No one knows how many hate crimes are committed around the country each year even though Congress passed a law nearly three years ago to find out. And that means no one knows for certain whether hate crimes are on the rise even though advocacy groups and some experts say they are.
Under the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, the FBI was directed to publish annual reports on the number of crimes committed each year that “manifest prejudice based on race, religion, affectional or sexual orientation or ethnicity.” But the FBI's first report, released Jan. 4, contains figures from only a sixth of all law enforcement agencies around the country.
For the year 1991, just 2,771 out of more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies around the country furnished hate crime data to the FBI. The agencies reported a total of 4,558 hate crime incidents in 1991. Participation in the program was limited because law enforcement agencies were not required to provide the data and many said they had no money to pay for a new data collection effort. FBI Director William Sessions acknowledged the statistics were “limited,” but said a more comprehensive report is planned for next year. Earlier, FBI officials had told Congress that comprehensive national statistics on hate crimes probably will not be available until 1994.
The FBI report listed racial bias as the motivation in 62 percent of the incidents covered. Blacks were the most frequent target -- 36 percent of the total number -- but anti-white offenses accounted for 19 percent of the total. Religious bias was the motivation for 19 percent of the incidents. Anti-Jewish offenses were the largest component of that category: 17 percent of the total. Ethnic and sexual orientation bias each accounted for about 10 percent of the total.
The offenders were known in just 57 percent of the incidents reported. Whites were listed as the offenders in nearly two-thirds of those cases, blacks as the offenders in about one-third. The most common offense listed was intimidation (34 percent), closely followed by vandalism or other property damage (27 percent). The FBI data listed 773 cases of aggravated assault and 12 murders.
With no statistical “baseline,” it is impossible to say definitely whether hate crimes are on the increase. But the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith has recorded an increase in anti-Semitic incidents since 1987, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found an increase in anti-gay incidents in five cities between 1988 and 1991 (see pp. 11, 12). In addition, an independent researcher agrees that the evidence indicates a general increase in hate crimes during the 1980s. “There may be a slight leveling off on campuses, but we don't see a leveling off anywhere else,” says Dr. Howard Erlich, research director of the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence In Baltimore.
Research surveys give some evidence that bias-motivated incidents are widespread. Ehrlich says the institute's studies indicate that about one out of four minority students experience some prejudice- motivated harassment during the course of an academic year. Martin Hiraga, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's anti- violence project, says its surveys indicate that one out of six gay men has been the victim of anti-gay violence at some time in his life.
Experts cite several factors to explain the apparent increase in hate crimes. Ehrlich points to increased immigration in the 1980s as a major reason. More than 8 million people entered the country during the decade -- making it the second-largest period of in-migration in the nation's history.
Economic problems are also cited as a factor, especially for some of the anti-Asian incidents. “Quite often, minorities may be looked at as people holding jobs that other people might have lost,” Pat Sullivan of the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Department in Colorado told the Senate subcommittee in August.
Affirmative action programs are often blamed for leading to resentment in the workplace and on college campuses. Civil rights groups say those tensions were exacerbated by the conservative political climate in the 1980s and the Reagan administration's attacks on affirmative action.
Despite the lack of solid statistics, law enforcement experts say the federal law and the FBI's work in implementing it have helped sensitize police around the country to the hate crime problem. “As police departments reach out to the victims, victims come forward,” says Jack McDevitt, director of the Center for Applied Social Research at Northeastern University in Boston. “We are already helping victims by training police to be receptive to them and to be helpful in terms of what they want.”