Why Hate Crimes Are on the Rise

April 23, 2019
11 people were killed in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018
Eleven people were killed in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018. / Photo: Associated Press

Hate crimes committed on the basis of religious identity have surged 23 percent, the biggest annual increase since 9/11.

And while many have placed blame at the foot of political leaders and specifically President Trump for emboldening anti-Semites and white supremacists—very fine people, he’s called them—there’s another, equally troubling side to the story—one that calls into question the validity of the FBI’s own hate crime statistics and gives us more questions than answers.

In this episode of the Harvard Religion Beat podcast, we examine the rise of hate crimes in the U.S., taking a closer look at white nationalism, the rhetoric of President Trump, and the role of the FBI. 


Full episode transcript below.

♦♦♦

Jonathan Beasley: Hi there, Jordie?

Jordie Gerson: Hi, Jonathan. How are you?

JB: Good. Can you hear me OK?

JG: I can.

JB: Did you have any trouble getting into the meeting?

JG: I didn’t. So, I was just about to email you. We actually had an incident here last night. Our local library was defaced with swastikas. I’m so sorry to have to do this but if we could speak next week, I’m just underwater right now, again.

JB: I’m sorry to hear that.

JG: Yeah, I’m so sorry, I just …

JB: No, it’s OK. 

JG: I’ve just been taken complete off course by this.

♦♦♦

That’s Jordie Gerson. She’s the rabbi at Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Connecticut. When I called her for our interview, she was in the midst of dealing with yet another troubling issue facing her community. The night before, someone had spray painted swastikas on a neighboring synagogue, fraying the nerves of an already distressed community still reeling from the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in October 2018.

For Jordie and her community, though, and for millions of religious minorities in the United States and across the world, this harassment and violence is an unfortunate yet all-too-familiar reality.

In November of 2018, the FBI released its report on hate crimes in the U.S. for 2017. It wasn’t good news. Hate crimes on the basis of religious identity surged 23 percent, the biggest annual increase since 2001, the year of the 9/11 terror attacks. And one of the most startling statistics is that the number of hate crimes targeting Jewish people increased 37 percent from the previous year.

Jonathan Greenblatt, who’s the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said the report, quote: “provides further evidence that more must be done to address the divisive climate of hate in America. That begins with leaders from all walks of life and from all sectors of society forcefully condemning anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate whenever it occurs.” End quote.

So why are hate crimes on the rise? Many have placed blame at the foot of political leaders and specifically President Trump for emboldening anti-Semites and white supremacists—very fine people, he’s called them—but yet, there’s another, equally troubling side to the story—one that calls into question the validity of the FBI’s own hate crime statistics and gives us more questions than answers.

I’m Jonathan Beasley, and this is the Harvard Religion Beat, a podcast examining religion’s underestimated and often misunderstood role in society. My first guest today is Rabbi Jordie Gerson, who you heard from at the beginning of the show. I wanted to talk to her about how hate crimes have impacted her local community, and what she feels are some of the driving forces in the surge of anti-Semitism in the U.S. today.

JB: So, Jordie, it seems as though we’re living in a time in which people feel, perhaps more so than ever, liberated to express hatred, sometimes with violent consequences. Do you feel that’s due in part to the rhetoric coming from President Trump, who has been particularly outspoken against immigrants and Muslims?

JG: Oh, absolutely. I think there were things that were not said in polite society any more, they'd become passé, they'd become taboo, and Trump, because he is willing to basically tolerate this kind of rhetoric, and in some cases even, I would say, encourage those kind of rhetorics, has opened the floodgates for racism, antisemitism, bigotry, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-LGBTQ, anti-special needs, misogyny. I mean, there are things that none of us ever imagined would be said in the public square that have now become par for the course, and I think the other piece of that is that the internet has, for all of the good that social media and the internet has done, it has also created spaces for this kind of rhetoric and communities for people who may not have been able to find allies in their bigotry or their hatred or their hate speech, and now that's a real question for democracy and free speech, not just for Facebook but across the internet.

JB: In your role as a religious and spiritual leader in your community, following events like either a mass shooting or the defacing of a house of worship, what are the biggest challenges that you yourself face?

JG: I think one of them is just managing the anxiety of our congregations and thinking through spiritually what it means to be in this state—to be scared. What does it mean that showing up for services used to be a spiritual statement or religious statement and now it's become a statement of solidarity—what does that mean?

JB: Just looking ahead, what are you most worried about? What keeps you up at night?

JG: So, the first thing that I'm worried about is the most obvious, I'm just worried about security. I'm worried about, frankly, I'm worried about gun control, not just for the Jewish community but all over the country right now. Thousand Oaks was a week after Pittsburgh. But, I'm worried about a new reality where, to be in a sanctuary, or to be, frankly, in a mosque requires that you have armed guards, requires that the rabbi or the imam or the pastor has, we saw this in Charleston, is wearing a panic button. That is not an America I ever thought I would be living in, so that keeps me up at night.

♦♦♦

In 1990 the Hate Crime Statistics Act began requiring the Justice Department to compile data on (quote): “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.”

Now, the job of collecting and compiling those hate crime statistics falls to the FBI, and the FBI depends on law enforcement agencies across the country to submit their hate crime figures so it can put together its annual report. The only problem with that data? It’s pretty unreliable.

So, one of the big reasons for underreporting is that many victims of hate crimes don’t report the incident—whether due to fear of deportation if they are undocumented or, for LGBTQ folks, distrust that law enforcement will take their claims seriously. That’s been a big issue for a number of years, but thankfully, we’re beginning to see increased efforts by the police to re-establish trust with these community members. One such example is a first-in-the-nation program started in Seattle called Safe Place, which designates local businesses as places where victims of hate crimes can shelter while waiting for the arrival of law enforcement.

Also contributing to the unreliability of the FBI’s numbers is that submitting hate crime data is completely voluntary, and many law enforcement agencies opt not to participate in the FBI’s hate crime program. According to the Anti-Defamation League, at least 91 cities in the U.S. with populations over 100,000 either didn’t report data to the FBI, or they simply reported zero hate crimes.

Now, encouragingly, the number of agencies that submitted incident reports in 2017 rose 6 percent. This would account, in some way, to the increase in overall hate crimes numbers. But it’s not just the unreliability in which agencies do and don’t report hate crimes that’s an issue; it’s the confusion between communities, counties, and even states as to what even constitutes a hate crime.

For example, while 45 states have laws that criminalize bias-motivated violence or harassment, the hate crime laws in 14 of those states don’t include either sexual orientation or gender identity. Even more alarming is that four states, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Wyoming, have no hate crime laws at all. My home state of Indiana recently passed what many consider to be an extremely watered down version of a hate bill, since it doesn’t include protections for gender identity, race, or sexual orientation.

And for the latest FBI report, some of the most chilling hate crimes that occurred across the country were left out. The killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas by a man yelling “get out of my country” and “terrorist”; the death of Heather Heyer by a white supremacist in Charlottesville; and the Portland MAX train attack, when a man fatally stabbed two people after he was confronted for harassing teenage girls and shouting racist and anti-Muslim slurs. Not one of those high-profile hate crimes were recorded in the latest FBI report.

In an interview with the BBC, Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says that some political leaders have stoked the fears of white supremacists.

I spoke earlier about the rise in hate crimes against Jewish people, but they’re not the only religious minority group being targeted. Since the 2016 election, there's been a 64 percent increase in violence against Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, and other south Asians.

Simran Jeet Singh is a senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition and a scholar based at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. He spoke to me about the idea of privilege and the emboldening of white supremacists.

Simran Jeet Singh: I mean, I think one of the things that our society is starting to grapple with in a way that I haven't seen us grapple with before is the idea of supremacies and the ideas of privilege and power that come with those supremacies. And so, I think these things have always been there historically in America in different aspects and parts of the world as well. I think the complication now is that, as folks come forward and call that out, there's a real moral reckoning that we're seeing across our country … and so, the tough thing, I think, as we look around, is how do we actually have these conversations where we talk about white privilege, or male privilege, or Christian privilege, in a way that's productive. I think that's the question that I'm really interested in asking. I think all those things are real, I have no doubt about that, but I think the question for me is, how do we deal with them now that we know that they're there?

♦♦♦

Fifty Muslims shot dead in New Zealand; six more murdered at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City; 11 Jews killed in Pittsburgh; nine African Americans shot dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. These are just a few of the more recent attacks by white supremacists that were driven by a hatred of Muslims or Jews, as well as a deep-seeded fear that white Christians across the globe will soon become a minority population. 

In the U.S. in particular, we’ve seen a surge in violence by white supremacists. According to the Anti-Defamation League, ideologically-motivated extremists killed at least 50 people in the U.S. last year, and all but one of those murders had at least some links to right-wing extremism. 

As a result, many people believe that, while President Trump doesn’t deserve blame for any specific attack, he does deserve some of the responsibility for the increase in white-nationalist violence.

In an interview on NPR, sociology professor Peter Simi said that, given the inflammatory nature of the president’s remarks, not to mention his repeating of them, it’s no wonder violence committed by white supremacists is on the rise.

But it’s not just the U.S. that’s seeing a rise in violence by white nationalists. Across Europe and beyond, a number of countries have seen their governments take a turn to the far right. Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said that, “Without the protection of our Christian culture we will lose Europe, and Europe will no longer belong to Europeans.” This rhetoric echoes the sentiments of white nationalists, who feel their way of life is under threat from immigrants or ethnic and religious minorities.

Even more troubling is that, in the wake of some recent acts of domestic terrorism, some far-right politicians have doubled down on white nationalistic rhetoric and placed blame on victims. After the recent massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, Australian senator Fraser Anning state that, “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.”

That kind of talk that has flamed Islamophobia in Australia, where the Christchurch killer is from, and seen an increase in far-right and ultra-nationalist groups in recent years.

But despite the rise in hate crimes and increasing violence against religious minorities, Rabbi Gerson still holds onto hope for the future and of better days to come.

JG: I would say what gives me hope is looking at the midterm elections, the diversity of who was elected was very moving, the number of women that were elected in a time where I feel like we are really seeing, we see how much work there is to be done towards egalitarianism and towards dealing with the effects of misogyny and rape culture. I feel I was really moved by how many women were elected to public office, how many Jews were elected to public office, how many Muslims were elected to public office. We may not agree on all issues, we may not see eye to eye on everything, but I certainly think that the leadership of our country is more reflective now of our demographics, and that's tremendously encouraging for me.

JB: Thanks for your time, Jordie.

Writing in The New Republic, author Patrick Strickland says that: “The increasingly international nature of rightist extremism requires an equally international anti-fascist response that addresses its root causes. Until that response comes, and so long as the people occupying the corridors of power from North America to Europe and beyond spread the same messages once thought to be confined to the dark crevices of the internet, we can expect more bloodshed targeting immigrants, worshippers, and everyone opposed to hate.”

♦♦♦

The Harvard Religion Beat is a pop-up podcast brought to you by Harvard Divinity School. It’s hosted and produced by me, Jonathan Beasley, and edited by Heather Latham.

Thanks so much for tuning in. If you made it to the end, let me be the first to congratulate you. I’m giving you a tiny golf clap right now.

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