Just the Facts

Five Facts on Hate Crimes

By No Labels
October 29, 2018 | Blog

The massacre of 11 people attending services at a synagogue in Pittsburg on Saturday, October 27, is one example of a violent hate crime. Here are five facts on hate crimes in America:

Hate crimes are criminal offenses motivated by bias against particular groups of people

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” In order to prove that a crime was in fact a hate crime, the prosecutor must show conclusive evidence of a perpetrator’s prejudice or bias as a primary motivator for the offense.  According to Benjamin Wagner, former U.S. attorney for California’s Eastern District, prosecuting hate crimes is “notoriously difficult” as the prosecution needs “to prove not just the incident, but the state of mind of the defendant—that what they intended was hate-motivated.”

Currently the federal government, 45 states, and the District of Columbia have passed hate crime laws

In 1968 the federal government passed America’s first hate crimes law with President Lyndon Johnson signing a bill that made it a crime to use, or threaten to use, force to willfully interfere with any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin, or because the person is participating in a federally protected activity, such as voting. More than a decade later in 1981, Washington and Oregon became the first two states to pass laws protecting people from hate-related crimes.  In 2009, Congress significantly expanded hate crime protections to crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Do hate crime laws work?

The stability in the rate of hate crimes committed each year leaves many critics skeptical about their effectiveness. Michael Bronski, hate crime law critic and Harvard professor, argues that increasing prison sentences for individuals who commit hate crimes only contributes to the country’s prison problem and does little to actually address the problems at hand.  Michael Lieberman, member of the Anti-Defamation League, disagrees, stating, “Why would you report that you were the victim of a hate crime unless you thought police were going to do something about it? “If [a city] pass[es] a strong hate crime law … it demonstrates that city is now taking these crimes very seriously.” Hate crime attorney Fred Lawrence also made this statement following the 2013 Charleston, S.C. church shooting: “Nobody thinks [Charleston] was a garden-variety murder. Everybody understands what happened, and it’s a deeper tear in the fabric of the society because of what happened.”

Instances of anti-Semitism in particular have been on the rise in recent years

Even before the events at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past weekend, instances of anti-Semitic behavior have been increasing across America. Jews account for less than 2% of the American population, yet, according to the FBI’s 2016 Hate Crime Statistics Report, anti-Semitic motivations accounted for more than 50% of hate crimes with religious bias and CNN reports that anti-Semitic incidents have increased by almost 60% in 2017 alone. While these numbers are alarming as is, they may actually be understated because hate crimes are not reported at the federal level, but rather at the state level. Instances of anti-Semitic vandalism have been seen in response to political affiliations, as was seen in New Jersey when a campaign sign for U.S. Rep Josh Gottheimer was defaced with anti-Semitic remarks and images just a month ago.

The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history 

In recent decades, anti-Semitic attacks have become increasingly deadlier, but none have been as fatal as the events of this past weekend. Notable anti-Semitic incidents include the 1999 shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish community center that had no fatalities, the 2006 shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation that resulted in one fatality, the 2009 shooting at the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC that resulted in one fatality, and the 2014 shooting at a Jewish retirement community in Overland Park, KS that resulted in three fatalities. The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue saw six injured and 11 killed including “a primary care physician loved by his community. Two devoted and welcoming brothers. A vibrant 97-year-old with a lot of years left,” as reported by CNN.

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