The FBI has released its hate crime data, based on voluntary reports by law enforcement agencies, with more agencies participating and a higher number of hate crimes recorded compared to 2016. Yet underreporting is very likely.
What is hate, and what is a hate crime?
The US Department of Justice (DoJ) website explains that the word “hate”, when used in legal matters, “does not mean rage or anger or general dislike” as it might suggest in informal speech.
Rather, with hate crimes also referred to as bias crimes, “hate” in this context means “bias against persons with specific characteristics that are defined by the relevant law”.
So what does that mean?
Hate crimes may target a person’s race, religion, colour, gender and more, sometimes multiple aspects at a time. Hate crimes that attack a victim on the basis of one aspect of the victim’s real or perceived characteristics are called “single-bias hate crimes”, whereas crimes that attack a victim for multiple, combined reasons are called “multiple-bias hate crimes”.
The FBI says that for the purposes of collecting statistics, it has defined 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, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity”.
For there to be a hate crime, in addition to bias, violence must be involved (such as assault, murder, or threats). Hate incidents, on the other hand, are incidents that involve a bias but are not violent.
The DoJ is quick to point out that regardless of how upsetting or offensive it may get, hate speech is protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees, among other things, the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly.
US citizens, therefore, can be racist, homophobic and misogynistic as long as they don’t put another in harm’s way. The FBI’s own website notes: “Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”
Hate crimes in 2017
The FBI received 17 percent more reports of hate crime incidents in 2017 than in 2016, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s annual Hate Crime Statistics report, released on November 13.
Reporting hate crimes to the FBI is voluntary; there have been 7,175 reports in 2017, with 16,149 law enforcement agencies participating. This is an increase from 6,121 incidents and 15,254 agencies in 2016. So not only is there an increase in reported crimes, there is an increase in reporting from agencies as well.
Yet here we must note that of the more than 16,000 agencies participating in the Hate Crime Statistics Program in 2017, only 2,040 reported hate crime incidents.
While it’s reasonable to think that increased participation in the UCR Program may have led to increased crime numbers, that is probably not the case.
With many law enforcement agencies not reporting any incidents to the FBI, underreporting is very likely. Speaking to the New York Times, Senior Advocacy Manager for the Sikh Coalition Sim J. Singh says: “I wouldn’t feel too confident in those numbers.”