It is easy to point to anecdotes of hateful harassment as evidence that hate crimes in America have been increasing. It’s not hard to believe either: President-Elect Donald Trump’s biting rhetoric and the vitriol of some of his supporters can seem like fuel for the fire. But are hate crimes really up? What do the numbers say?
The FBI’s 2015 Hate Crime Statistics have recently been published, and recorded hate crimes overall are up more than 6 percent from 2014. In 2015, the year when Trump’s campaign was gathering momentum, the FBI recorded 5,850 hate incidents, about 1 in 5 of which were religiously motivated. Religiously motivated incidents were up 23 percent, and hate incidents against Muslims were up a shocking 67 percent. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have not been this high since 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Increasing incidents due to fear mongering about ISIS abroad and immigrants at home, as well as an increase in reporting of incidents, likely had a lot to do with this.
Even with this incredible increase in hate crimes against Muslims, most religiously motivated hate incidents were targeted against Jews – over half. Hate crimes against Jews were up 9 percent from 2014, but have been the most common religiously motivated hate crimes for many years. Anti-Semitism seems so deeply entrenched that the swastika is often used as a blanket expression of hate. While sometimes used to target other groups, the history of the symbol’s use against Jews might lead the FBI to include anti-Semitism among the motivations for these incidents.
In addition to the FBI, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) also tracks hate incidents. In the month following Trump’s election, the SPLC counted over 1,090 hate incidents, 1 in 5 of which were directed at Jews or Muslims. Note that this is more than twice the number of average hate crimes per month in 2015. Over 35 percent of these hate incidents happened at schools, both K-12 settings and colleges, making schools the most common place for hate incidents.
These numbers seem to paint a bleak picture. With the 2015 FBI numbers up from the year before, and SPLC numbers seeming to capture an additional surge, are we in for an ever increasing deluge of hate crimes?
On the one hand, this may be a horrible anomaly in a general downward trend.
Overall, FBI hate incidents have been on the downswing since 2001. While hate crimes in 2015 were up from 2014, they were down from 2013. That means that in 2015, a year full of campaign vitriol, there were fewer hate crimes than in 2013, a relatively uneventful year. In an ideal world, this paints a picture of an America becoming increasingly accepting of its diversity. In reality, it might just paint a picture of an America that can’t sustain the level of active hatred that erupted after 9/11/2001. Either way, the trend is the same: down.
Still, there was an increase in hate crimes from 2014 to 2015 that must be explained. This increase may be because the FBI has gotten better at tracking hate crime data. In 2015, some law enforcement agencies began reporting on hate crimes against seven additional religious categories (anti-Buddhist, anti-Eastern Orthodox, anti-Hindu, anti-Jehovah’s Witness, anti-Mormon, anti-other Christian, and anti-Sikh). These new categorizations are important because being acknowledged as a group that takes heat is legitimizing, and may even encourage greater protections in the future. They’re also important because, combined, they account for 6.6 percent of the religiously motivated hate crimes in 2015. The category of anti-Arab hate crimes was also added with 1.2 percent of racial incidents classified as anti-Arab. These new categories of reporting might mean that hate crimes have not actually increased, but that more of them are now being counted. This could also be a harbinger of an even more pronounced increase in years to come, based largely on improved tracking.
Additionally, the SPLC notes that the rate of hate crimes steadily decreased over the month following the election. On November 9, they recorded 202 incidences while on November 18, there were 26, and on December 9, there were three. The initial shock and energy around the election may have emboldened people to say and do hateful things, but this now seems to have ebbed somewhat.
On the other hand, we ought not take these numbers lightly.
While the SPLC did record a decrease in hate crimes over the month following the election, that doesn’t necessarily mean that hate crimes went down. As mentioned above, hate crime data might be better at tracking fluctuations in reporting, rather than actual hate crime increases or decreases. In the days following the election, perhaps the immediate surprise and fear led to both a spike in hate crimes and an increase in reporting them. As the weeks wore on, perhaps the rate of hate crimes decreased less than the rate of reporting. Perhaps it wasn’t the perpetrators who stopped committing hate crimes, but the victims who grew weary and jaded of publicly reporting them.
Additionally, other than 2002 — the year that much of the 9/11 induced fear and hatred toward Muslims began to decrease — the year that saw the biggest decrease in hate incidents from the year before was 2009, the year President Obama took office. For every year since 2009, hate crimes have been lower than for every year from 2001 through 2008. Obama, the first Black president, a supporter of marriage equality and transgender rights, and the creator of the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, may have had an effect on the overall psyche of Americans. A President Trump, whose opinions and rhetoric are so profoundly different, might credibly, in Trump’s words, “cancel” a lot of Obama’s progress.
So, what should we do now?
The fact is that one hate crime is one too many. Whether the rate of hate crimes is increasing, decreasing, or unchanging, hate crimes are still occurring. Enhancing our collection and understanding of the data is important, largely in the service of knowing whether our work toward decreasing hate crimes is having an effect.
Yet, despite the current vagaries in the data, the data are already useful in helping inform that work. For example, the fact that so many hate incidents happen in educational settings ought to spur more teachers to teach about diversity and pluralism, and inspire more students to organize their peers in building relationships across ideological lines. And the fact that 2015’s increase in hate incidents was steepest against Muslims ought to increase explicit work to protect Muslim communities.
And so, even as we continue to keep our eyes on the data, we must continue to work concretely against hate. If you see someone being harassed because of their religious expression, don’t be a bystander. If you find yourself in a difficult conversation, keep it civil. If we take it upon ourselves to love our neighbors and love the stranger, maybe friendship really will outpace hate. We are not necessarily in for an ever-increasing deluge of hate crimes. We can move the needle. And maybe, just maybe, the data will reflect that, too.