Crimes of hatred and prejudice—from lynchings to cross-burnings to the vandalism of synagogues—are a sad fact of American history. The FBI began investigating hate crimes as far back as the early 1920s, when they opened their first case against the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, the term "hate crime" did not enter the nation's vocabulary until the 1980s, when emerging hate groups launched a wave of bias-related crime.
Following the passage of the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 and at the request of the Attorney General, the FBI has gathered and published hate crime statistics every year since 1992.
The FBI defines a hate crime (aka bias crime) to be "a criminal offense committed against a person, property or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin."
Hate crimes demand a priority response because of their special emotional and psychological impact on the victim and the victim's community. The damage that hate crimes cause cannot be measured solely in terms of physical injury or dollars and cents. Hate crimes may effectively intimidate other members of the victim's community, leaving them feeling isolated, vulnerable and unprotected by the law. By making members of minority communities fearful, angry and suspicious of other groups -- and of the power structure that is supposed to protect them -- these incidents can damage the fabric of our society and fragment communities.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation annual report on these troubling crimes, Hate Crime Statistics, 2009, reveals an ugly picture. Frighteningly, hate crimes against people in 2009 easily outnumbered crimes against property: 7,789 offenses to 3,517. The hate crimes against people were serious: eight people were killed; nine were raped; 19.1% were the subjects of aggravated assault; and 35.3% were the subjects of simple assault. The number of offenses involved for all these crimes was actually far higher than these figures indicate because one criminal incident might involve several offenses.
Of the 7,789 single-bias hate crime incidents committed in 2009, 48.8 percent were racially motivated. Almost 19 percent of the incidents were motivated by religious bias, and 17.8 percent resulted from bias against sexual orientation.
The report breaks down its findings still further. Of racial bias crimes, 71.5 percent were motivated by anti-black bias, whereas 16.5 percent were motivated by anti-white bias. Of religious bias crimes, 71.9 percent of crimes were anti-Jewish, 8.4 percent were anti-Islamic and 3.7 percent were anti-Catholic. Of the sexual orientation crimes, 55.1 percent were classified as anti-male homosexual and 15.3 percent were classified as anti-female homosexual.
Hate crimes send a message of terror to an entire group and are therefore unlike a random act of violence. For example, the brutal murder of James Byrd, who was chained to the bumper of a truck and dragged down a street in Texas, sent a chilling message to African-Americans that racial violence and murder remain continued threats. Likewise, LGBT people wonder whether they will be the next Matthew Shepard. Hate crimes laws recognize the particular social threat of bias-motivated violence.
Those who murder police officers face higher penalties than people who murder civilians, and terrorists who target federal buildings face higher penalties. In 1999, Congress passed a law that created harsher sanctions for countries that persecute religious freedoms. Such laws are not viewed as valuing some lives more than others. Instead, they send a message that certain crimes that strike at this country’s core values, such as the freedom to live free of persecution, will be punished and deterred both by longer penalties and by federal involvement in the investigation and prosecution of the crime.
Federal Bureau of Investigations
National Crime Prevention Council
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force