The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) released its annual report on hate crimes on Nov. 13, revealing a 17 percent spike in hate crimes in 2017. Many noted the sharp rise in anti-Semitic crimes, which is considered a bellwether for a rise in bigotry overall. Others tied the spike to President Trump’s rhetoric regarding Muslims, Latinx people and other marginalized groups. What many aren’t talking about, however, is how our system for collecting data on hate crimes is disastrously flawed.
The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program is responsible for gathering, analyzing and publishing this data. Only some states have laws requiring police departments to report hate crimes to the FBI; in other states, the FBI relies entirely on police departments voluntarily self-reporting. Marginalized communities that face potential mistreatment from police departments are unlikely to reach out to law enforcement for help in the aftermath of a hate crime. One survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) suggested that as few as 60 percent of hate crime victims report incidents to the police. Police officers may lack the training to recognize hate-motivated crimes. In particular, transgender crime victims are often misgendered by police. In one case that was ultimately not charged as a hate crime, Ty Underwood, a trans woman of color, was murdered in Tyler, Texas and then described in a police report as a “transvestite” and a “male dressed as a woman.”
Police departments may also be motivated to deliberately hide the presence of bigotry in their communities. This possibility is borne out by unlikely disparities in the existing data. While prejudice can exist in any community, it is unlikely that California (1094 hate crimes reported in 2017), New York (552) and Washington (510) actually have the highest rates of hate crimes in the country. Mississippi and Alabama’s low overall levels of hate crimes — 1 and 9 hate crimes reported in 2017, respectively — indicate improbably low levels of anti-black hate crimes in states with long, tragic histories of race-based crime. Even charging someone with a hate crime does not insure that the incident will be tallied in the FBI’s report; the man who murdered Heather Heyer during an anti-white supremacy protest in Charlottesville has been charged with a federal hate crime, but the city omitted it from their report to the FBI in apparent violation of Virginia state law. The FBI’s awareness of hate crimes is clearly dictated by police departments’ willingness — or unwillingness — to report them.
Organizations that have tried to create an alternative to the FBI’s official statistics on hate have run into more problems. When the SPLC surveyed educators on bigotry in classrooms in the days after the 2016 election, 40 percent reported an uptick in hateful harassment in schools. The survey was widely reported on, but journalists largely ignored the fact that the SPLC itself said that their survey was unscientific and was likely answered primarily by people who had a relevant experience to share. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) catalogues hate crimes in their annual National Crime Victimization Survey, which reaches out to 135,000 households directly to bypass police departments, but this can only provide a snapshot of hate crimes in America, not the whole picture.
The lack of accurate, thorough data is dangerous for many reasons. Understanding which communities are being targeted is vital to fighting hate. The FBI says that hate crimes against Muslims have dropped — is this because of a genuine shift toward tolerance or because Muslim communities are increasingly distrustful of police and report crimes less frequently? The rate of anti-Semitic crime has risen to 58.1 percent of all anti-religious hate crimes reported to the FBI — is this because anti-Semitism is surging or because American Jewish communities are more likely to be white and well-off, have correspondingly better relationships with the police and therefore report crimes more frequently? Likely, a combination of these factors are at play. Without knowing which forms of prejudice are most prevalent, we do not know which forms of how to allocate resources against them.
Without accurate statistics, it can also be difficult to advocate for stronger policies and laws against hate crimes. In the absence of reliable data, people fall back on anecdotes. Hoaxes are more likely to become high profile than actual crimes, since liars seeking attention or sympathy, like the black Air Force cadet candidate who scribbled racial slurs on the message boards of cadet candidates of color, are more likely to tell truly outlandish, attention-grabbing tales. This makes the relatively rare hoaxes loom large in the popular consciousness, particularly when media organizations like Fox News gleefully publish articles with titles like “What is fueling fake hate crimes across the U.S.?”
The FBI has the greatest degree of authority on hate crimes and therefore has the greatest responsibility to gather accurate data. Making police departments more responsive to the needs of marginalized communities is a long term and far-reaching project, but efforts toward this goal should be redoubled. I propose that reporting hate crimes to the FBI should be federally mandated for all police departments. To ease this process, the FBI should offer free training in recognizing hate crimes to local police precincts. The report demonstrates that leaving this to the discretion of individual police officers leaves too much room for human error. Departments reporting improbably low numbers of hate crimes should be randomly selected for audits by the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which should review police reports from selected precincts for indications of unreported hate crimes. Improving the scale and accuracy of hate crime data is a small but crucial step toward combating the rising tide of hate crimes in America.