Bias Crimes in America: The Nature and Magnitude of the Problem
Violence directed against individuals on the basis of their race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation is disturbingly prevalent — and poses significant threats to the full participation of all Americans in a democratic society. Bias-motivated crimes are designed to intimidate the victim and members of the victim's community, leaving them feeling isolated, vulnerable, and unprotected by the law. By making victims of hate violence and their communities fearful, angry, and suspicious of other groups — and of the power structure that is supposed to protect them — these incidents can damage the fabric of our society and fragment communities.
The urgent national need for both a tough law enforcement response and education and programming to confront violent bigotry has increased over the past three years. As hate crime experts have noted, "If we were ever unsure, the September 11th attack on America provided indisputable evidence that a single situation can precipitate major changes in the ways that we behave toward the groups in our midst."1
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the nation witnessed a disturbing rash of irrational attacks against Americans and others who appeared to be Muslim, Middle Eastern, or South Asian. The perpetrators of these crimes have lashed out at innocent people because of their personal characteristics — their race, religion, or ethnicity. Law enforcement officials have investigated hundreds of these "backlash" incidents, many involving youthful offenders — including vandalism, intimidation, assaults, and several murders at places of worship, schools, neighborhood centers, grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, and homes.
In response to this disturbing series of attacks, a number of key administration officials — including President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and FBI Director Robert Mueller — spoke out against hate crimes and reached out to affected communities. On September 26, 2001, at a meeting with Sikh leaders at the White House, President Bush pledged that "our government will do everything we can not only to bring those people to justice, but also to treat every human life as dear, and to respect the values that made our country so different and so unique. We're all Americans, bound together by common ideals and common values."
Of course, after the events of September 11th, many Americans did understand the need to take affirmative steps to combat hate. A number of government and community initiatives since that time have illustrated that Americans care deeply about addressing prejudice and bias. In a nationwide survey of adults and youth on perceptions regarding community involvement and the need for dialogue between adults and youth, conducted by the National 4-H shortly after September 11th, "building respect/tolerance for others" was cited to be the most needed element for improving communities.
The 1992 American Psychological Association report entitled, Violence and Youth: Psychology's Response, identified "prejudice and discrimination" as one of the three leading causes of violence among American youth. In fact, education and exposure are the cornerstones of a long-term solution to prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. Effective response to hate violence by public officials and law enforcement authorities, however, can play an essential role in deterring and preventing these crimes.
Data Collection Efforts: The Hate Crime Statistics Act
Enacted in 1990, the Hate Crime Statistics Act
(HCSA)2 requires the U.S. Department of Justice to acquire data on crimes that "manifest prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or ethnicity" from law enforcement agencies across the country and to publish an annual summary of the findings. The HCSA has increased public awareness of the problem and sparked improvements in the local response of the criminal justice system to hate violence.
On November 12, 2003, the FBI released its most recent annual report, "Hate Crime Statistics 2002"3, which reported:
While the overall number of crimes reported to the FBI in 2002 increased by less than one-tenth of one percent, reported hate crimes decreased from 9,726 in 2001 to 7,462 in 2002 (a 23.3 percent decrease).
The 7,462 hate crime incidents reported to the FBI involved 8,832 separate offenses, 9,222 victims, and 7,314 known offenders. Of the 7,462 incidents, 5,960 were crimes against persons and 2,823 were crimes against property.
Racial bias again represented the largest percentage of bias-motivated incidents (48.8 percent), followed by religion bias (19.1 percent), sexual orientation bias (16.7 percent), and ethnicity bias (14.8 percent).
Anti-black bias was the most prevalent racial motivation, with 2,486 incidents (33.3 percent of all hate crimes) and nearly 70 percent of all race-motivated incidents.
In 2001, 931 anti-Semitic crimes were reported, a slight decrease from 1,043. Overall, crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions comprised 12.5 percent of all the bias-motivated crimes, and 65 percent of the religious-based crime incidents.
The number of reported anti-Islamic crimes decreased from 481 in 2001 to 155 in 2002, a decrease of 67.8 percent. In addition, the number of hate crimes directed at individuals on the basis of their national origin/ethnicity also decreased significantly — from 2,098 in 2001 to 1,102 in 2002. This significant reduction is likely the result of a decrease in the backlash crimes that characterized the period following September 11th and led to record hate crimes in 2001.
The number of national law enforcement agencies reporting to the FBI in 2002 increased slightly from 11,987 to 12,073 — the second highest total of participating agencies in the twelve-year history of the data collection effort.
Hawaii was, again, the only state that did not participate in reporting hate crimes to the FBI; Arkansas participated but affirmatively reported zero hate crimes for 2002.
Clearly these hate crime numbers do not speak for themselves. Behind each of these statistics is an individual or a community targeted for violence for no other reason than race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or ethnicity. American communities have learned the hard way that failure to address bias crimes can cause an isolated incident to fester and result in widespread tension.
However, studies by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and others have revealed that some of the most likely targets of hate violence are the least likely to report these crimes to the police.4 In addition to cultural and language barriers, some immigrant victims, for example, fear reprisals or deportation if incidents are reported. Many new Americans come from countries in which residents would never call the police, especially if they were in trouble.5 Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender victims, facing hostility, discrimination, and, possibly family pressures because of their sexual orientation or identity, may also be reluctant to come forward to report these crimes.6 These issues present a critical challenge for improving law enforcement response to hate violence. When police departments implement the HCSA in partnership with community-based groups, the effort should enhance police-community relations.
Hate Crime Statutes: A Message to Victims and Perpetrators
While bigotry cannot be outlawed, hate crime penalty enhancement statutes in the United States have demonstrated an important commitment to confronting criminal activity motivated by prejudice. At present, the federal government, forty-six states, and the District of Columbia have enacted hate crime penalty-enhancement laws, many based on an ADL model statute drafted in 1981.7 In Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476 (1993), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Wisconsin penalty-enhancement statute — effectively removing any doubt that state legislatures may properly increase the penalties for criminal activity in which the victim is intentionally targeted because of his/her race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or ethnicity.8
At the federal level, currently pending legislation, the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act (LLEEA), would complement Section 245 of Title 18 U.S.C. — one of the primary statutes now used to combat racial and religious bias-motivated violence. That statute prohibits intentional interference, by force or threat of force, with the enjoyment of a federal right or benefit (such as voting, going to school, or working) on the basis of the victim's race, color, religion, or national origin. Under the current law, enacted in 1968, the government must prove that the crime occurred because of a person's membership in a protected group — and because (not while) he/she was engaging in a federally-protected activity. In testimony before Congress, Justice Department officials have identified a number of significant racial violence cases in which federal prosecutions have been stymied by these unwieldy dual jurisdictional requirements.9
The LLEEA would remove these overly-restrictive obstacles to federal involvement by permitting prosecutions without having to prove that the victim was attacked because he/she was engaged in a federally-protected activity. Second, it would provide expanded authority for federal officials to investigate and prosecute cases in which the bias violence occurs because of the victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, or disability. Current federal law does not provide authority for involvement in these cases at all.
The vast majority of bias crimes are effectively addressed at the state and local level. However, in states without hate crime statutes, and in others with limited coverage, local prosecutors are simply not able to pursue bias crime convictions.10 In a limited number of these cases, and others in which the local prosecutor is unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute, federal assistance or involvement is warranted.
This measure has attracted bipartisan support in Congress. The House version of the LLEEA now has more than 175 cosponsors. On June 15, 2004, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure as part of the Department of Defense authorization bill (S. 2400) by a vote of 65 to 33. A broad supporting coalition of religious, law enforcement, and civil rights groups are working to retain the Senate-passed provisions in the House-Senate conference.
Federal Hate Crime Awareness and Training Initiatives
There is growing awareness in the United States of the need to complement tough laws and more vigorous enforcement — which can deter and redress violence motivated by bigotry — with education and training initiatives designed to reduce prejudice. The U.S. government has played a central role in funding program development in this area and promoting awareness of initiatives that work.
For example, in association with the Department of Education's Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has provided funding for the development of Partners Against Hate (www.partnersagainsthate.org), an ambitious program of outreach, public education, and training to help address the cycle of bias, hatred, distrust, and violence by: (1) increasing public awareness — especially among youth and juvenile justice professionals — about promising practices to reduce and prevent youth-initiated hate violence; (2) providing effective hate crime prevention and intervention strategies and training and technical assistance for law enforcement agencies, educators, religious and community leaders, parents, and youth; and (3) helping individuals working with youth embrace the potential of advanced communications technologies — particularly the Internet — to break down barriers, address biases, and provide communities with the services and support they need.11
Another federally-funded hate violence prevention initiative is CommUNITY 2000, the nation's first fair-housing related community tensions program. Because fair housing laws allow for intervention and remedial action at the harassment stage, they can play a major role in preventing hate crimes. Working through national and local coalitions, CommUNITY 2000, a HUD-funded program, developed a menu of strategies, available through www.civilrights.org, to prevent, respond to, and reconcile tensions that arise when people make choices about where to live.
America is becoming increasingly diverse, and the need for education is fundamental for preventing bias in juveniles. In January 2002, researchers at the Northeastern University Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research did a study of high school students in Massachusetts, which found that "schools that have recently experienced an influx in race or ethnic minorities in recent years tend to have higher rates of racial or ethnically bias-motivated crimes." This study revealed the importance of promoting multicultural awareness and understanding in schools as the population changes in order to reduce instances of bias-motivated violence. The researchers concluded that peers, faculty, and family members "must be in a position to be constructive and supportive when informed of bias victimization."12
The Impact of Hate Violence
Law enforcement officials across the country have come to recognize that hate crimes demand priority attention because their special emotional and physical impact extends beyond the original victim.
These senseless acts of violence terrorize whole communities. American communities have learned the hard way that failure to address bias crimes can cause an isolated incident to fester and result in widespread tension.