Expert Commentary

Hate crimes and research questions: Examining racial, ethnic and religious bias

2015 review of research and data that speak to issues of hate crimes motivated by bias, with a focus on definitional issues in the United States and patterns abroad.

The mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., again raises questions about the frequency and extent of hate crimes in America.

The FBI notes in a December 2014 report: “Of the reported 3,407 single-bias hate crime offenses that were racially motivated, 66.4 percent were motivated by anti-black or African-American bias, and 21.4 percent stemmed from anti-white bias.” It remains the case that African-Americans are the victims of bias-motivated crimes at much higher rates than all other racial or ethnic groups, and as frequently noted, the official numbers likely represent a significant under-count.

While the 2015 Charleston incident appears to be plainly hate-motivated, many are not as clear-cut. The February 2015 shooting of three Muslim college students at Chapel Hill, N.C., raised a number of difficult questions: Should the killings be labeled as a hate crime? Was the relative lack of media coverage due to the victims’ religion? These discussions have widened to the question of why hate crimes are so hard to prove and rarely prosecuted. This seems to be reflected in updated statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS): It estimated that 293,800 nonfatal violent and property hate crimes occurred in the U.S. in 2012, with an estimated 60% not reported to the police.

While the new figures are not statistically different from the BJS estimates for 2004 (of 281,700 hate crimes) the details show significant changes in the motivations behind the crimes. The proportion motivated by ethnicity bias more than doubled from 22% in 2004 to 51% in 2012; 28% were motivated by religious bias, nearly triple the 10% rate in 2004; and those motivated by gender bias went from 12% to 26%, more than double. (The percentages add up to more than 100% because some crimes may have multiple biases.)

Reporting and definitional issues

One of the most complex areas of debate is how to define hate crimes precisely and uniformly and ensure consistent enforcement and categorization. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, “The Effect of Law on Hate Crime Reporting: The Case of Racial and Ethnic Violence,” examines this question, analyzing how evolving definitions of hate crimes across states may or may not affect the rates at which such acts are designated and reported publicly by law enforcement. The researcher, Michele Stacey of East Carolina University, looked at Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics from 2000 to 2007, as well as demographic, economic and political data that could help contextualize rates of reporting.

The FBI categorizes and publicizes these criminal acts through its Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) Hate Crime Statistics Program. For the purposes of statistical collection, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” U.S. states must determine that crimes meet that definition when they report them to the FBI, but they have different laws on their books — indeed, Wyoming, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina do not have clear statutes recognizing bias-motivated crime, as do the other 45 states — and vary in their approach to enforcement and categorization. Ultimately, the study focuses on how the demographics of states and the size of minority populations appear to influence the number of hate crimes reported.

The study’s findings include:

  • The data suggest overall that that there is a “relationship between the type of hate crime law on the books and the reporting of hate crime by the police.” Where laws are broader — making the designation of hate crimes less strict — there are generally more hate crimes reported.
  • Demographic factors, including the size and relative political power of minority groups, seem to influence the reporting of hate crimes: “While states that criminalize violations of a person’s civil rights report more anti-black incidents and states with broader hate-crime definitions report more anti-Hispanic hate crime, that relationship is attenuated by the presence of a larger minority group and greater minority political power.”
  • Somewhat surprisingly, “the minority’s ability to mobilize politically combined with a large group size results in fewer hate crimes.” Indeed, “more hate crimes are reported generally where minority-group size is small in relation to white population size.”
  • After the factors of “racial composition and economic and political competition” were taken into account, the breadth of state hate-crime statutes had little effect on the number of anti-black hate crimes. This suggests that there are important differences between how laws influence police actions around racial (anti-black) and ethnic hate crimes (anti-Hispanic).

“The reported level of hate crime is likely a factor of both the true number of crimes committed as well as the reporting behaviors of victims and the police,” Stacey concludes. “Future research should endeavor to disentangle the reporting practices of jurisdiction from the true prevalence of hate crime to determine whether this is the case.”

Terrorism and international backlash

The issues of prejudice and violence against Muslim minorities are of particular concern in Europe in the wake of high-profile terrorist acts perpetrated by Islamic extremists.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, “Hate Crime in the Wake of Terror Attacks: Evidence from 7/7 and 9/11,” investigates whether terrorist incidents can be statistically linked to increases in hate crimes in the United Kingdom. After the 2001 and 2005 attacks in New York and London, respectively, there were anecdotal reports of spikes in hate crimes against perceived Muslim populations, but little statistical evidence. The study’s authors, Emma Hanes and Stephen Machin of University College London, use data from four police-force areas in England with substantial Asian and Arab populations to measure hate crimes against those groups before and after the terror attacks, relative to those against blacks and whites.

The findings include:

  • In the month of the July 7, 2005, attacks in London, there was a 27% increase in hate crimes against Asians and Arabs. While the effects fell in later months, the number of attacks remained substantially higher than before the bombings — 17% higher in the three months after the attacks and 10% to 15% higher a year after the event.
  • The immediate impact on hate crime was greater in London, where the attacks occurred, with a 32% increase. This is compared to the other police-force areas in the study — Leicestershire, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire.
  • The subsequent rate of decrease in the attacks’ effects also differed by area, with no impact in London a year after the attacks, but a persistent and strong effect in the areas outside London. Two possible explanations were suggested: First, long-standing race issues in the study areas outside London “have engendered deeper-seated issues of anger and resentment.” Second, the authors point to greater levels of migration in London, leading to a more dynamic population environment in which adjustment can take place more quickly.
  • Analysis for the effects after the 9/11 attacks is more limited as changes in the reporting requirements meant that trends could only be measured until April 2002, and data limitations excluded one police-force area from the analysis. Nevertheless, the study finds strong effects from 9/11 on hate crimes against Asians and Arabs, with levels rising by 28% in September 2001, reducing to 22% three months after the attacks and 11% after six months.

The authors conclude that the similar patterns in hate crimes against Asian and Arab populations after 7/7 and 9/11 makes it highly likely that they can be causally linked to the terror attacks themselves. This is in line with previous academic literature that suggests that for individuals, the costs of such terror attacks are not limited to the victims of the attacks themselves. Hanes and Machin point out that this makes the causes of hate crime “different from, or certainly more complex than, the kind of incentive or deterrence effects that emerge as crime determinants in the standard economics of the crime model.”

Related research: A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “Causal Effect of Intergroup Contact on Exclusionary Attitudes,” explores the precise mechanism that can cause negative attitudes toward other ethnic, racial or religious groups. A 2011 study from Virginia Union University and the University of Missouri, “The Impact of Immigration on Anti-Hispanic Hate Crime in the United States,” analyzes FBI, Census and Department of Homeland Security data to determine incidence levels of anti-Hispanic hate crime in periods and places with higher levels of immigration.


Keywords: hate crime, terror attacks, law, prejudice, terrorism


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