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Jussie Smollett’s arrest doesn’t diminish the reality of hate crimes

Smollett was arrested for allegedly filing a false police report in a hoax. But hate crimes are real and widespread.

Jussie Smollett performs onstage in New York City on June 21, 2018.
Jussie Smollett performs onstage in New York City on June 21, 2018.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for VH1 Trailblazer Honors

Actor and singer Jussie Smollett claimed last month that two men attacked him in a hate crime, beating him as they called him racist and homophobic slurs. But Chicago police on Thursday arrested and charged Smollett for allegedly filing a false police report — a felony — following several reports that Smollett had orchestrated the attack himself.

The situation has become bigger than one supposed attack, with conservatives upset about how the incident was first presented — the attackers were initially framed as supporters of President Donald Trump — now citing the initial reaction as evidence that liberals are all too ready to believe the US is suffering from an epidemic of hate crimes.

In a piece titled “Let’s Chill About Hate Crimes,” National Review writer Kyle Smith made the case: “I decline to look at Chicago (or Kentucky, or Oklahoma, or anywhere else),” he wrote, “and put much credence in the idea that vicious Trump-loving attackers are roaming around looking for minorities to assault.”

But hate crimes are still fairly common in the US. As Smith acknowledged, the FBI publishes a national analysis on hate crimes, based on police reports, each year — concluding that there were more than 7,100 in 2017, up 17 percent from the year before. That’s nearly 20 hate crimes a day.

This likely understates the number of hate crimes in the US. When the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) surveyed large segments of the population between 2004 and 2015, it concluded that there are 250,000 hate crimes annually. The FBI, in other words, may be undercounting the number of hate crimes by the hundreds of thousands.

No matter whether you rely on the FBI or BJS to count hate crimes, the numbers are clear on one thing: There are a lot, whether dozens or hundreds, of hate crimes every day in the US. The fact that one well-publicized report may have turned out to be false shouldn’t distract from the scope of the problem; America is not free from bigotry, regardless of what happened to Smollett.

Hate crimes are real and fairly widespread in the US

The FBI and BJS stats don’t count just any time someone yells a bigoted insult at another person. For something to be a hate crime, it first has to be an actual crime — like murder, assault, robbery, and so on. Then that crime has to be motivated by hate — whether it’s a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or some other characteristic.

So if someone just yells a slur, that’s not a hate crime. As detestable as the slur may be, a person’s ability to say that slur is shielded by the Constitution’s protections for free speech. There must be an actual crime, motivated by hate.

Since the FBI’s data is based on police reports, it misses hate crimes that aren’t reported to the police. Based on BJS’s figures, which are drawn from large national surveys, that happens hundreds of thousands of times each year.

According to BJS, the most common reasons for not reporting a hate crime were that it was handled another way, it was not important enough to report, or police wouldn’t or couldn’t help.

Smollett claimed that his attackers shouted racist and homophobic slurs as they attacked him. News reports now suggest this was a hoax. But based on the FBI and BJS’s figures, this wouldn’t have been out of the norm for a hate crime: Hate crimes are most often motivated by race, and a sizable portion are motivated by sexual orientation.

According to the FBI, about 58 percent of single-bias incidents (which make up the great majority of hate crimes) in 2017 were motivated by race, and around 28 percent of all single-bias incidents were anti-black in particular. Nearly 16 percent were motivated by sexual orientation, and most those incidents targeted gay men.

The BJS numbers can differ, particularly when it comes to disability-motivated hate crimes, but they tell a similar story overall on race and sexual orientation.

A chart breaking down victims’ perceptions of what motivated a hate crime. Bureau of Justice Statistics

One major difference between the FBI and BJS figures is the kind of hate crime that’s reportedly carried out. According to the FBI’s data, about 57 percent of reported hate crimes are crimes against persons, such as murder, rape, aggravated assault, simple assault, and intimidation. About 43 percent are crimes against property, like robbery and burglary. The rest are crimes against society.

BJS, however, finds that more than 90 percent of hate crimes are violent crimes like rape and assault (though it counts robbery as a violent crime, not a crime against property like the FBI). Simple assault alone makes up nearly 62 percent of all hate crimes.

The numbers paint a grisly picture: Thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, are victims of a hate crime each year in the US. These crimes are most often motivated by race, but also sexual orientation and other characteristics. And the crimes are by and large violent.

For more on hate crimes, read Vox’s explainer.

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