Click to access downloadable PDF

Improving the Federal, State, and Local Response to Hate Crime Counteracting Threats to Our Communities

We must counteract the threat of hate crime against our communities. Regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability, or gender identity, Arab Americans have the right to live without fear of being targeted because of who they are or how they’re perceived. Hate crime is a direct threat to this fundamental right, one to which many communities across the United States, including Arab Americans, are susceptible. For these reasons, the Arab American Institute has prioritized hate crime prevention in our policy work.

The AAI Approach

Rooted in AAI’s approach to hate crime prevention is a belief in criminal justice reform. Some of the communities most vulnerable to hate crime have suffered unjust treatment under the criminal justice system. Especially since the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Arab Americans have been subject to discriminatory profiling and surveillance in the name of “national security.”

These practices, whether at the hands of state, local, or federal authorities, have contributed to fear and distrust of law enforcement among Arab Americans and other “securitized” communities. As a result, some Arab Americans are reluctant to interact with police, even when they are the victims of a hate crime.

Given these concerns, AAI has focused on improving hate crime reporting, data collection, and law enforcement training to not only protect communities, but also encourage greater accountability, transparency, and sensitivity to hate crime victims within the criminal justice system.

Hate Crime and Hate Crime Statutes

The term “hate crime” generally refers to a crime committed against a person or property because of someone’s actual or perceived “protected characteristic,” which may include race or ethnicity, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability, or gender identity. Many states have criminal laws prohibiting hate crimes, which might also be called “bias crimes,” “malicious harassment,” or other terms depending on the state.

Some states do not have hate crime laws, which we tend to call “hate crime statutes,” and others might only apply to certain kinds of offenses and offer limited protections. For example, while the state of Ohio has a hate crime statute, it covers a limited set of offenses, such as “menacing” and “telecommunications harassment,” and does not include protections for sexual orientation, disability, gender, or gender identity.

A final point of comparison is that between penalty enhancement and stand-alone criminal statutes. Under the penalty enhancement framework, which is available to sentencing judges or prosecutors in 31 states, defendants found to have committed crimes because of someone’s actual or perceived protected characteristics may be subject to increased punishment beyond the presumptive range of the underlying offense. Of the 45 states with hate crime statutes, the remaining 14 treat hate crimes as a stand-alone criminal violation. In addition, Congress has enacted a suite of federal hate crime statutes.

AAI supports the enactment of inclusive protections in hate crime statutes but has concerns regarding the potential unintended consequences of penalty enhancement. Reducing mass incarceration is a central aspect of criminal justice reform, and AAI wants to ensure that hate crime penalty enhancement is not enforced disproportionately against certain communities. This is one reason why AAI supports improved data collection on hate crime prosecutions and convictions, but our advocacy for better data does not end there.

Reporting and Data Collection

Under the Hate Crime Statistics Act, or HCSA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation collects data on hate crimes reported by law enforcement agencies participating in the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program.9 According to the FBI, the total number of hate crime incidents reported nationwide increased 17 percent in 2017 over 2016 totals.10 This represents the largest single-year increase and the first three-year consecutive annual increase since 2001, when hate crimes targeting Arab Americans and American Muslims, and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim, surged in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Despite this reported increase, studies from the Justice Department suggest that a vast majority of hate crimes in the United States are not reflected in the annual FBI totals. Whereas national survey data indicate that 250,000 hate crime victimizations occur each year on average in the United States, according to the FBI, just 7,175 hate crime incidents were reported in 2017.

Among the incidents that appear not to have been reported in recent editions of FBI’s annual statistics are several high-profile hate crime murders, including the killing of Khalid Jabara in Tulsa, Okla., on August 12, 2016, and the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., exactly one year later.

The provision of good data is essential to preventing hate crime in American communities, and so we are advocating improved reporting and data collection practices through both state and federal legislation. At the state level, we support laws requiring police to report hate crimes through the UCR system, as well as initiatives to modernize UCR data collections to promote more comprehensive, accessible, and detailed statistics. At the federal level, we are working on legislation that would require law enforcement agencies receiving federal funding to provide the Attorney General with information regarding their efforts to prevent hate crime, particularly as such activities relate to reporting and data collection through the UCR system.

These efforts will improve our official hate crime data while promoting increased transparency and accountability on the part of law enforcement. Equally important to hate crime prevention, however, is training.

Law Enforcement Training

Few states require universal, mandatory hate crime training for law enforcement. This must change, which is why AAI supports legislation that requires law enforcement personnel to receive training on investigating, reporting, and responding to hate crime in their jurisdictions. Decades of research and investigative reporting demonstrate that inadequate training limits the potential for law enforcement, policy makers, and communities to effectively respond to hate crime. In 2019, AAI is working with local advocates in multiple states to enact legislation requiring mandatory hate crime training for law enforcement certification.

Targeted or vulnerable communities have a stake in the training that law enforcement personnel receive to ensure their safety. Therefore, AAI promotes a framework that ensures stakeholder participation in the implementation and development of the required hate crime training. The most effective approach is one that brings communities to the table.

Historical analysis of rising hate crime incidents

According to the FBI’s annual report, Hate Crime Statistics, American communities have experienced a surge of bias-motivated violence in recent years, with 2016 data indicating the first consecutive annual increase of reported hate crime incidents since 2004. Hate crimes against Arab Americans and American Muslims, along with other historically targeted communities, have contributed to this reported increase. In 2016, reported anti-Arab hate crime incidents rose some 38 percent, with hate crimes targeting American Muslims climbing nearly 20 percent after a 67 percent spike in 2015. Across the board, state-level hate crime statistics, reporting from civil rights and advocacy organizations, and media accounts suggest an even greater escalation than what is reported in federal data.

Historically, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes have intensified in the wake of developments in the Middle East or incidents of terrorism. This “backlash” effect dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, but was most devastating in the aftermath of 9/11. In the weeks following this national tragedy, hate crimes targeting communities perceived to be Arab or Muslim, including Sikh Americans, were reported in record numbers. The nature of political rhetoric is crucial in such moments of national crisis, and while a series of injudicious policies advanced in the wake of 9/11 continue to excessively target certain communities, the effort to curtail bigoted or otherwise inflammatory discourse during this period likely tempered the surge of reactive violence.

This same backlash effect continues to impact communities in the United States today, but is met without sufficient government accountability or response. According to FBI data, a disproportionate number of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes reported in 2015 occurred after the November 13 attacks in Paris. After the December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, CA, then-candidate Donald Trump called for a “complete and total shutdown”—a ban—on Muslims entering the United States. Such declarations only provoked the groundswell of anti-Muslim bigotry and xenophobia that animated the remainder of his candidacy, and crashed upon his election as president, when hate crimes across the country, targeting not only Arab Americans, American Muslims, and South Asian Americans, but others subject to his campaign invectives as well, surged once again.

Indeed, the Trump Administration has demonstrated that caustic political rhetoric has done nothing to mitigate the spread of hate crimes in American communities and, if anything, has driven some to violence. While acts of bias-motivated crime continue to surge, and as reports from organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) suggest an increase of hate groups across the country, our government fails to effectively respond. This lack of accountability was evident in the President’s reluctance to denounce white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups responsible for the violence in Charlottesville, VA, on August 12, 2017, which left Heather Heyer dead and dozens wounded.

Adapted from AAI Issue Brief: Hate Crimes (2018)

Learn More

Take Action