What FBI Stats Tell Us About Hate Crimes

What FBI Stats Tell Us About Hate Crimes
Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomington Herald-Times via AP
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The announcement by Loretta Lynch that anti-Muslim hate crimes increased by 67 percent in 2015 has renewed claims that Islamophobia is widespread and that right-wing publications such as Breitbart are responsible for inciting white racists to commit these acts. A closer look at FBI statistics, however, indicates that both of these claims are highly questionable.

The report does show an increase in hate crimes against Muslims from 154 in 2014 to 257 in 2015. It is important, however, to examine how these data compare to hate crimes against other groups. Pew estimates that the Muslim population in the United States is 3.3 million; this indicates that anti-Muslim hate crimes increased from 46.7 to 77.9 per million Muslims. Table 1 shows how this per capita measure compares to hate crimes against other groups, based on population estimates of 5.7 million Jews, 46.5 million black people, and 6 million gay men. It also includes the 2002–2008 rates for comparison purposes.

While the anti-Muslim hate crime rate rose substantially in 2015, it remained well below rates of anti-Jewish and anti-gay crimes. Also note how low the anti-Muslim hate crime rate was in 2014 relative to these two other groups. The most dramatic change from 2002 to 2015 was the drop in the anti-black hate crime rate.

FBI statistics also specify the type of hate crime. Table 2 looks at the hate crime assault rate. It shows that in 2014, the anti-Muslim assault rate was below that of the three other groups. We can also see that anti-gay violence was dramatically higher than violence against the other groups. The anti-Muslim assault rate for 2014 was actually lower than the rate between 2002 and 2008, dispelling the case for growing Islamophobia prior to 2015. Once again, the most significant change over time was the dramatic drop in the anti-black assault rate.

The 2015 assault statistics tell a different story. Anti-Muslim assaults per million are substantially higher than the assault rate on Jews, but continue to be dramatically lower than the anti-gay assault rate. This spike is serious and must be watched.

It is not obvious, however, that organized anti-Muslim incitements are responsible for this uptick in assaults. One might think that these incitements would be most effective in harnessing anger just after a terrorist act committed by Muslims. This is what happened, for instance, after 9/11 when incidents against Muslims increased more than 10-fold. However, the two major terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslims in America during this period — the Boston Marathon bombing and San Bernardino mass-shooting — cannot explain the 2015 spike since the first attack happened in 2013 and the second in December of 2015. 

Furthermore, it is a mistake to associate hate crimes exclusively with white Americans who are the target group for alleged right-wing incitement. FBI statistics do not isolate the racial distribution of the perpetrators of assaults against Muslims. However, the FBI does identify the racial distribution for all hate crime assaults. In 2015, 53.2, 28.7 and 9.2 percent of hate crimes were committed by white, black, and multi-racial individuals, respectively.

Most striking, however, is the dramatic 60 percent decline in anti-black hate crimes over the last decade. These data counter the narrative, promoted by writers such as The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who laments: “To be black in a white supremacist society is to live in constant fear of disembodiment.”

What is more, before 2015, anti-Jewish hate-crimes and assault rates were higher than anti-Muslim or anti-black rates. The implication? We should not be so quick to associate the spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes with widespread Islamophobia just as we should not associate high anti-Jewish hate crime rates with widespread anti-Semitism.

We should also be careful not to leap to any single explanation for 2015’s serious, one-year anti-Muslim spike. Nevertheless, as there is substantial evidence that Trump’s election has led to another similar spike, we should demand that the president-elect take aggressive actions to stem this hateful behavior.

Robert Cherry in an economist at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.

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