Bernard Hastings | Last Updated:
In the wake of the recent crimes during 2023 in Atlanta against Asian minorities, the term “Hate Crime” has yet again come to the forefront of media discourse. But what exactly separates ordinary crimes from Hate Crimes, and why do we keep seeing rates of Hate Crimes increase year after year?
The phrase “Hate Crime”, while able to refer to a wide variety of criminal actions, actually has a specific legal definition: In most countries, an illegal act is further classified as a hate crime if the main motivation for the crime is who the victim is. In other words, the victim of a Hate Crime would be someone who has faced harassment or violence because of their skin colour, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender or even disability. Almost any illegal act can thus be classified as a Hate Crime, if the offence was motivated by discrimination and bias against these personal characteristics of the victim. Anyone can fall victim to a Hate Crime, but the most commonly targeted groups are racial and ethnic minorities.
Many countries, such as the US, have laws which penalize Hate Crimes more heavily than similar crimes committed without motivations based on discrimination and bias. Since Hate Crimes send a message of hate which can affect whole groups and communities, the reasoning goes that these more serious crimes should be punished more severely.
The claim that Hate Crimes are more damaging to the community than ordinary crimes is supported by various research, including a 1999 study which finds victims of Hate Crime to be significantly more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress compared to ordinary crime victims. Hate Crimes can also quickly spiral out of control and lead to dangerous riots, like how George Floyd’s death at the hands of American police led to widespread rioting across the US, in which many more people got seriously injured or even killed.
While Hate Crimes are sometimes relatively minor offences like making threats or insults, most Hate Crimes involve serious violence, such as the Atlanta shootings mentioned above which left eight ethnic Asian minorities dead. The UK government’s Crown Prosecution Service details in a 2019 report that, out of all reported instances of racial or religious Hate Crime that year:
Clearly, violence is the most problematic type of Hate Crime. Most Hate Crime also seems to be committed out of a desire to harm the victim, with crimes involving monetary gain only making up a very small portion of Hate Crimes in the UK. This difference between ordinary crime and Hate Crime becomes even more stark when you consider that theft is the most common type of crime in the UK, yet Hate Crimes are almost never related to theft.
Hate Crime is a serious issue for many countries, especially those with significant populations of different ethnic or religious groups. While the media is often focused on high profile incidents from the US, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) found that 7,278 incidents of Hate Crime were reported across 45 different countries in 2019, with the vast majority of these crimes motivated by racial or religious discrimination.
While this number of incidents might seem small in comparison to ordinary crime, you have to keep in mind that many cases of Hate Crimes actually go unreported. The same OSCE report details that many incidents of Hate Crime do not get properly recorded as Hate Crime, simply because police and prosecutors lack the proper tools or training to accurately do so. In the US, there is a well-known Hate Crimes Reporting Gap, describing the large difference between actual and officially recorded Hate Crime incidents. A 2019 study found that while a national US survey reported 269,000 victimizations of Hate Crime between 2004 and 2012, the FBI only recorded 8,770 incidents of Hate Crime during this same period!
There can be various reasons why this underreporting exists: The same study points to victims of Hate Crimes being less likely to report these crimes to the police, likely due to low confidence that the police can actually help them. From 2007 to 2011, only 4% of reported Hate Crimes in the US saw a suspect being arrested for the act. Victims are also likely to be from ethnic minority groups, which are again more likely to have strained relations with the police and authorities.
But perhaps the most troubling aspect of Hate Crimes is that, despite the rampant underreporting detailed above, their incidence has only been increasing. In both the US and UK, rates of Hate Crimes have increased every year for almost ten years in a row. This is particularly troubling for the US, since during this same period of time rates of all crime have actually fallen overall while Hate Crime rates have increased.
And Covid has only added fuel to the fire when it comes to Hate Crimes. In a previous article, we reported on rising cases of harassment targeted at Asian minorities in many countries, with a shocking 900% increase in racial hate speech towards Asians on popular social media platform Twitter. An 89-year old Asian woman was slapped and set on fire by two strangers in Brooklyn, among other violent attacks on Asian-Americans in the US during this period. This alarming situation has even prompted the FBI to send out a special report warning of rising violence against Asian-Americans to law enforcement organizations across the US in March of last year.
Now that we have a better idea of what Hate Crimes are, let’s take a look at the various laws, legal consequences and other more detailed statistics regarding this growing issue.
While we previously defined Hate Crimes as crimes motivated by discrimination and bias, it might surprise you to know that not all countries have Hate Crime laws. Ireland, for instance, had no Hate Crime laws as of 2019, and only recently started the legislative process for introducing such laws. In the US, a country with growing rates of Hate Crime, three out of its 51 states do not have specific laws against Hate Crime. And among those states, what classifies as an identity protected by Hate Crime laws also vary, with only 20 states protecting victims from crimes motivated by gender identity.
When it comes to Hate Speech in particular, there are even greater differences between countries. The US, because of its First Amendment protection of free speech, does not have laws making it illegal to verbally incite hatred towards a certain group of people. In other countries though, Hate Speech of this nature is considered a criminal act: In France, such speech could land you in jail for up to six months, and in Finland hate speech targeted at an ethnic group can carry a jail sentence of up to four years.
Countries that do have Hate Crime laws punish offenders more severely for crimes committed because of bias or discrimination, than for the same crime committed for other motives. In the UK, prosecutors can ask judges for a “sentence uplift” if they believe a Hate Crime has been committed, which leads to an increased punishment for the crime. US state Hate Crime laws work in a similar fashion, imposing penalty enhancements for Hate Crimes which increase the jail sentence served or raises the offence level of the crime. US federal hate crime laws go even further, by imposing a range of ten years to life in prison for all bias-motivated violence.
The FBI releases an annual report on Hate Crime statistics collected through their Uniform Crime Reporting program, and below are some statistical highlights from their 2019 report, which documented 7,314 total incidences of Hate Crimes that year, involving 8,812 victims and 6,406 known offenders.
Out of these incidences:
Broken down by the type of crime committed:
Additionally, 52.5%, or over half of the known offenders, were white, while 23.9% were black and the remaining 14.6% race unknown. These statistics paint a picture of Hate Crimes in the US as primarily being committed by the white ethnic majority against ethnic minorities.
Rates of religious Hate Crimes vary wildly between different countries: As listed above, 20.1% of Hate Crimes recorded in the US in 2019 were motivated by religion, a figure which has grown by over 1/3 compared to data collected in 2014. However, religious Hate Crimes only account for 6.5% of all Hate Crimes in the UK. Going back to the OESC study on Hate Crimes reported across 45 different countries in 2019, they found that religious Hate Crimes made up 14.2% of all Hate Crimes reported that year. These large discrepancies might be due to the different levels of religious diversity in different countries, and also to the incomplete nature of reported data on Hate Crimes described earlier.
While generally less common than crimes motivated by religious or ethnic discrimination, Hate Crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation and gender identity still make up a substantial portion of all reported Hate Crimes. Out of all Hate Crimes motivated by sexual orientation, crimes against gay males are the most common according to a 2009 study. And this trend is growing, with the US in particular seeing a recent increase in Hate Crimes against all LGBTQ individuals, going from making up 2.2% of all Hate Crimes in 2018 to 2.7% in 2019. LGBTQ individuals are under attack in the UK as well: 21% of LGBTQ have experienced a Hate Crime related to their gender identity in the past 12 months, and sexual orientation Hate Crimes increased by 25% in 2019 compared to 2018.
Hate Crimes are overwhelmingly perpetrated by majority groups against minorities, whether in terms of race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. However, that doesn’t mean victims of Hate Crimes in western nations cannot be white. US Hate Crime laws protect all citizens equally, and in 2011 whites made up approximately 16% of all Hate Crime victims. Historically, Hate Crime charges have been successfully brought in the US against perpetrators who assaulted white victims, like in a 1993 Supreme Court case where the black defendant was found guilty of Hate Crimes for beating a white boy to death.
However, this common perception of Hate Crimes as crimes perpetrated by the white majority against ethnic minority groups is sometimes taken advantage of by a different type of criminal: fraudsters. False claims of falling victim to a Hate Crime can be hard to disprove, and there is currently a lack of clear statistical data on exactly how often this happens. In his book Hate Crime Hoax, Professor Wilfred Reilly at the Kentucky State University details 409 US cases where a reported Hate Crime was later discovered to be a hoax, which he points out to be a significant number when compared to the roughly 7,000 Hate Crimes reported to the FBI every year.
Anecdotally, there have been several high-profile cases of Hate Crime hoaxes reported on by the media. A more recent one would be the Jussie Smollett case, where the black actor paid two men to dress up as white supremacists and fake an assault on him in order to gain public attention.
Law enforcement around the world has much to improve on when it comes to dealing with Hate Crime. Conviction rates for these crimes are low, they take longer to be resolved and often times simply go unreported, even as recorded Hate Crimes increase year after year.. These problems are not limited to any one country either. However, even ordinary citizens can play a role in stopping Hate Crime. It’s important for all of us to spread awareness of the issue, and build supportive, inclusive communities which can prevent Hate Crime from happening in the first place.