Last week, as the world’s eyes turned (and hearts opened) to the victims of the shocking terror attacks in Paris, two smaller cities reckoned with their own crimes of hate and fear here at home.
Jackson, Mississippi, saw the long-awaited end to one particularly notorious case, as the last of 10 white defendants pleaded guilty to his part in the random assaults of several black men, as well as one murder, in a series of racially motivated hate crimes in 2011. Meanwhile, authorities in Colorado Springs, Colorado, began an investigation into the bombing of the NAACP local office there. No one was hurt in that explosion, and motives and suspects are still elusive, but the FBI is exploring the possibility that it, too, was a racially motivated “bias attack,” or hate crime.
According to the FBI’s most recent annual hate crime statistics released last month, about half were motivated by racial bias. Racial-bias crimes far outnumbered crimes motivated by bias against the victim’s sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, disability status, gender, or gender identity.
"When you look at the published FBI stats, they show a range of between about 6,000 and 10,500 hate crimes over the years. The reality is that, at least over the last several years, the real rate of hate crimes in America is at about 260,000 a year."
Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, the group that fought a civil case for the victims in Jackson, Mississippi, says that that proportion has not changed much over the years. The bulk of hate crimes, as they are recorded by the FBI, have been related to race. (According to those latest figures, about half of the offenders were white, about a quarter were black, and the rest were of other races or of unknown race.)
Those statistics aren’t perfect, however, Potok says, and so while they can reveal some general patterns in why and where and how these crimes occur, they aren’t nearly as helpful in calculating the actual frequency of hate crimes in a given year. All that Potok can say for sure is that there are far, far more hate crimes committed across the country than are ever reported or included in those figures.
For instance, for many years Mississippi and Alabama reported zero hate crimes, which the SPLC knew for a fact was wrong. Last year, New Jersey didn’t get its numbers in on time, so none of its crimes were included. And so on. “We’ve known this for a long time,” Potok says. “There’s a lot more happening out there than the statistics are capturing.”
The problem is, the FBI statistics are tabulated by simply gathering local police departments’ tallies of hate crime incidents and arrests, so they can’t take into account the crimes that don’t get reported, or the crimes that police officials choose not to characterize as being motivated by bias. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics has addressed those discrepancies in a series of surveys over the past decade. Tens of thousands of people responded to the National Crime Victimization Survey, and the BJS extrapolated from there. The surveys show what a small portion of hate crimes will actually get reported to police, and get categorized as hate crimes, and be reported to the FBI by the local departments in time to all be included in the national tally. A lot of incidents seem to get lost along the way.
“When you look at the published FBI stats, they show a range of between about 6,000 and 10,500 hate crimes over the years,” Potok says. “The reality, as these BJS statistics studies have concluded, is that, at least over the last several years, the real rate of hate crimes in America is at about 260,000 a year. So it’s vastly higher.”
"Based on our own work, we have found that the LGBT community is by far the most victimized minority community in America, in terms of violent hate crimes and much more targeted than black Americans or Jewish Americans."
Two new aspects of the national accounting this year were hate crimes motivated by gender bias and gender identity bias—it’s the first year that those categories were included. That inclusion was mandated by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009, which made it possible for the federal government to step in and have jurisdiction over any local hate crime, and handle the cases that local governments were unable or unwilling to prosecute.
According to those FBI statistics, only 0.5 percent of all hate crimes in 2013 were motivated by a bias against gender identity—so, just a handful, by the FBI’s accounting. Although the numbers are relatively low, that is because the group of potential victims is low, Potok says; the relative risk is extremely high.
“Based on our own work, we have found that the LGBT community is by far the most victimized minority community in America, in terms of violent hate crimes—we’re excluding things like graffiti—and much more targeted than black Americans or Jewish Americans, and so on,” Potok says. “And within that, transgender people are certainly the most victimized. There are very small numbers, but it’s incredibly dangerous to be a transgender person in America and have that fact be known.”
True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.