A new FBI report on hate crimes this week had disturbing news: The number of such crimes reported in the United States rose between 2020 and 2021, and has reached the highest level since the government began tracking the crimes in the early 1990s.
Tracking hate crimes is notoriously difficult, and the FBI’s data remains incomplete — a result of underreporting by local and state agencies. Criminologists disagree on whether the data is enough to draw conclusions about the prevalence of hate crimes in the US. But several said that the Bureau’s report, alongside other data sources, is sufficient to show that hate crimes overall have, in fact, been on the rise in recent years.
“Is the FBI catching the exact volume? Of course not,” Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino who tracks hate-crime data, told Vox. “But they’re getting information from more reliable high-reporting agencies and you can get a sense that the trends are alarming.”
The report comes as the Stop Asian Hate movement enters its third year, as reports show that trans people are more than four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crime, as drag shows are reportedly being increasingly targeted with protest and violence, and after the US Department of Homeland Security identified white supremacists as the most persistent and lethal threat in America.
The new numbers released this week build on an incomplete annual hate crimes report that the FBI released in December. That initial data appeared to show a drop in hate crimes but was missing information from some of the country’s largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and data from most of Florida and California, after the FBI switched to a new reporting system. The supplemental report includes information from an additional 3,025 agencies, according to the FBI.
The 10,840 bias incidents reported in 2021 represent a 31 percent increase from 8,263 crimes in 2020 and a third consecutive annual increase. Nearly 65 percent of them were motivated by bias over race or ethnicity, nearly 16 percent were a result of sexual-orientation bias, and more than 14 percent of them resulted from religious bias. Intimidation and assault made up most of the offenses, while 19 rapes and 18 murders were reported as hate crimes. The remainder of the offenses were classified as destruction of property or vandalism.
Experts say the data has serious holes: “The FBI hate crime data is hugely flawed and is not an appropriate source for national hate crime statistics or to compare year-to-year numbers,” Jacob Kaplan, a researcher at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, told Vox.
The FBI’s data set is limited for a few reasons, he wrote in the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences’ January 2022 newsletter: for an offense to be deemed a hate crime there must be evidence that it was motivated by bias — which can be hard to prove. The crime also must be reported to the police in the first place, which studies show doesn’t happen enough. Victims may not even know they experienced a hate crime. For example, if a racist person punches the first Black person they see without using a racial epithet or wearing a racist symbol, how can investigators prove that the perpetrator was motivated by anti-Black hate? And when agencies do report data, their reports are inconsistent over time, or they might report unreliable data, according to Kaplan.
So the FBI report is one piece of an incomplete puzzle — one that could be clearer with more and better information. Experts are calling for Congress to make hate crime reporting mandatory.
“Data drives policy,” Steven M. Freeman, the Anti-Defamation League’s vice president of civil rights and director of legal affairs said. “And when the data is incomplete, it sends the wrong message to victims and perpetrators.”
Better data (and mandatory data that isn’t collected punitively) could send a message that hate crimes are taken seriously, and it could increase the likelihood that members of marginalized groups will come forward to report crimes committed against them.
Even in the face of incomplete data, the data is “horrifying”
The federal government’s hate crime law bans crimes that are motivated by race, color, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. The actions criminalized under the law are typically violent, like assault, which means that other hateful offenses, like using a racial slur, aren’t illegal. Most states have hate crimes laws, but those laws vary, leading to unequal protection from hate crimes in different jurisdictions. And most states with hate crimes on the books do not require data collection.
While the FBI is required to release an annual report on hate crimes, the bureau relies on voluntary reporting from local and state agencies. So, for example, the 2020 report did not include statistics from around 3,500 agencies that failed to submit data, including 10 cities with populations over 100,000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. For that year’s report, another 59 police departments in cities with populations over 100,000 reported that there were no hate crimes, according to an analysis by the Anti-Defamation League.
“Only 20 percent of agencies reported one or more hate crimes, and it’s hard to credit agencies when they report that there weren’t many hate crimes in their districts,” said Freeman of the 2021 report. “While one hate crime is one too many, it’s difficult to address the surges if we don’t have a complete picture. Still, there are trends that give us a snapshot and tell us that the problem is growing.”
The FBI’s supplemental 2021 report showed that Black victims were targeted the most, with 3,277 incidents up from 2,871 in 2020. Crimes against white people followed, with 1,107 in 2021 up from 869 in 2020. Gay men were the victims in 948 incidents up from 673 in 2020 and Jewish people were targeted in 817 cases, up from 683 cases in 2020.
There were 746 attacks against Asian people, a record for the group for a single year, up from 249 the previous year, a sharp spike.
These numbers identify a few trends when held up against three decades of data — and new reports from groups including Stop AAPI Hate. For one, new records were set. It was the worst year for anti-Latino crimes and anti-Asian crimes and more than double that of the previous year for Asian victims. It was the second-worst year on record for Black victims and had the most offenses committed against transgender and Sikh victims since that data started being recorded in 2015.
Next, surges of violence are lasting longer. According to Levin, the data has historically shown that a cycle of violence occurs when a “bigoted spotlight” is focused on a certain group. But the cycles of violence, usually brought on by a catalytic event, are now remaining longer and, in some instances, pushing totals up as well.
For example, hate crimes against Muslims rose after 9/11 as a result of Islamophobic rhetoric, but the spike in crimes against Muslims decreased in the months after October 2001. June 2020, the height of Black Lives Matter protests, was the worst month recorded for Black Americans, but the hate crimes continue at a high rate through November 2020, Levin said, with similar trends in anti-Asian crimes in 2021.
One explanation for this trend is that politicians, social media influencers, and pundits are keeping stereotypes elevated longer, Levin said. “Hate crimes in this decade are acting differently because they’re being impacted by a very hostile social media, political, and cultural environment,” Levin said.
Ultimately, the FBI’s 2021 data is one part of the jigsaw puzzle that when combined with earlier data, social science data, and other data, shows the country had an inflection point in 2019 and 2020, with consecutive years of increases, said Levin.
Levin’s team has already collected data for 2022 from nearly three dozen big cities and found that hate crimes were up in 32 major cities, and crimes motivated against race and gender-nonconforming people saw the most increases. There were decreases in anti-Black and anti-Asian crimes in 2022, but because these crimes increased precipitously in previous years, the number of crimes is still significant.
In a bipartisan move and as a response to a surge in anti-Asian violence, the House passed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act to bolster hate crime tracking by providing grants to regional law enforcement agencies to create reporting hotlines and train police officers on hate crime response, among other efforts.
Many celebrated the law but as Vox’s Li Zhou reported, it won’t prevent anti-Asian hate crimes since it mostly addresses what takes place after the crime has already occurred. Hence, others point to the need for education, mental health aid, and other social services to counter bias.
“Whichever way you slice the data, it’s horrifying,” Levin said. “People are behind these numbers, and we are in a perfect storm for directed, fragmented violence.”