance and disdain for the victims’ sexual orientation or disabilities were less common motivations. About 33 percent of all bias-driven violent incidents were reported to the police. As for trends in hate crimes, analyses of UCR data and NCVS statistics did not lead to the same conclusion. Whereas UCR figures indicated a decrease in hate crimes reported to the police from 2004 to 2012, NCVS findings showed no significant change in total victimizations per year and actually indicated an increase in acts of bias-driven violence (Langton and Planty, 2011; and Wilson, 2014).

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