The changing face of hate crimes

The State of Hate

By Ellen Futterman and David Baugher

Earlier this month, two brothers from Cape Girardeau were charged with a felony hate crime after allegedly attacking a black man at a convenience store, yelling racial slurs at the victim and assaulting him in a parking lot.

In April, 19-year-old Jeffrey Conroy was found guilty of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime in connection with the stabbing death of an Ecuadorean immigrant in Patchogue, N.Y. in November of 2008. Prosecutors said Conroy and six of his friends attacked the victim and another Hispanic man as part of the sport they had made out of hunting and beating up Hispanics, an activity authorities said they referred to as “beaner hopping” and “Mexican hopping,” according to the New York Times.


And in March, three Evanston, Ill. men were indicted for allegedly harassing and beating a gay man on a Chicago Transit Authority train. The gay man was trying to stop the three from attacking a gay youth.

While the details in each of these cases are very different, they are inextricably linked by a powerful four-letter word: hate. Even more powerful is the emotion behind the word, which when you link it with “crime,” often manifests itself in violence against individuals because of their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, disability or sexual orientation.

Last June, a hate crime got international attention when an 88-year-old white supremacist and anti-Semite entered the front door of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. fired his rifle and killed an African-American security guard. The shooter, James von Brunn, who had grown up in St. Louis, died earlier this year while in the medical wing of a North Carolina prison.

No one knows exactly what drives a person to murder a virtual stranger because of race, religion or sexual orientation, but the bottom line is that bias continues to play a destructive role in modern American society, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Since statistics began being kept two decades ago, hate crimes have been committed at an average rate of almost one an hour, according to “Confronting the New Faces of Hate: Hate Crimes in America,” an analysis released in late 2009 by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF), the nation’s oldest, most diverse civil and human rights coalition.

‘Wave of hate’ across America

Last November, the Jewish Light received a grant from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis to study hate violence and its effects not just among Jews, but also other groups protected by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law last October. This legislation, named after two victims of bias-motivated crimes, expanded the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation or disability. The earlier act protects victims targeted because of their race, religion or ethnicity, but only if they were engaged in a federally protected activity, like voting or going to school. The new law removed that stipulation.

In the past six months the Light has spoken to dozens of agencies and individuals who track and investigate hate crimes as well as to victims and perpetrators of bias-motivated violence. In conversations with groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Missouri Highway Patrol and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, all spoke of a wave of hate they see stirring across America. Among their findings and concerns:

• Hate crimes and hate incidents are woefully underreported. Some states don’t report them at all.

• Most hate crimes are not committed by members of organized hate groups.

• Jews comprise nearly two-thirds of all the victims within religious groups targeted by hate.

• The number of hate crimes committed against Hispanics (and those perceived to be immigrants) has increased each of the past four years.

• Blacks comprise nearly three-quarters of all reported race-base crimes.

• Hate crimes committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation has increased to its highest level in five years.

• While hate crimes against Muslims declined slightly in 2008, it is still four times the number reported in 2000.

• Hate crimes are especially heinous and impactful because they are designed to intimidate not only the victim or victims, but others in the targeted community who may feel victimized and vulnerable.

• The Internet and social networking sites have been a boon to white supremacy and the growth of racism and organized hate groups.

• Few hate crimes are ultimately prosecuted as hate crimes.

These facts and trends don’t occur in a vacuum, but rather in the context of a broader social milieu that feeds into what some call the marketing of hate. Michael Lieberman, Washington Counsel of the ADL, listed recent events and developments that he believes exacerbates hate and extremism, including:

• The election of the first African-American President;

• the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression that ebbs and flows in its recovery;

• a broken and battered immigration system;

• the divisiveness of the health care reform

• and better means of communication among like-minded individuals.

Add in vitriolic media commentary on issues such as gay marriage, immigration and health care, which might breed intolerance, and a burgeoning number of websites dedicated specifi- cally to hate targets – and anyone seek ing confirmation and support for radical views can find it.

Numbers don’t tell all

There’s an old adage that goes: “Numbers don’t lie.” Since the enactment of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act in 1990, the number of hate crimes reported to the FBI has consistently ranged around 7,500 or more annually – again, about one an hour. Contrary to the adage, relying solely on these numbers to tell the story is futile because they assume reporting is accurate and consistent, something most groups that study hate-related violence believe is almost certainly not the case.

In 2008, the most recent year current statistics are available for hate crimes, Georgia, which is one of 10 states with the highest percentage of African-American populations and has an 8 percent Hispanic population, reported nine hate crimes. Louisiana, which according to 2008 Census Bureau numbers has about the same percentage of African-Americans, far less Hispanics and about half the total population of Georgia, reported 124. Missouri had 99 and Illinois, 120.

“We encourage all jurisdictions to report,” says Tim Feeney of the FBI’s St. Louis Division, noting that hate crime reporting can vary significantly from state to state and that many counties don’t report at all. “It is estimated that approximately 50 percent of hate crimes nationwide are reported.”

A 2005 survey by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics found an average of 191,000 hate crime incidents were occurring annually during a three-and-a-half year period beginning in July 2000, far more than the FBI’s average of 7,500 (of course, not all hate incidents turn out to be crimes). The Justice Bureau study also found that less than half of the incidents were even reported to police. FBI statistics show that of more than 13,000 reporting law enforcement agencies in 2008, the vast majority – greater than 9,000 – reported no hate crimes at all.

“Some of the most likely targets of hate violence are also the least likely to report these crimes to the police,” Lieberman said, pointing out that in some cases, law enforcement doesn’t want to bother much with these crimes because they are often hard to prosecute.

New face of hate

When hate crimes go unreported, law enforcement may not realize that attributes less obvious than race, religion and sexual orientation can make a group a target as well.

“There are more homeless people killed in bias-type attacks than all the other hate crime categories that are traditionally kept combined,” said Brian Levin, a professor of criminology at California State University in San Bernardino. “Over the last 10 years there’s almost 2 ½ times more homicides against homeless people, like thrill attacks, for instance, or attacks by neo-Nazis, because (homeless people) are a safer target.”

Earlier this month, Florida passed a bill that makes violence against homeless people a hate crime, and similar measures exist in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

Levin, who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said many people might also be surprised to discover who commits hate crimes.

“The most important thing to know is that most of these crimes are not committed by hard-core hatemongers or members of organized hate groups but rather by young people seeking peer validation or excitement,” he said. “That’s disturbing because the depth of their prejudice isn’t necessarily that significant but the combination of impulse control, peer validation and the desire for excitement often results in violence.”

Further, Levin said it’s important not to focus on easily identifiable stereotypes, like the neo-Nazi clad in jackboots and covered with swastika tattoos. “Some of the more rancorous statements that are made in the mainstream actually reach more people and are probably more problematic than the Klansman handing out a flyer at a rally that hardly anyone will read,” he said. “That has more of a deleterious effect on impressionable young people who will sometimes view it as a green light.”

The fringe

The SPLC reports that the number of hate groups in the U.S. has grown by more than half over the past decade, with 932 operating in 2009. Missouri is home to 31 of these groups while Illinois has 28 operating in the state.

But some believe hate groups only represent part of the problem. They contend that more mainstream organizations are creating a general atmosphere of malaise and anger. In fact, the introduction of vehemence and absolutism into the political bloodstream is an issue with which the ADL finds itself increasingly concerned. In 2009, the organization released “Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiracies,” a report that examined “birthers,” tea partiers and militia movement participants and the role they may play in the increasingly strident ideological discourse.

“We have to be terribly concerned about the level of anger and finger pointing that goes on among very anti-government groups of people who think they have all the answers for exactly how the country is supposed to be run and anybody who disagrees with them is somehow targeted in a negative way,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the ADL for Missouri and Southern Illinois.

Like Levin and other tolerance advocates, Aroesty is searching for the moment at which troubling language, be it political, racial, social or otherwise, may turn to illegal action.

“The question is whether the rhetoric around all of that will develop to a point where people are potentially harmed because of it,” she said. “That’s the key thing to watch in all of this. Is any harm that comes out of this something physical, violent and intentional because of this assumption that I’m right, you’re wrong and therefore you’ve got to be moved out of the picture?”

To some degree this has moved the debate over hate into new, often unexplored areas that have brought ADL into the vanguard on such nascent issues as cyber-bullying, an increasing problem that’s fast becoming a concern for schools and parents of teens for whom social media and email are a way of life. While the context of such electronic encounters may be different, the challenge – as well as some of the legal questions it raises – remain the same.

“When you say something online that results in harm to somebody, it doesn’t mean you get away with being able to do it just because you typed it into a computer,” Aroesty said. “If your words were hateful enough that they incited somebody to commit a violent act against somebody because they are in one of these protected groups then you will be liable. It’s going to take us awhile to get there but I think that’s the next progression.”