Bias Crime

Bias crime represents the nadir of intergroup relationships and contact. Prejudice and bigotry give rise to bias crime, and bigotry accompanies bias offenses. Protected categories of victims according to the bias crime statutes include ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities as well as those with mental or physical disability status. Although debate about the criminalization of bias motives abounds, most of those who study bias crime agree that combating these types of offenses is important. This is because bias crime is different from similarly egregious crimes; the effects of bias crime extend well beyond the initial victim. There are physical, psychological, financial, and societal costs associated with this from of criminal activity.

Most people have a sense of what is meant by prejudice, and social scientists use the term to refer to a negative attitude that occurs when people prejudge disliked others. Those who are the targets of prejudice are disliked and perceived to be members of a particular social group. The term bigotry refers to extreme, and often blatant, forms of prejudice. Although both terms refer to a bias in the perception of others, prejudice can in rare cases refer to positive attitudes and reactions, whereas bigotry is exclusively reserved for negative attitudes. It is the latter set of reactions to a disliked individual or group of individuals (i.e., bigotry) that is most likely to spawn bias crimes.

Bias crimes involve a unique form of illegal, antisocial (and sometimes aggressive) behavior perpetrated primarily because of what the intended target represents. Definitions of bias crime vary, but definitions such as that of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL) tend to focus on the motivation of the offender as well as the group status of the targeted victim. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the U.S. Department of Justice, a bias crime is “a criminal act that targets a person, property, or society and is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.” Bias crimes “are traditional offenses motivated by the offender’s bias.”

The negative sentiment that drives bias crime offenders is so central and distinguishing a feature that the term hate crime is often used to describe these actions. Hate crime puts the extreme negative emotion (i.e., the affective state) front and center. Although most people can readily identify with an offense characterized as a hate crime because of an almost visceral familiarity with that very negative emotion, some scholars debate the accuracy of this label. They argue that it is not always the case that the sentiment that motivates bias crime offenders is hate. Indeed, as the specialists James Jacobs and colleagues contend, hate crime is less about “hate” per se and more about bias or prejudice.

To be sure, the problem of bias crime is real, and because of the inherently social aspect of these offenses, they must be viewed within a particular context. According to Gregory Herek and colleagues, bias offenses generally occur “against a backdrop of intolerance.” They represent the manifestation of deep-seated resentment and bigotry coupled with opportunity and disinhibition. Disinhibition has long been regarded as a necessary psychological feature in a person’s decision to actually commit an antisocial or aggressive action. For the bias crime offender, disinhibition can occur in several ways. Potential bias crime offenders become disinhibited (i.e., releasing the proverbial brake) when they are prompted by like-minded others, when they can rationalize and justify their aggression, or when they believe that conventional authority figures condone their actions.

Bias Crime in the United States

According to recent statistics released by the FBI, 7,163 criminal incidents involving 8,380 offenses were reported in 2005 as a result of an extreme prejudice or bias. The greatest proportion of these incidents resulted from racial and ethnic animus (there were 3,919), with African Americans representing the most frequently targeted racial group. This is not surprising given that racial (i.e., anti-Black) prejudice has played so prominent a role in determining the nature of inter-group relations within the United States and because skin color represents a primary and salient marker for racial status.

Bias crimes in the United States have assumed many forms and have ranged from nonviolent to egregious and harmful. They include physical and verbal transgressions stemming from a perpetrator’s bigotry or extreme prejudice. These transgressions can include defamation, threat and intimidation, verbal abuse, and physical assault or homicide, as well as offenses to property including arson, defacement, and vandalism. Many bias crimes against property assume the form of obscene or hurtful verbiage spray painted on private or public property.

Victims of bias crime are targeted because of their perceived race, ethnicity/national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and physical disability. Whether victims actually are members of the targeted group matters little to their offenders; it is the perception that they do that drives offenders. Most targeted groups also tend to be singled out for negative stereo-types. Given the established relationship between stereotypes and prejudice, it is not surprising that members of the most negatively stereotyped social groups are also members of groups most frequently targeted by bias crime offenders. Thus, victims of bias crime disproportionately involve racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities.

In the FBI’s 2005 Hate Crime Statistics report, of the 8,380 reported bias offenses, 4,691 were racially motivated, 1,171 were instigated because of offenders’ perceptions about their victims’ sexual orientation, 1,314 resulted from religious prejudice, 1,144 were due to ethnicity/national origin prejudice, and 53 targeted victims because of a disability they were believed to possess. These numbers remain relatively consistent, although they reveal a slight drop from the 9,035 offenses reported in the 2004 statistics report.

It is worth noting that reluctance and fear on the part of certain immigrants and ethnic minorities may serve to stifle reports of certain bias offenses. Indeed, like many forms of criminal activity, many bias crimes that occur are not reported. Additionally, underreporting may be particularly likely in the case of victims of antigay bias crimes who, like rape victims, may not be willing to risk disclosure or be subjected to investigation by insensitive or unhelpful law enforcement personnel. Moreover, whether an actual bias crime is recorded as such is very much at the discretion of the individual law enforcement officer. Findings from one federally funded study, reported in Lu-in Wang’s published work, found significant variation among police officers in their decisions to categorize incidents as bias crimes as well as within the state agencies charged with reporting to federal agencies.

Criminalizing Bias Crime

In recent years, criminologists and legal scholars have debated the usefulness of criminalizing bias, and debates about the constitutionality of legislation that penalizes it abound. Of course, crimes that are motivated by bias are not new. The history of bias as an instigator and motive in criminal activities occurring within the United States predates the establishment and enactment of any legislation in the country. The legal scholar Brian Levin notes that “status-based deprivations” such as slavery were in place at the very same time that deliberations about the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were under way. What is new about today’s form of bias crime, however, is the existing legislation as well as the corresponding efforts aimed at enacting additional legislation penalizing these activities. The term bias crime, first used by journalists and politicians, is well entrenched in today’s academic and juridical circles.

Most jurisdictions see bias crime as emanating from a perpetrator’s bias targeting some feature of the victim (e.g., racial status or sexual orientation). Although the Hate Crime Statistics Act (initially promulgated in 1990) mandates that all jurisdictions report the number of bias offenses that have occurred, there is substantial variance in the extent of participation across states. Like other offenses included in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, bias crimes are voluntarily reported by local jurisdictions.

In 2005, several members of the House of Representatives introduced a bill that would represent an amendment to the law that mandates the FBI’s collection of bias crime information to include gender as a protected category (called the Hate Crime Statistics Improvement Act of 2005). Historically, gender has not been included in the FBI’s definition of bias crime. The bill never became a law, and the current Federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act does not require the FBI to collect data on crimes that may manifest evidence of a gender bias. However, of the 41 states that have crime statutes, 19 of them include gender-based hate crimes in their hate crimes laws.

Importantly, where bias crimes were formerly limited to the actual physical presence of an offender (e.g., an assault) or the offender’s sentiment (e.g., graffiti or vandalism), widespread usage of the Internet has enabled offenders to transcend the boundaries of space and time. According to a representative of the ADL, “the majority of Internet hate crime cases result from e-mails containing threats.” Indeed, because of the proliferation of biased sentiment throughout the Internet, “cyber hate” is now investigated and tracked by advocacy groups, such as the ADL, as well as the FBI.

Bias Crime Versus “Normal” Offenses

Bias offenses differ from other similarly egregious offenses in several ways. First, because bias crimes indicate an offender’s bias, they serve symbolic and instrumental functions. The targeted victim is symbolic of a despised out-group. An out-group is a social group composed of people whom an offender perceives to be outsiders. Symbolically, the bias crime effectively communicates a message to an entire community, neighborhood, or group. The message is extremely negative and reminds anyone who identifies as a member of the victim’s social group of their own vulnerability.

Bias crime serves an instrumental function in that it curtails the behaviors and movement of members of large numbers of people, including members of the victim’s and offender’s groups. Bias offenses restrict the behaviors and choices of people because members of the victim’s and offender’s groups will tend to avoid certain locations and interactions with out-groups. For example, people who are personally unacquainted with the victim but who perceive themselves to be members of the victim’s social group are likely to restrict their activities. They will think twice about being in geographic proximity of the location where the bias offense is known to have occurred. Members of the offender’s group who sympathize with victims are also likely to be anxious about the prospect of intergroup interaction. Without realizing it, offenders can affect far greater numbers of people than the actual victim(s) of the offense.

The bias crime is also distinguished from the “normal” offense (i.e., the nonbias crime) in that the bias crime is a reflection of a perpetrator’s bigotry or hatred, or both. Such clarity about an offender’s thinking is a feature of the bias crime and not readily apparent in many other types of offenses. However, it should be noted that legal scholars debate the constitutionality of bias crime statutes because they argue that characterization of an offense as a bias offense is based on penalizing thoughts and motives. Although there may be some ambiguity for certain offenses, law enforcement, legislators, and prosecutors generally consider the presence of one or more specific indicators during the commission of an offense to be evidence of a bias motive. These indicators serve to disambiguate the circumstances surrounding the incident because they suggest that the offender’s actions were motivated, in whole or in part, by bias.

A clear difference in group status between the victim(s) and offender(s) that has historically involved relations fraught with strife is often taken as an indicator of a bias motive. When the incident occurs in the context of an event that makes the group status of the victim particularly salient, prosecutors will likely suspect a bias motive. Moreover, when there are obvious items present, used in, or produced as a result of the offense (e.g., graffiti, bias-related gestures or expressions, and written materials) or when the offenders are members of organized hate groups (e.g., the Ku Klux Klan), the incident is likely to be characterized as a bias offense.

Costs Incurred

There are a number of costs associated with bias crimes. Those who are targeted by offenders (i.e., victims) may incur physical, psychological, and financial costs. Victims of hate crime who are physically assaulted suffer injuries that may lead to permanent bodily damage, and in several high-profile cases (e.g., the murders of James Byrd and Matthew Sheppard), these injuries have resulted in death. Psychologically, the victim of a bias crime may experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, research by Gregory Herek and colleagues provides evidence of long-term PTSD symptoms. That research examined the experiences of victims of antigay bias crimes and found that in some cases the victims needed as many as 5 years to overcome the effect of their victimization.

Even when victims are able to function “normally” following a bias crime, they may harbor intense fear. They may fear their attackers, and they may also fear anyone who resembles their attackers. Although this can be debilitating, it can be most problematic for the fearful victims who feel compelled to move from their residence, change jobs, or restrict their activities. Thus, an additional outcome of bias crime victimization can involve very real financial costs. To the extent to which victims decide to suddenly change their place of employment or residence, there is likely to be a significant change in financial well-being. In addition, bias crime involving property offenses creates financial costs for property owners who resolve to return their property to its original state.

Although the most obvious costs are incurred by the actual victims of the offense, there are also societal costs associated with bias crime activities. Bias crimes create a climate of suspicion and fear. They effectively contribute to deterioration in intergroup relations. Those who may perceive themselves to be members of the victim’s social group will fear others who happen to be members of the offender’s social group, and members of the latter may feel anger and guilt leading them to avoid interaction with those perceived to be members of the victim’s group. In addition, particularly visible incidents can potentially trigger subsequent hate crime offenses, setting off a wave of retaliatory offenses.

Profile of Offenders

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Policymaker’s Guide to Hate Crime, hate crime offenders can be categorized according to their motives. In some cases, offenders perceive themselves to be exacting vigilante justice. These types of offenders blame the targets of their offenses for what they perceive to be wrong with the world or their immediate circumstances. In other cases, offenders perceive their actions to be a part of a greater mission—one in service of ridding the world of the social evil that their victim represents. An additional motive believed to account for some hate crime offenses involves the excitement and “rush” of committing the offenses. For these frenetic offenders, who are referred to as “thrill seekers,” any targeted out-group will do. In these incidents, willing offenders have the right set of circumstances, potential victims, and disinhibiting factors present at just the right time.

Although it would be useful to have a more detailed description of offenders, there is some variability among those who commit bias crimes. For example, the Hate Crime Statistics report of 2005 reveals that racial minorities are represented among racist bias crime offenders. Nevertheless, representatives from some local jurisdictions have noted that bias crime offenders are overwhelmingly young, White, and male.

Preventing Bias Crimes

Bias crimes, though extremely problematic, are not inevitable. When one considers that of the infinite number of interactions possible among the 34 million people living in California, for example, fewer than 2,500 resulted in reports of hate-motivated offenses, it is clear that bias crime occurrence is actually rare relative to its nonoccurrence. That said, recent events reflecting bias and bigotry underscore the importance of continued attention to this problem. Researchers, advocates, legislators, and law enforcement personnel have roles to play in attenuating the problem of bias crime. The greatest responsibility, however, rests with the lay public, which is composed of both victims and offenders. Eliminating bigotry and the problem of bias crime requires vigilant, continuous, and cross-cutting efforts, and it involves education, intergroup interaction, and legislation.


  1. Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. (1994). Hate crime laws. A comprehensive guide. New York: Author.
  2. Craig-Henderson, K. M. (2004). A review of the debate over hate crime legislation: Do hate crime statutes work for the common good? In R. R. Miller & S. L. Browning (Eds.), For the common good: A critical examination of law and social control (pp. 230-236). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
  3. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2006). Hate crime statistics 2005. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
  4. Herek, G. M., & Berrill, K. T. (Eds.). (1992). Hate crimes. Confronting violence against lesbians and gay men. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  5. Jacobs, J. B., & Potter, K. (1998). Hate crimes: Criminal law and identity politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Levin, J., & McDevitt, J. (2002). Hate crimes revisited. America’s war on those who are different. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  7. Wang, L.-I. (2003). Hate crimes law. Paul, MN: Thomson/West.

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