To Combat Hate Crimes, We First Need To Know How Many There Are

Bad data likely underestimates the nature and scale of the problem.

January 13, 2017

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D – Wis.) recently urged Donald Trump and the next attorney general — likely her current colleague, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions — to make combating hates crimes a priority in their new roles. In her piece, she mentioned an exchange Trump had in his first interview as President-elect, where he was asked to comment on reports of violence and harassment popping up in his name post-election.

“I am very surprised to hear that,” he said. “I don’t hear it — I saw, I saw one or two instances,” he added, calling it “a very small amount” before looking at the camera and telling the perpetrators to “stop it.”  

The exchange contrasts with reports of hate incidents all around the country. There are constant anecdotes on television or social media: racist graffiti popping up on a city wall, hijab-wearing women being harassed, and swastikas appearing in city parks. The list could go on.

If Trump is serious about “law and order,” and being president for all Americans, as promised in his victory speech, he must first understand how common discrimination and hate crimes are.

But he’s not alone.

In fact, Trump’s lack of clarity stems from a broader problem. We, as a country, have no idea how many hate crimes are happening. FBI figures are deemed the official tally, but varied collection practices mean the Bureau’s numbers don’t accurately reflect the lived experience of so many around the country.

The definition of a hate crime is not consistent between states. The FBI lists the definition as “a committed criminal offense that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” However, states identify hate crimes very differently, especially hate crimes based on sexual orientation. The biases of local officials heavily influence the data.

For example, according to the FBI, there were zero hate crimes in Mississippi in 2015. None. That is unbelievable, in a literal sense. We should not believe it.

That same year, its neighbor Alabama reported 12 incidents of hate crimes. Massachusetts reported 483. Are hate crimes 40 times more common in Massachusetts? Or are police in that state more likely to flag an incident as a hate crime?

Other studies have found much higher rates of hate crime. The Southern Poverty Law Center collected more than 400 accounts of hate-related incidents between November 9th and 14th, 2016, becoming a key source for many claiming that hate crimes have spiked since Trump’s election. But even the SPLC may be vastly underestimating hate crime both before and after the election. 

The most comprehensive study of hate crime was run by the Bureau of Justice Statistics between 2004 and 2012. It found that during that time period, victims reported an estimated annual average of 260,000 hate crimes. If the BJS study on hate crimes is correct, we would expect over 3,500 to have occurred since the election — more than seven times as many crimes as the SPLC reported.

The FBI’s figures look even more out of touch when compared to the BJS study. The FBI study reports 32 times fewer national hate crimes than the BJS study.

What’s the reason for this discrepancy? For one, the BJS study uses victim reports. These reports always have higher figures than those collected by police, both because hate crimes are not always reported to police, and because police are less likely to code crimes as seriously as victims. The studies also report slightly different types of incidents. The FBI report includes some crimes, like intimidation, that are not included elsewhere.

Ideally, the federal government should develop a way to systematically and accurately report hate crimes. This is more difficult than it sounds: since the FBI depends on data collected and reported by state and local authorities, local decisions about what is and isn’t a “hate crime” will always generate inconsistencies, thwarting any attempt at uniformity.

Ideally, the media and those who study hate movements could focus on victimization reports as a way to start balancing out under-reporting by local police departments. However, BJS does not run its victimization reports regularly. The last one is from 2012. Victimization reports aren’t perfect, but yearly updates on hate crimes would vastly improve our ability to understand them. It should be the first step in controlling hate crime.

Until we fix the reporting system, however, there’s still a place for the FBI data. Even as underestimates, these numbers help us understand the vastness of hate crime in the United States. They suggest that thousands of Muslims will be assaulted this year on the basis of their religion. That thousands more LGBTQ people will be intimidated and harassed. That thousands will be stolen from because of the color of their skin.

It’s especially important to understand the vastness of these struggles because the President-elect has heard some anecdotes, knows hate crimes happen, but still believes it’s a “very small amount.” We need a system that adequately shows the breadth of hate in this country – and convinces policymakers of the need for action. 

Are you in the New York area? Are you interesting in learning more about taking on hate in the Big Apple?  The Brennan Center is co-hosting a forum on January 17 on how to educate, empower, and protect vulnerable communities against hate crimes. RSVP here.