The 2016 election put bigotry front and center. The winner, Donald Trump, campaigned with rhetoric that many deemed hateful. After the election, many individuals belonging to minority and marginalized groups reported an increase in hate crimes. Trump’s white supporters also reported experiencing incidents of hate. In the wake of this hate-filled election and its aftermath, many question whether Trump’s election caused this uptick in hate crimes, and debated which groups in the United States face the most bigotry in the form of hate crimes and bias incidents. Equipped with a more accurate source of hate crime statistics, we can combat bigotry where it plagues us most.
The FBI hate crime reports serve as some of the most prevalent data sources on bigotry in the United States. The FBI defines hate crimes as “criminal offenses that were motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, gender, gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and were committed against persons, property, or society.” These reports, released annually since 1996, document the details of hate crimes in the United States. The latest report, for the year 2015, shows an increase in the number of hate crimes nationwide compared to the previous year. In particular, the report shows an increase in the total number of anti-Jewish incidents and an increase in the percentage of anti-Muslim incidents.
This increase might have continued during the election, since many people viewed much of Trump’s rhetoric as anti-Semitic and Islamophobic, and some evidence suggests that many of his supporters were motivated by biases against these groups. Harvard professor Ali Asani confirmed an uptick in hate crimes and bias incidents both before and after the election in an interview with the HPR. Interestingly, Asani also noticed a rise during Obama’s tenure as president: “during the Obama presidency, there already was a rise, partly because I think that, you know, people were not comfortable with the election of Obama, because he was African American, and it didn’t fit [their vision of] what America should be, and it’s very much race-based.” Bigotry against Muslims, he observed, “actually turned into racism against all brown people,” adding, “It’s some phobia. … It’s not just about religion. It’s become very quickly, against anyone who’s brown.”
Harvard Kennedy School professor Khalil Muhammad echoed Asani’s thoughts on the 2016 election. “I think that the election, starting with the primary season a year and a half ago, increased the likelihood that people would increasingly feel empowered who are bigoted or racist to express their views,” Muhammad said. “And the victory of Donald Trump legitimized … their bigoted and racist beliefs.” Muhammad maintained the possibility that the number of hate crimes and bias incidents committed after the election wasn’t higher than usual, but rather, citizens reported more. He noted that “a certain amount of unreported incidents … happen everyday. … And you don’t tell anybody. You just tell your friends and neighbors and you move on. I think a lot more people would have been reporting that information.” Muhammad noted the difficulty of knowing whether this uptick resulted from increased reporting or a serious increase in the number of hate crimes. Like Asani, Muhammaded confirmed evidence of an uptick in racism and racist sentiments during the Obama presidency, and cited the birther movement led by then-citizen Trump as evidence.
Lecia Brooks, the outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, also noted in an interview with the HPR the high number of hate or bias incidents recorded in the period after the election. She specifically pointed to the high number of incidents that the SPLC itself recorded. “The Southern Poverty Law Center started a website that invited people to report hate or bias incidents, either that they were victimized by or they witnessed,” Brooks said. “Within the first 24 hours of the site going up, we had close to 100. … Between November 9 and February 7, we had 1,372.”
The FBI hate crime reports might also provide information on long-term trends of bigotry. For instance, each year, blacks comprised the largest percentage of victims of racially-motivated crimes, Jewish people also comprised the largest percentage of victims of religiously-motivated crimes, and male homosexuals comprised the largest percentage of victims in crimes with a sexual-orientation bias. While these groups are historically marginalized, the crime reports also contained some surprising trends. For instance, despite the fact that every year, whites comprised the largest percentage of hate crime perpetrators, whites also comprised the second highest percentage of victims of racially-motivated hate crimes. Additionally, blacks comprised the second highest percentage of hate crime offenders.
While some of these surprising trends may be true, they also highlight the inaccuracy of the FBI hate crime statistics. The short history of the FBI’s hate crime database already makes it hard to use the data to judge long-term historical trends. In addition, not all law enforcement agencies participate in the FBI’s voluntary hate crime report. This means that many jurisdictions offer no hate crime statistics.
Furthermore, some of the law enforcement agencies that report hate crimes to the FBI likely provide inaccurate information. For example, several agencies reported zero hate crimes, an unlikely, if not impossible statistic. But even in jurisdictions that report seemingly accurate hate crime statistics, these statistics suffer from the biases of the homogeneous police departments. For example, white police officers could be less likely to report a bias related incident or hate crime committed against a minority. Conversely, white officers may be more likely to report a perceived bias related incident or hate crime committed against a white person. The accuracy of hate crime reporting likely even depends on the trust between citizens and law enforcement in different areas. In places where the public trusts their local law enforcement agency, people are less likely to report hate crimes compared to areas where the public lacks trust in law enforcement personnel.
Some of these biases might contribute to the surprisingly high percentage of white victims of hate crimes. While some whites certainly experienced hatred and even hate crimes after the election, it’s unlikely that they face more bigotry than every historically marginalized racial group other than blacks.
Brooks of the SPLC expressed doubt over the notion that white people faced systemic discrimination. She told the HPR that “We do name some black nationalist groups and some purely anti-LGBT groups and some anti-immigrant groups, but … the vast majority are white supremacist groups.”
The biases of the FBI’s hate crime statistics make a more objective source of hate crime statistics desirable. Unfortunately, no organization annually documents totally accurate hate crime statistics. Some groups such as the SPLC keep a monthly count of the number of hate crimes through news reports, social media, and direct reports. While the SPLC tries to verify each incident, many anecdotal reports remain unverified. Therefore, the data collected by the SPLC, while possibly accurate, ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Brooks acknowledged the limitations of the hate crime and bias incident statistics compiled by the SPLC and other organizations. “The way that we have been tabulating hate crimes or hate incidences has always been flawed. The Department of Justice, FBI statistics that report annual hate crimes are based on a system that allows or invites agencies, law enforcement agencies to self-report,” Brooks said. “We’d be the first to tell you that the hate crime data has always been wrong and hate incidents, bias crimes, have always been and will continue to be underreported, quite frankly,” she added. “Whether or not people report it to a law enforcement agency and a law enforcement agency in turn reports it to the FBI, it’s all dependent on kind of that entire system working.”
Muhammad noted a few obstacles to the efforts to compile completely accurate statistics on hate crimes and bias incidents. In addition to the flaws inherent in all forms of reported evidence, he cited the definitional challenges associated with hate crimes and bias incidents. “There [are] too many definitional challenges in an area of the law for example where there is tremendous ideological differences in what really counts as racism,” Muhammad said. “And all that is subject to political preferences in how individuals see things.” Muhammad also said that the media, in collaboration with other agencies, could prove to be the best source of information on hate crimes and bias incidents. “The newspapers for many years, Washington Post obviously and The Guardian are keeping track of police shootings in a given year as well as killings. And it used to be the Chicago Tribune was the most authoritative source for tracking lynchings,” Muhammad said. “Because media reports are closer to the ground in terms of reporting on allegations of racial bias and hate incidents that may not rise to the level of police interaction or even less so, the filing of a police report, the best solution potentially would be a media agency perhaps in collaboration with a foundation.”
The lack of accurate hate crime statistics makes it hard to objectively answer many of the big questions about bigotry in this country. However, the personal reports of many individuals and documented incidents of hate make it clear that bigotry remains a fundamental problem in the United States. Despite the difficulty of documenting these incidents with perfect accuracy, an objective assessment of bigotry in this country depends upon our documentation of hate crimes and bias incidents with the highest accuracy possible. This information would re-assert bigotry as a significant problem in the United States, and encourage people on all sides of the political spectrum to forcefully deny the hateful rhetoric and ideologies from which these acts stem. If these steps are not taken, many Americans will continue to suffer in silence.