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Is there a rise in hate crimes in America? The unsettling truth: we have no idea.

Recent reports have suggested there is a growing epidemic of hate crimes. The truth is we just don’t know.

Los Angeles area students organize a large protest. David McNew/Getty Images

Since Election Day, social and news media have been filled with reports of hate crimes. Not all of the reports are verified, and some of them have been proven false, but the general theme — from kids chanting, “Build the wall!” at minority students in schools to hateful graffiti — is that Donald Trump’s election has given rise to hateful actions and messages.

And then on Monday, the FBI released a report that seemed to indicate there was a 6.7 percent rise in reported hate crimes in 2015, driven in large part by a 67 percent rise in reported hate crimes against Muslims.

So is America facing a growing hate crime epidemic, fueled by Trump’s campaign for president and election?

The truth is very unsettling: We have no idea.

The problem is we have no system that accurately tracks hate crimes in the US. The FBI report is the closest thing to a nationwide database. But these figures also take a long time to come out — the report for 2015, for example, came out in November 2016. And the report severely underestimates the number of hate crimes — overlooking as many as hundreds of thousands of offenses, according to other government studies.

When the data is this bad, it’s impossible to draw conclusions from it. An increase may just show that the FBI report is simply more accurate for any given year, finally picking up some of the hundreds of thousands of crimes it’s missing. For example, maybe greater awareness of anti-Muslim attitudes led victims to report more hate crimes to the police and police to report more hate crimes to the FBI. Or maybe the FBI really is picking up some sort of change in the trends. We just have no idea which one of these possibilities is right.

“You cannot tell if hate crimes are going up year over year from the FBI reports,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center. “It is not possible.”

This, obviously, has implications for how much we know about hate crimes in America. The first step to addressing a problem is usually knowing what the problem is. And we just don’t.

The FBI numbers on hate crimes are really bad

The FBI's seal. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The FBI relies on voluntary reports from police departments. So police departments might not report their data on hate crimes — which “manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender and gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity” — to the FBI. (A 2016 Associated Press investigation found this is common.) Worse, police departments themselves may not track hate crimes, or victims may not report hate crimes to the police, leaving police in the dark.

Consider one statistic: Over the past two decades, the FBI reported between 6,000 and 10,000 hate crimes each year in the US. But when the US Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed a large segment of the population between 2007 and 2011 to try to gauge what the real number of hate crimes is, it concluded that there are nearly 260,000 — more than a quarter of a million — annually. This means that the FBI is potentially undercounting hate crimes by a magnitude of more than 40 times.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics also found that only 35 percent of hate crimes are ultimately reported to the police, meaning that cops are unaware of roughly two-thirds of hate crimes in their communities.

There are some problems with the Bureau of Justice Statistics data. For one, it relies solely on victims’ reports of offenses against them, so the reports aren’t fully verified. It also only counts nonfatal hate crimes, since victims of fatalities obviously can’t report a crime. So it’s likely overestimating some hate crimes and underestimating others.

But the Bureau of Justice Statistics also doesn’t do its hate crime report every year — leaving it solely to the FBI to find out and report what’s happening on an annual basis.

Potok said it’s probably possible to draw some inferences from within the FBI data. For example, since the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by so much in proportion to all hate crimes, there probably is something going on there. But it’s hard to say what the exact depth of the problem is without more accurate figures.

We need better data to know how to combat this problem

An anti-Trump protester holds a "love trumps hate" sign. Mark Makela/Getty Images

The crappy data is a big hurdle. The first thing you need to know about a problem to fix it is what, exactly, the problem is. We don’t even know for sure, at least on a yearly basis, how many hate crimes there are in America. But we also don’t know where it’s happening, who’s being targeted, or whether the attacks are going after people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, LGBTQ identity, or disability.

The FBI report is misleading in another way, though: It might suggest that hate crimes really aren’t a big problem. “If there are 10,000 hate crimes a year, that’s a lot, but perhaps it’s not a major social problem in a country of 320 million people,” Potok said. “If on the other hand there are a quarter million or even 300,000 hate crimes a year, it begins to look different. It begins to look like maybe we need to take this seriously as a society and put serious resources toward it.”

At the very least, it seems like getting the Bureau of Justice Statistics to conduct its report on hate crimes annually, much like it does for crime overall, would be a good start. But it also seems like this is something police departments should take more seriously, in terms of both seeking out and preventing potential hate crimes in their communities and reporting what they find to the FBI.

Until changes are made, though, we just won’t know how deep hate runs in America.

Watch: Fear and loathing at a Trump rally

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