The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Confronting the New Faces of Hate: Hate Crimes in America 2009. LCCR Education Fund.

Hate Crimes in America: The Nature and Magnitude of the Problem

For many Americans, the election of President Barack Obama appeared to close the book on a long history of inequality. But the spate of racially-motivated hate crimes and violence against minorities and immigrants that occurred in the final weeks before and after Election Day makes clear that a final victory over prejudice and racial hostility remains elusive.

Violence committed against individuals because of their race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation remains a serious problem in America. In the nearly twenty years since the 1990 enactment of the Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA), the number of hate crimes reported has consistently ranged around 7,500 or more annually, or nearly one every hour of the day. These data almost certainly understate the true numbers of hate crimes committed. Victims may be fearful of authorities and thus may not report these crimes. Or local authorities do not accurately report these violent incidents as hate crimes and thus fail to report them to the federal government.

All Americans have a stake in reducing hate crimes. These crimes are intended to intimidate not only the individual victim, but all members of the victim's community, and even members of other communities historically victimized by hate. By making these victims and communities fearful, angry, and suspicious of other groups — and of the authorities who are charged with protecting them — these incidents fragment and isolate our communities, tearing apart the interwoven fabric of American society.

In one of the most disturbing developments of recent years, some anti-immigration groups, claiming to warn people about the impact of illegal immigration, have inflamed the immigration debate by invoking the dehumanizing, racist stereotypes and bigotry of hate groups. It is no coincidence that as some voices in the anti-immigration debate have demonized immigrants as "invaders" who poison our communities with disease and criminality, haters have taken matters into their own hands.

With society and individuals under increasing stress due to unemployment and hard economic times, a tough law enforcement response to hate crimes, as well as education and programming to reduce violent bigotry, is urgently needed. In 1992, the American Psychological Association reported that "prejudice and discrimination" were leading causes of violence among American youth.1 Failure to address this unique type of crime could cause an isolated incident to explode into widespread community tension.

Eliminating prejudice requires that Americans develop respect for cultural differences and establish dialogue across racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious boundaries. Education, awareness, and acceptance of group differences are the cornerstones of a long-term solution to prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry. Hate crime laws and effective responses to hate violence by public officials and law enforcement authorities can play an essential role in deterring and preventing these crimes, creating a healthier and stronger society for all Americans.

Hate In America: A 2009 Environmental Scan

Since Congress enacted the Hate Crime Statistics Act in 1990, the FBI has been mandated to collect hate crime data from law enforcement agencies across America. Although the FBI's annual HCSA report clearly undercounts hate crimes, as will be discussed below, it still provides the best snapshot of the magnitude of the hate violence problem in America. As the 2007 HCSA report, the most recent available, makes clear, violence directed at individuals, houses of worship, and community institutions because of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin remains unacceptably high and continues to be a serious problem in America.

As documented by the FBI's 2007 HCSA report:

  • Approximately 51 percent of the reported hate crimes were race-based, with 18.4 percent on the basis of religion, 16.6 percent on the basis of sexual orientation, and 13.2 percent on the basis of ethnicity.

  • Approximately 69 percent of the reported race-based crimes were directed against blacks, 19 percent of the crimes were directed against whites, and 4.9 percent of the crimes were directed against Asians or Pacific Islanders. The number of hate crimes directed against individuals on the basis of their national origin/ethnicity increased to 1,007 in 2007 from 984 in 2006.

  • For the fourth year in a row, the number of reported crimes directed against Hispanics increased — from 576 in 2006 to 595 in 2007.

  • Though the overall number of hate crimes decreased slightly, the number of hate crimes directed at gay men and lesbians increased almost six percent — from 1,195 in 2006 to 1,265 in 2007.

  • Religion-based crimes decreased, from 1,462 in 2006 to 1,400 in 2007, but the number of reported anti-Jewish crimes increased slightly, from 967 in 2006 to 969 in 2007 — 12.7 percent of all hate crimes reported in 2007 — and 69 percent of the reported hate crimes based on religion.

  • Reported crimes against Muslims decreased from 156 to 115, 8.2 percent of the religion-based crimes. This is still more than four times the number of hate crimes reported against Muslims in 2000.2

The FBI HCSA Data Undercounts the Number of Hate Crimes

In 2007, 13,241 U.S. law enforcement agencies participated in the FBI's HCSA data collection effort — the largest number of police agencies in the seventeen-year history of the Act. Yet, only 2,025 of these participating agencies — 15.3 percent — reported even a single hate crime to the FBI.

As in past years, the vast majority of the participating agencies (84.7 percent) reported zero hate crimes. This does not mean that they failed to report; rather, they affirmatively reported to the FBI that no hate crimes occurred in their jurisdiction. In addition, more than 4,000 U.S. police agencies did not participate in this HCSA data collection effort — including at least four agencies in cities with populations of over 250,000 and at least 21 agencies in cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000.

In contrast to the FBI's HCSA data, the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2005 reported sharply higher numbers of hate crimes committed in the U.S.:

An annual average of 210,000 hate crime victimizations occurred from July 2000 through December 2003. During that period an average of 191,000 hate crime incidents involving one or more victims occurred annually. Victims also indicated that 92,000 of these hate crime victimizations were reported to police. These estimates were derived from victim reports to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).3

Studies by independent researchers and law enforcement organizations reveal that some of the most likely targets of hate violence are also the least likely to report these crimes to the police. There are many cultural and language barriers to reporting hate crimes to law enforcement officials. Some immigrant hate crime victims fear reprisals or deportation if incidents are reported. Many new Americans come from countries in which residents mistrust and would never call the police — especially if they were in trouble. Gay, lesbian, and transgender victims, facing hostility, discrimination, and, possibly, family pressures may also be reluctant to come forward to report these crimes.

All this evidence strongly suggests a significant underreporting of hate crimes in the United States.

The Legal Landscape: The Scope of Hate Crime Laws in America

The vast majority of hate crimes are investigated and prosecuted by state and local law enforcement officials. In general, a hate crime is a criminal offense intentionally directed at an individual or property in whole or in part because of the victim's actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability. However, each state defines the criminal activity that constitutes a hate crime differently, and the breadth of coverage of these laws varies from state to state.

Hate crimes are generally not separate and distinct criminal offenses. At present, 45 states and the District of Columbia have enacted hate crime penalty enhancement laws, many based on a model statute drafted by the Anti-Defamation League in 1981. Under these laws, a perpetrator can face more severe penalties if the prosecutor can demonstrate, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the victim was intentionally targeted by the perpetrator on the basis of his or her personal characteristics. Almost every state penalty enhancement hate crime law explicitly includes crimes directed against an individual on the basis of race, religion, and national origin/ethnicity. Currently, however, only 30 states and the District of Columbia include sexual orientation-based crimes in these hate crimes statutes; only 26 states and the District of Columbia include coverage of gender-based crimes; only eleven states and the District of Columbia include coverage of gender identity-based crimes; and only 30 states and the District of Columbia include coverage for disability-based crimes.

Next Section: The State of Hate: Escalating Hate Violence Against Immigrants

1. Report of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth (pdf), American Psychological Association, 1992.

2. FBI Hate Crime Statistics Act Report for 2007.

3. Caroline Wolf Harlow, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Hate Crimes Reported by Victims and Police," (pdf) November 2005.

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