Crimes against people and property can be motivated by many different things, including greed, anger, and a desire for revenge. The subset of crimes known as hate crimes are those unlawful acts that are motivated by prejudice against a group that the victim is believed to belong to or identify with. U.S. law classifies crimes based on bias against a victim’s perceived race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and ethnicity or national origin as hate crimes. Some states have also added gender to the groups that can be classified as victims of hate crimes.
Victims of hate crimes are not limited to individuals. Businesses, institutions (such as a church or a mosque), communities, or even society as a whole can be a victim of a hate crime. Likewise, there is a range of offenses that are perpetrated against hate crime victims. Crimes against persons include intimidation, aggravated assault, rape, and murder. Crimes against property include vandalism, arson, theft, and robbery. Although offensive to many, certain types of hate-based behaviors are protected by U.S. law. Actions such as the creation of hate literature or the public expression of hateful speech are allowed until they cross over into making direct threats against identifiable people, organizations, or institutions.
Since 1991, incidences of hate crimes in the United States have been compiled on a yearly basis by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). For the year of 2002, law enforcement agencies recorded 7,462 hate crime incidents. Racial bias was the motivator for most of these offenses. Table 1 provides a breakdown of the type of bias for all reported incidents.
Hate crime offenses are more than twice as likely to be crimes against persons as crimes against property. Table 2 provides a breakdown of the type of offense for all reported hate crimes in 2002.
Many experts agree that these figures underestimate the actual number of bias-motivated crimes. The FBI relies on reports from local law enforcement to compile the national hate crime statistics. Inconsistencies in reporting or nonparticipation may artificially decrease the totals. By their very nature, hate crimes are designed to intimidate and may keep the victim from reporting the attack to authorities. There is evidence that victims of nonbias crimes are twice as likely as victims of hate crimes to report their victimization.
Table 1 Types of Bias for Reported Hate Crimes
It is a common perception that perpetrators of hate crimes are members of organized hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. In reality, only about 5% of known offenders are members of such groups. Most attackers are otherwise law-abiding citizens.
The most vicious hate crimes do tend to be committed by people with a history of antisocial behavior and ties to organized hate groups. For these individuals, prejudice and hate are the major focus of their lives, and they are actively involved in recruiting and indoctrinating new members. Although this group represents a small minority of actual perpetrators, organized hate groups facilitate wider disturbance by providing information and encouragement to anyone who wants it.
Most perpetrators are so-called dabblers, for whom hateful behavior is a part-time affair. These people do hold prejudiced beliefs that they express through behavior but typically keep these hidden in areas of their lives. For example, at work, they may keep their beliefs to themselves but on the weekends get together with like-minded friends to harass people who they perceive as being different.
Young people represent a significant number of hate crime offenders. Of known hate crime perpetrators, 33% are younger than 18, and 29% are between the ages of 18 and 24. The high rate of teenage and young adult participation in these crimes is one reason why most intervention and prevention programs are school based.
Two other groups of people are not active perpetrators of hate crimes but do encourage an atmosphere in which such actions can take place. Although they may never act on their beliefs, sympathizers agree with the ideology of perpetrators. Sympathizers typically express their beliefs only at the verbal level, but these acts show support for more serious hate acts. Furthermore, sympathizers are unlikely to cooperate with efforts to stop hate crimes. The second group of people who help facilitate a hate-accepting environment are spectators. These are people who may disagree with prejudiced speech or behavior but are unwilling to stop it. Others may view their silence as approval and so draw encouragement from spectators.
Table 2 Types of Offenses for Reported Hate Crimes, 2002
Hate crimes are certainly designed to hurt or intimidate the victim but are also meant to send a message to the victim’s community: you are not welcome here. Such crimes share a basis of negative beliefs about groups of people who are perceived to be different in a significant way. But what motivates individuals to act on these prejudices varies. Hate crime perpetrators can generally be divided into four main categories of motivation: ideology, thrill, defense, or peer dynamics.
Ideology perpetrators draw strongly on their bigotry for motivation. They have a very rigid view of the world and believe themselves to be maintaining or restoring social order and morals. An ideology offender may believe, for example, that interracial relationships are wrong and threaten the morals of society. By drawing on perceived support in the community, the offender may attack a person who is part of an interracial couple to enforce these beliefs.
The main motivations of thrill seekers are to experience excitement and power. These assailants are usually young people, often groups of teenage boys, who crave respect and attention. They themselves are marginalized in some way, be it economic, educational, or social. For thrill seekers, hate crimes bring excitement to otherwise idle time and give them a sense of importance and strength by putting others down.
Defense-motivated crimes occur when the offender feels threatened by a hated group. For example, an African American family may be targeted after they move into an all-white neighborhood, or a male assailant may attack a gay man because he feared that the man would make sexual advances toward him.
Individuals who are motivated by peer dynamics participate in hate crimes to gain respect from friends. These people are searching for acceptance and engage in hate crime primarily as a means to please others and prove their toughness.
Hate is learned. Whether through direct teachings of parents or subtle attitudes of society, individuals encounter messages of intolerance from the outside environment. The ideal way of preventing hate crime is to prevent the development of prejudice. A common factor among people who have resisted participation in hate activities, such as individuals who helped Jews escape Nazi Germany, is the existence of a role model who respected diversity.
A secondary solution is to alter those prejudiced beliefs that have already developed. The major way to change misconceptions about others is through purposeful exposure. Whereas simple contact between groups may encourage stereotypes and lead to bias crimes, cooperation between people is related to a decrease in negative attitudes. By working cooperatively with others, individuals gather information that challenges their previous beliefs. They also begin to see similarities between themselves and people they used to see as being very different. After one’s attitudes are changed about a specific person, those positive feelings generalize to the group to which that person belongs. U.S. organizations such as Partners Against Hate, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League have developed numerous educational materials that teach accurate knowledge about different groups and facilitate interaction and understanding between peoples.
Because we have not yet reached the ideal of completely preventing the development of hate, programs that resolve intergroup conflict are needed. The Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice is an organization that provides information and free mediation services to communities that have experienced a hate incident or conflicts between people based on differences in race, ethnicity, or national origin.
Hate crimes are based on learned attitudes of prejudice against groups that are perceived to be different. Perpetrators of these crimes are typically otherwise ordinary citizens who use their hate to gain power, thrill, or acceptance. Prevention of hate crimes begins with developing attitudes of tolerance and acceptance instead of prejudice and discrimination.
- American Psychological Association. (1998). Hate crimes today: An age-old foe in modern dress. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubinfo/hate/
- Anti-Defamation League. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.adl.org/education
- Federal Bureau of Inv (2003). Hate crime statistics. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hatecrime2002.pdf
- Levin, (2002). The violence of hate. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Partners Against (2003). Addressing youthful hate crime is imperative. Available from http://www.partnersagainsthate.org/
- Southern Poverty Law Center. (2004). Teaching tolerance. Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org/teach/
- S. Department of Justice. (n.d.). Community relations service. Retrieved from http://www.usdoj.gov/crs/