When actor Jussie Smollett reported a racist and homophobic attack to the Chicago Police Department last month, he appeared to be one of an estimated 250,000 people targeted in hate crimes every year in the United States—although not all of them experience the level of violence Smollett described.
Now, law enforcement says that Smollett did not experience it at all: On Wednesday, the Empire actor was charged with felony disorderly conduct for making an allegedly false report, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.
As the news spread, many (including the president) were quick to criticize Smollett, or simply amplify this instance of alleged false reporting, which is actually very rare. Researchers who track hate crimes have found that the more common problem isn't false reports; if anything, it's underreporting. In fact, the number of hate crimes has spiked dramatically since 2016—and these numbers are likely much higher than what's represented in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's database.
Here's the context that's sometimes left out of this conversation.
The Number of Hate Crimes Reported to Police Is at a Decade-Long High
While experts who track this information warn the data is difficult to pin down, an overall trend is clear: Over the past four years, the number of hate crimes reported to police have continued their dramatic rise—reaching the highest level the U.S. has seen in a decade, according to an analysis from Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University–San Bernardino. In 2017 (the most recent year of data available), the FBI database recorded a 17 percent increase in hate crimes from the previous year. With more than 7,000 incidents, it was the third-highest year since the FBI began collecting this data.
If you correct for "massive underreporting" in the FBI's voluntary database, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the number of hate crimes a year could be closer to 250,000. Most of these offenses involve vandalism, intimidation, or assault; at least 15 people were reported to have been killed. Many instances of domestic extremism, including acts perpetrated by an increasing number of white nationalist groups, would also fall under this category. (The FBI defines hate crimes as "those motivated by biases based on race, gender, gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.")
But more hate crimes does not mean more false reports: The California State University analysis also found a "very small number of approximately two dozen confirmed or suspected instances of false reporting 'hoaxes' in the last couple of years amidst thousands of police of hate crimes reported to police." Of these thousands, FBI data shows the most common type of hate crime in recent years targeted African Americans, followed by attacks on LGBTQ people and Jewish people.
Why Do So Many Hate Crimes Go Unreported?
Because participation in the FBI's hate crime database is voluntary, the majority of law enforcement agencies report zero bias-motivated crimes for their jurisdiction—a statistic that, unfortunately, is rarely true. "There remains an enormous discrepancy between what victims report as a hate crime and what law enforcement agencies do," writes Sophie Bjork-James, anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University, in the Conversation.
Aside from the data collection itself, there are institutional forces behind this phenomenon. Research shows police officers are not always equipped to identify a hate crime, due to their relative infrequency and the ambiguity surrounding a crime's motivation. As Pacific Standard has noted:
An investigation by ProPublica suggests many local police departments don't train their officers in recording hate crime information to send to the federal government, and officers frequently don't report hate crimes as such. A spray-painted swastika, for example, might get classified as simple vandalism, and not a hate crime.
Could Sensationalized Coverage of False Reports Contribute to This Problem?
Another factor is that victims themselves hesitate to report hate crimes, because they fear retaliation or they don't believe the incident is serious enough. Researchers have found LGTBQ victims often fail to report hate crimes out of fear that law enforcement will not correctly categorize the incident as a hate crime. A 2018 report published by the U.S. Department of Justice noted that "victims often accept the occurrence of hateful incidents as 'normal' and, unfortunately, may not trust law enforcement or other authorities to take them seriously."
Of course, the communities that are most often targeted in hate crimes often have a greater mistrust of the law enforcement, since they've been historically victimized by the police. In Chicago, for example, where Smollett reported his attack, the Chicago Tribune found about four out of every five people shot by police were African-American men. In many of these shootings, such as the 2014 murder of Laquan MacDonald, the department has upheld a code of silence to protect its own.
In a press conference about the charges against Smollett on Wednesday, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson acknowledged this distrust, while calling the incident a "publicity stunt." "I know the racial divide that exists here," he told reporters. "Why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false allegations?"
If victims of hate crimes are already worried that police won't believe them, widespread coverage of a false report—which represents only a small number among thousands of incidents—may only deepen this divide.