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FBI: reported hate crimes increased by 17 percent in 2017

But there’s a catch: The FBI report likely undercounts by hundreds of thousands.

The FBI’s seal. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The number of hate crimes reported in the US increased by 17 percent in 2017, with a particular surge in reports of anti-Jewish incidents, according to a new report from the FBI.

Most major categories of hate crimes — whether motivated by race or ancestry, religion, or sexual orientation — were reported at higher rates in 2017 than in 2016. Reported anti-Jewish crimes rose by more than 37 percent, perhaps pointing to an increase in anti-Semitism, which has gotten more and more attention after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

Reported anti–Hispanic and Latino crimes also rose by more than 24 percent, and anti–American Indian or Alaska Native crimes rose by nearly 63 percent — although the number of incidents in these categories was still overall far lower than, for example, anti-black and anti-Jewish incidents.

At the same time, reported anti-Muslim crimes decreased by about 10 percent, although after sharp increases in recent years. Reported incidents motivated by gender identity also saw a very slight decrease of about 4 percent.

There are a few caveats here. The report only measures crimes reported to the FBI, so, as the FBI cautioned, the increase might not mean the number of hate crimes rose in 2017. It could be a result (at least partially) of more of those hate crimes being reported to the FBI — particularly because about 1,000 more law enforcement agencies started contributing data in 2017.

More broadly, although the FBI’s report is the most comprehensive look at the nation’s hate crimes released every year, it is known to be woefully inadequate — because other federal surveys suggest it may undercount the number of hate crimes by the hundreds of thousands.

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 (BJS) surveyed large segments of the population between 2007 and 2011 to try to gauge the real number of hate crimes, it concluded that there are nearly 260,000 such crimes annually.

So the FBI, although it’s supposed to be our most reliable and current source of nationwide crime data, is potentially undercounting hate crimes by a magnitude of more than 40. Yet short of the BJS doing another in-depth survey and analysis on this issue, the FBI provides the best national data we have for more recent years.

The spike in reported hate crimes comes amid Trump’s first year in office

The report found that nearly 58 percent of incidents were motivated by race, ethnicity, or ancestry. Almost 22 percent were motivated by religion, and nearly 16 percent were motivated by sexual orientation. The rest were motivated by disability, gender, gender identity, and multiple kinds of bias.

About 57 percent of reported hate crimes were crimes against persons — mostly assault and intimidation, but also some murders and rapes. About 43 percent were crimes against property, particularly vandalism but also larceny-theft, robbery, and burglary. There’s some overlap between these categories, meaning some hate crimes can involve, say, both assault and robbery.

Even if the increase is in part a result of better reporting, some of the numbers — such as the sharp increase in anti-Jewish crimes as well as anti–Hispanic and Latino crimes — are alarming.

The broader context is crucial here: The report covers the first year of President Donald Trump’s time in the White House, and he’s been repeatedly criticized, from his campaign to his presidential statements and tweets, of stoking racist sentiment, particularly against immigrants and refugees.

In August 2017, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in a protest that ended in violence when a Nazi sympathizer rammed his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters and killed a woman. After the demonstrations and violence, Trump said that there were “fine people on both sides” — a statement that was taken by both critics and supporters of the Charlottesville protests as pandering to white supremacists.

But even though the hate crime experts I’ve talked to said there’s likely been an uptick due to Trump’s rhetoric, it’s impossible to say for sure without better hard data — especially given the likelihood that the FBI’s report is still dramatically undercounting hate crimes.

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