The FBI’s 2020 Hate Crime Report Shows 12-Year High, But Spotlights Underreporting

The FBI has reported a troubling spike in hate crimes last year, but studies show that the actual number of yearly hate crimes is significantly higher.
A “Solidarity Against Hate Crimes” rally – March 21, 2021. (Becker1999 from Grove City, OH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A “Solidarity Against Hate Crimes” rally – March 21, 2021. (Becker1999 from Grove City, OH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sophie Bjork-James is an Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University with over ten years of experience researching both the US-based Religious Right and the white nationalist movements. She is the author of The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism’s Politics of the Family (2021) and the co-editor of Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism (2020). Her work has been featured on the NBC Nightly News, NPR’s All Things Considered, BBC Radio 4’s Today, and in The New York Times.

Once again the FBI has released its annual Hate Crime Statistics for 2020, and while the data is grim, it is also woefully inadequate. Despite generating widespread press, the FBI data drastically understates the problem of bias crime in the United States. And while the current DOJ is implementing measures to generate better data and organize a better response to the prevalence of hate crimes, the current data does not reflect these efforts.

This lack of data hampers law enforcement’s ability to respond to and prevent biased crime. In a time when over 800 hate groups operate across the country and social media allows for the rapid spreading of hateful content, this lack of data hampers efforts to protect individuals from biased crime.

What then does the 2020 data say about the state of hate crimes in the US? Over eighteen thousand incidents of bias crime and related incidents were reported by over 15,000 law enforcement agencies. This represents a 6.1% increase over the previous year. For seven years there has almost consistently been an increase in FBI-reported hate crimes each year. In 2020, we saw the highest number of hate crime reports since 2008.

Of note is that the data shows an increase in hate crimes against AAPI and African descendent peoples. And while anti-Jewish incidents are down slightly from previous years, these instances are disproportionately high given that Jews represent just 2.2% of the population of the United States.

Despite these dramatic numbers, this data likely drastically understates the problem. The Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 mandates that the FBI publishes statistics for crimes motivated by bias. Yet the data comes from local law enforcement and a number of reasons make this not ideal. Inadequate training of local law enforcement agencies has meant many bias crimes are not recorded as such, leaving many law enforcement agencies to report zero incidents of hate crimes, which is unlikely.

As Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, commented on the 2020 report, “the fact that so many law enforcement agencies did not participate is inexcusable, and the fact that over 60 jurisdictions with populations over 100,000 affirmatively reported zero hate crimes is simply not credible.” ProPublica, which launched a Documenting Hate Project to address some of these inadequacies puts it bluntly: “Hate crimes and bias incidents are a national problem, but there’s no reliable data on their nature or prevalence.”

The DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey found that between 2004-2015 there were closer to 250,000 hate crime incidents per year, far more incidents annually than those reported in the FBI data. The same study found that a remarkable 54% of these crimes go unreported. The study found that less than half of both violent and non-violent hate crimes are even reported to the police, and once reported, local police don’t necessarily document these instances as hate. And disturbingly, “Violent nonhate (28%) crimes reported to police were nearly three times more likely to result in an arrest than violent hate (10%) crimes. About 4% of all violent hate crimes, whether reported or not, resulted in an arrest.”

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Groups like the Anti-Defamation League, Stop AAPI hate, ProPublica’s Documenting Hate Project, and organizations tracking hate crimes locally have sought to fill in the gaps in data. They are particularly important in reaching out to impacted communities, many of whom are less likely to report incidents of hate crime due to distrust of the police. For example, the Partnership for Safety & Justice in Portland, Oregon in a survey of forty people of color who survived violent crimes, found that three-quarters of these victims did not report these incidents to authorities out of distrust. Many claimed that fear of experiencing negative outcomes themselves stopped them from reporting these crimes, despite being the victims of these crimes.

In another example from Portland, the community organization Portland United Against Hate (PUAH) received 351 reports of hate crimes in 2020, yet under 20% of those crimes were reported to law enforcement. Nearly a quarter of hate crimes reported to PUAH listed the perpetrator as a police officer. When the police are seen as perpetrating hate then it is no surprise that many victims of hate crimes would choose not to report these crimes to the police.

Community organizations are important not only in documenting the extent of the problem, but also in showing trends as they occur. Stop AAPI Hate, for instance, received over 6,000 incident reports of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders between March 2020 and March 2021, documenting the targeting of AAPI people during the pandemic

While local groups and organizations are helping to create better hate crimes data, the DOJ is also working to fix some of the current problems with Hate Crimes Reporting. Earlier this year, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in response to the spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans. The Act aims to encourage more reporting of hate crimes through increasing public outreach and awareness. The DOJ also completed an internal review in March 2021 to assess how to better counter the rise in hate crimes.

A DOJ statement outlining proposed changes in May listed a variety of potential improvements it sought to implement, including; “improving incident reporting, increasing law enforcement training and coordination at all levels of government, prioritizing community outreach, and making better use of civil enforcement mechanisms.” These changes include increased funding to track and address hate crimes. In October, the FBI will elevate hate crimes to a Level 1 National Threat, allowing for more resources to track and prevent hate crimes. A recently launched campaign is also encouraging the prevention and increased reporting of hate crimes.

These changes will hopefully improve both the data and response to hate crimes in the future, but in the meantime this lack of knowledge poses significant problems. Former FBI special agent Michael German, now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, told me that this lack of intelligence likely means law enforcement is failing to see crime trends. While hate crimes can be isolated incidents, they also often cluster around hate groups and failing to track and respond to these instances can allow for crime to proliferate.

The 2020 data shows an increase in hate crimes is occurring, yet significantly underreported. It is encouraging that the DOJ is working on improving its response and tracking of biased crime, yet much more work needs to be done.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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