In Cambridge, a man last month allegedly yelled anti-Semitic slurs at a 66-year-old woman and pushed her against a wall. In Reading, racist graffiti and swastikas have repeatedly appeared in bathroom stalls and benches at Reading Memorial High School. And in Framingham, a 10-year-old Muslim girl recently received a couple of threatening hate letters calling her a terrorist.
Sadly, no one should be shocked anymore at the increased level of hate incidents in America. The FBI recently announced that reported hate crimes increased 17 percent last year, compared with 2016. The figure represents the third consecutive annual increase and the single largest spike since 9/11. In Massachusetts, hate crimes rose 9 percent in 2017.
One of the first steps to combating hate incidents will be for the government to get a better handle on when, where, and to whom they are occurring.
While the data suggest an increasingly ugly landscape in America, hate-crime statistics are erratically assembled. For one thing, participation in the FBI hate crimes reporting program is voluntary. While more than 1,000 additional agencies started contributing to the federal database this year, there are still many who don’t report. Hawaii, for example, doesn’t participate in the FBI program at all. Second, there is no single definition of “hate crime incident” across states. Third, five states don’t have a hate crime law.
Those gaps and omissions lead to statistics that don’t necessarily tell us much. For instance, half of the 7,175 reported hate crimes in 2017 came from six states: California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Washington. Does that mean that the Bay State is more hateful? Not necessarily: It may just mean we do a better job at reporting the data. In contrast, other state and local governments grossly underreport. For instance, the City of Miami reported zero hate crimes in 2017.
There’s also evidence that some of the data is compromised. According to the FBI statistics, the city of Olathe, Kan., where an Indian-born engineer was fatally shot at a bar last year after the alleged shooter yelled, “Get out of my country!” at him, also reported zero hate crimes. But Olathe’s police department disputed the figure and confirmed it had indeed reported six hate crime incidents last year, including the fatal shooting. It was apparently a data aggregation mistake.
Whatever the cause, it’s clear that much hate-motivated activity isn’t reflected in FBI data. A recent paper by the Brennan Center for Justice on domestic terrorism cites the US Department of Justice’s own data, collected via periodic victim surveys, showing that approximately 250,000 hate crimes were committed every year from 2004 to 2015. Until there is a unified, standardized way of recognizing and reporting hate crimes, it’ll be harder to identify trends .
Congress should require that all law enforcement agencies that gather hate crime data use the same definitions and metrics. The authors of the Brennan Center for Justice report suggest a model: the FBI’s own data collection on bank robberies, where standard metrics must be reported no matter the jurisdiction.
The heightened prevalence of hate incidents puts all Americans at risk, not just the targeted individual or group. If we are serious about fighting hate, then we need to start from the same place, with reliable and consistent data about what is happening.