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Hate crimes reveal an ugly, dimented side of social fabric


What’s behind the anger against our brethren?

The vile displays of antisemitism emanating from college campuses coast-to-coast is a sad reminder of the poisonous effects of hate that, for centuries, have stained the American social fabric. Our Jewish brethren must again shield and protect themselves from an infestation of insults, disparagement and intimidation which stretches back to the Elizabethan era in Shylock, the unscrupulous moneylender in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of ‘Venice.” In those days, much of Western literature presented a negative portrayal of Jews, glaringly exemplified in the character Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” in which this community is mercilessly mistreated and maligned. In modern times, there’s the mistaken belief that Jews operate the diamond industry, the fallacy that Jews direct the banking industry (i.e. “Shylock”) and, lest we forget, the tired and timeworn trope that “Jews control the media.”

Of course, none of this is true anymore than Jews were responsible for World War I and the resultant economic collapse in Germany, or that Jews incorporate the blood of murdered Christian children (so-called “blood libel”) to prepare Passover bread, or that Jews employed space lasers to ignite California wildfires a few years ago. In times of turmoil, the Jewish community has always been a convenient foil when there is a need to place blame when life goes wrong.

There is another American community that knows all too well about such mistreatment and unfair depictions having borne witness to centuries of the hurtful and dangerous practice of racism which often manifests itself into hate crimes. From the historically unwelcome American South to cities across modern America, hate crimes against African-Americans in recent years have ranged from brutal beatings and violent killings, to burning churches, firebombing homes and businesses and outspoken threats of harm.

Intolerance against African-Amerians has existed since this population was forced into American slavery, targeted for racial lynchings and denied equal rights. Despite the passage of hate crime legislation and civil rights protections, African-Americans disproportionately face daily acts of intimidation, extremist rhetoric and life-threatening violence.

Although African-Americans are targeted in hate crimes more than any other group (3,434 of the 6,570 incidents investigated by the FBI in 2023), only about 2% of total hate crimes are reported to the bureau. This finding is based on the most recent data collected by the NAACP. Based on this assessment, no one really knows how many times African-Americans have been victims of hate. Further, White Americans (comprising 60.9% of the U.S. population) were 51% of known hate crime offenders in 2023.

A 2019 report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino found that hate crimes reported to police in the nation’s 10 largest cities increased by 12.5 % from the previous year, marking the fourth consecutive annual rise and the highest spike in more than a decade. From 2017-2020, anti-Black crimes were among the most common in the nation’s 10 largest cities, according to the study. Looking farther back to the mid-1990s, African-Americans have been targeted in 34.6% of all hate crimes reported to the FBI. This is despite African-Americans comprising just 13% of the American population.

Presently, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an advocacy group that tracks hate and bigotry toward minorities, has documented 72 known Ku Klux Klan active chapters–a number of which are located in the aforementioned “10 largest cities.”  The SPLC some years ago obtained an original Klan oath in which members pledge their allegiance to “the Aryan race,” and sign an oath swearing to “the enemies of my race and any nation no matter high and powerful.” They pledge ”swift and merciless justice when in the fullness of the day of reckoning shall arrive.”

Hate crimes are generally classified as one of three categories: Crimes against persons, property or society. Last year, based on FBI data, 66% of hate crimes were against a person, 32% were against property and 2% were against society. The most common hate crime (42%) is intimidation (e.g. burning a cross or affixing a swastika at someone’s home or business), followed by simple assault (34.8%) and aggravated assault (17.6%).

“These hate crimes and other bias-related incidents instill fear across entire communities and undermine the principles upon which our democracy stands,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “All people in this country should be able to live without fear of being attacked or harassed because of where they are from, what they look like, whom they love or how they worship.”

The Department of Justice over the past three years has “rededicated itself” to combating unlawful acts of hate. The department has worked to improve incident reporting, increase law enforcement training/coordination, prioritize community outreach and make better use of civil enforcement mechanisms (legal remedies for those who have suffered personal injury and/or property damage).

In 2018, former First Lady Michelle Obama spoke with Oprah Winfrey and discussed an element of African-American life that is often dismissed or downplayed: The constant threat of violence based on hatred. She said then that she “couldn’t forgive” former President Donald Trump for stoking racist conspiracy theories about her husband’s birthplace because it could have “easily inspired” the wrong person to take violent action. Obama during his time in office received more death threats than all previous presidents combined. 

Brian Levin, a criminologist and civil rights attorney who founded Cal State San Bernardino’s hate crime study center, saw distinct patterns that added weight to the theory that Trump’s rhetoric eight years ago coincides with the rise of White nationalist behavior which continues to drive many types of hate crimes presently. Levin looked back farther–to 1996–in pinpointing the single worst month in anti-Black hate crimes. In July of that year, one month before former President Bill Clinton signed a welfare-reform bill into law, conversations about supposed “welfare queens” and ostensibly fecund and lazy Black people were not hard to encounter.

Twenty years later, Levin looked at the day after Trump won the White House and found that November to be the single worst month in hate crimes against African-Americans in the previous 14 years. Levin suggests that there are “strong and more terrifying” indications that the nation is living in an era of “ascendant White nationalism.”

“White nationalist ideology has become accepted as mainstream political thinking,” Levin said. “We have, at this point, a socio-political movement framed around racial resentment, fear of economic and social change and clinging to certain expectations. And if that stuff is not called racism, it’s not called what it is.”

Hate crimes against African-Americans are largely correlated with White Americans’ fear of losing status and access to public resources or jobs. This has long been posited in sociology and psychology literature. When a minority group reaches a larger, more profound status, the majority group tends to feel threatened.

“That’s why we think ‘rank’ matters,” said Marco Tabellino, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School which, two years ago, submitted a study to the periodical “Nature Human Behavior” that took an indepth look at the issue and found that hate crimes against African-Americans “tightly track” with the relative rank of a group in any given community. “As a minority group climbs in rank–or in size relative to another group–it is more likely to be the target of discrimination.”

The study illustrated that discrimination against African-Americans was a “constant” in that it didn’t matter the group’s size or proportion, nor was there any importance of how fast or slow the group’s growth rate (social standing) was.

“It doesn’t really matter how large a minority group is in absolute values or levels of growth,” Tebellini explained. “What really matters is whether you are the largest or not.” Essentially, the study found, as minority groups begin to flourish in civic and/or financial status, the more likely they would be the target of hate crimes.

The proliferation of online and political rhetoric that promotes bigotry, stereotypes and conspiracy theories (i.e. “The Great Replacement Theory” which inspired a White gunman to shoot and kill 10 African-Americans in May 2022 at a Buffalo, NY supermarket) have all added to the rise in hate crimes not just against Black people but against America’s non-White/non-Christian population in general. 

Since last fall, five states–Colorado, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and Utah–have surpassed their own records for anti-Black hate crimes. Incidents in California and New York (both states with sizable Black populations) saw hate crimes against African-Americans surge by more than 20%, according to the most recent data collected by the Cal State San Bernardino hate crime study center.