Hate Crime in the USA

Chapter 1: An Overview of Hate Crime

Hate crime, also referred to as bias-motivated crime, is when a person is attacked for being associated with a certain social, ethnic, or religious organization, or for their sexual orientation, nationality, physical appearance, handicap, or gender identity.

Hate crimes are often considered to be 'message crimes,' where the offender uses the crime to send a clear message to the targeted person or group.

Hate Crime in Numbers

Despite efforts made by law enforcement authorities and the US government, the number of hate crimes has increased in recent years.

However, in 2012, the FBI reported a slight decrease in hate crimes nationwide from the previous year in their Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, "Hate Crime Statistics." The UCR program collects data relating to single-bias and multiple-bias hate crimes, and every report must indicate at least one bias motivation.

In 2012, 5,796 hate crime incidents involving 6,718 offenses were reported, down 426 incidents and 536 offenses from 2011.

In addition, the number of hate crime victims reported in 2011 (including individuals, businesses, institutions and society as a whole) was 7,164, a decrease of 549 compared to 2011.

More statistics from the UCR program include:

  • 75.6 percent of the victims of crimes against property suffered acts of destruction, damage, and/or vandalism.

  • Out of a total of 5,331 known offenders, 54.6 percent were white and 23.3 percent were black.

  • Law enforcement authorities reported 10 murders and 15 rapes as hate crimes.

Reasons Behind Hate Crime

Hate crimes come in many forms. The top three motivators of hate crimes in America are:

  1. Racial Prejudice and Discrimination — prejudice occurs when a person irrationally directs their anger towards a group, person, or entire race. Recent studies show that racism is a learned rather than innate emotion.

    The "us" and "them" attitude has a foundation in ancient times, and is territorial in nature. Many hate organizations exist today, including the White Aryan Resistance, the Ku Klux Klan and the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

    In 2012, 48.3 percent of the 5,790 single-bias incidents reported in the UCR were racially motivated.

  2. Religious and Political Prejudice — people are sometimes targeted because of their religious or political beliefs.

    Sometimes a spike in hate crimes can occur following a terrorist attack, as was the case following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, where muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent became the victims of racial hate crimes in America.

    Religious intolerance accounted for 19 percent of the single-bias incidents that occurred in 2012.

  3. Sexual Orientation — although the laws are now changing for gay couples who wish to marry, homosexuals and bisexuals are often victims of prejudice, violence, and discrimination.

    Homophobia is a serious threat to those who want to be free to express their sexual orientation. Past attitudes have meant that children sometimes learn this type of discrimination as it is passed down from generation to generation.

Recent Hate Crime Cases in the United States

James Byrd Jr Lynching

One of the most shocking hate crimes of recent times was the lynching-style murder of 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. on June 7, 1998, by three white men in Texas.

Byrd was on a Texas road close to the town of Jasper when Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John King offered him a ride. Authorities later reported that Byrd and Berry knew each other.

The men savagely beat Byrd and then chained his ankles to the back of Berry's pickup truck. They dragged him three miles over asphalt roads, causing severe injuries. Byrd remained conscious during most of the ordeal, finally dying when his body hit a culvert in the road.

The police promptly arrested the three men and charged them with capital murder. They tried each man separately. The authorities considered King the ringleader and learned that he and Brewer were part of a white supremacy group.

The two men reportedly met in prison years earlier when they joined the gang. Both men were sentenced to death, and Brewer was killed by lethal injection.

Berry, who is serving life in prison, escaped a capital punishment sentence because prosecutors determined he was not a racist.

James Byrd's death prompted important legislation, which was originally enacted in the Texas courts in 2001. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.

Matthew Shepard Murder

On October 12, 1998, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson beat 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, an openly gay man, to death. He spent five days in a coma before dying of his injuries.

Shepard met McKinney and Henderson in a local bar called the Fireside Lounge. McKinney and Henderson had been drinking and they told Shepard they were gay so they could lure him to their truck.

McKinney pulled out a gun and told Shepard to give him his wallet. When Shepard said no, McKinney struck him with the gun. Henderson was behind the wheel while McKinney continued to beat Shepard. McKinney allegedly tied Shepard's beaten body to a wooden split-rail post fence and took his wallet and shoes as he continued to beat him. They then left him to die.

On April 5, 1999, 22-year-old McKinney was found guilty of felony murder, second-degree murder, kidnapping, and robbery. His accomplice, 21-year-old Russell Henderson, pled guilty to kidnapping and felony murder and the court sentenced him to two consecutive life terms.

The crime sparked the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010 (H.R. 2647). During 2012, 19.6 percent of the 5,790 single-bias incidents were due to sexual orientation bias.

Islamic Center of Greater Toledo Arson

On September 30, 2012, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo witnessed an arson attack by Randolph Linn who entered the building and set fire to the prayer room.

Linn drove to the Islamic Center with numerous firearms and three red gas cans. He stopped at a gas station to fill the gas cans before continuing onto the Islamic Center.

He entered the prayer room on the second floor and set fire to a large rug used for prayer services. Linn said he intentionally set fire to the rug because of the religious character of the Islamic Center property.

The fire caused significant damage to the interior of the building before the overhead sprinkler system finally extinguished it. Law enforcement authorities arrested Linn three days later.

In April 2013, Linn was sentenced to 20 years in prison for hate crimes. Linn pleaded guilty in December to three counts:

  • Intentionally defacing, damaging and destroying religious real property because of the religious character of that property.

  • Using fire to commit a felony.

  • Using and carrying a firearm to commit a crime of violence.

Following the sentencing, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Roy L Austin Jr, said:

The Civil Rights Division will continue to partner with the FBI and US Attorney's Offices around the country to ensure that anyone who desecrates or burns a place of religious worship because of the creed practiced there is brought to justice.

Chapter 2: The Anatomy of Hate Crimes

Hate crimes are sometimes perceived as being random and sudden. However, they are usually premeditated crimes. Hate crime incidents can include:

  • Property damage

  • Offensive graffiti

  • Bullying

  • Harassment

  • Verbal abuse and insults

  • Hate mail and social media abuse

  • Physical assault.

A hate crime law is a law intended to deter such violence. Hate crime laws are distinct from laws against hate speech. Hate crime laws enhance the penalties associated with criminal conduct, while hate speech laws criminalize a category of speech.

Who Commits Hate Crimes?

Perpetrators of hate crimes are often not very different from anyone else. According to a study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles, which profiled 550 hate crime criminals, they do not fit the profile of psychopaths or sociopaths.

The study found that hate crime offenders are extremely prejudiced. That factor, combined with a tendency to be more aggressive or carry out antisocial behaviors, can lead them to commit crimes of hate.

Another common thread among the group was a strong family history of abuse and violence.

Do Hate Crime Laws Deter Criminals?

When prosecutors can prove that a crime is also a hate crime, the perpetrator's sentence can be increased. But does this make it a true deterrent?

Most sociological experts agree that the place to change social attitudes and help people become more tolerant of others is not in the prison system but in the school system, in activist groups, in church, and even at the kitchen table.

Although legal experts still debate whether Matthew Shepard's murder was a hate crime or simply a robbery gone wrong, what we do know is that both of his killers received two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole without a hate crime law on the books.

Hate crime laws may help people feel safer and believe that the legal system and law enforcement authorities are concerned for their safety. However, there is a big difference between feeling safe and being safe.

Indeed, many people think that even if there was a state or federal hate crime law in place, it is highly unlikely it would have prevented the murder, so it is difficult to state with certainty that hate crime laws are an effective deterrent.

Chapter 3: Data Collection: Recording and Legislating Hate Crimes

Record Keeping the FBI Way

The FBI is the only investigative force for criminal violations of federal civil rights statutes in America. Hate crime is the number one priority in their civil rights program, which they continue to improve and update. In 2012, the FBI opened 200 hate crime investigations alone.

In 2014, the FBI made changes to the collecting process for their UCR program, which provides accurate figures of the hate crime problem in the United States.

The changes enable law enforcement to provide highly specific information when submitting data relating to hate crimes. Agencies can now submit reports on crimes committed by or against juveniles, as well as those motivated by gender identity bias. The race and ethnicity categories have also been expanded.

Hate Crime and Punishment

Hate crimes receive stiffer penalties because although offenders often target just one person, that person represents a bias against an entire group based on their ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, religion, or other characteristics.

There are many state and federal laws that prohibit hate crimes. However, proving that bias exists is extremely difficult.

  • Laws protecting an institutional target — These are laws that prohibit institutional vandalism, such as damaging or defacing a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque.

  • Laws to protect people based on their membership of a specified group — These types of laws make it a crime to threaten or use violence against a person or persons because of their membership of a protected class.

  • Laws that add additional penalties when the crime has been prosecuted as an assault or under another general criminal law — In such cases, the defendant receives sentencing enhancements, which impose increased (aggravated) penalties because the defendant has committed the crime due to bias against the victim.

Not every crime committed against a racial minority or a LGBT person is a hate crime. The prosecutor must convince the judge or jury that the defendant who committed the underlying criminal act was motivated by bias.

It's a challenge to prove that the defendant acted with hate crime intent unless the defendant confesses to police or others that they committed the crime because of bias.

Proving the Case of Bias

Other than the defendant's own statements, evidence of bias can include:

Membership in a group that encourages hatred for specific groups, like a black separatist group or an online Facebook group that opposes homosexuality.

  • Possession of symbolism or literature with a connection to bias, such as anti-semitic texts or anti-gay pamphlets.

  • Artwork, writings, graffiti, or tattoos of the defendant.

  • Use of biased slurs or graffiti during or at the scene of the crime.

  • The date of the incident if it coincides with a significant holiday or anniversary associated with the perceived bias.

  • Identical hate crimes that the defendant has committed.

Is It Possible to Show Undeniable Intent?

If a group of young men vandalizes an empty store, this does not mean they did so because the owner was homosexual; they may simply have seen the opportunity presented by an abandoned building.

The prosecution must provide proof that the men targeted the building because of the victim's race, color, religion, or for some other reason to demonstrate it was a hate crime.

The defendant's use of racial or ethnic slurs during the commission of the crime, or the defendant's admission that they were motivated by bias in order to carry out the offense, can help to prove that it was a hate crime.

In practice, prosecutors tend to seek hate crime convictions only in cases where there is strong evidence of bias on the part of the defendant.

For instance, in the vandalism example above, the defendant's spray-painted slogans of hatred relating to the shopkeeper's sexual orientation would be powerful evidence that these feelings motivated the suspect to commit the crime.

The George Zimmerman / Treyvon Martin Case

The George Zimmerman-Treyvon Martin case demonstrates how difficult it can be to prove intent. On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida, called 911 to report what he described as "a suspicious person" in his neighborhood.

The police instructed him to stay in his SUV and not to approach the person. However, Zimmerman ignored their directions and started to follow Treyvon Martin around the housing complex.

Neighbors reported hearing gunfire a few moments later. When the police arrived, Zimmerman informed them that he shot Martin, insisting that he did so in self-defense.

In the police report, Officer Timothy Smith writes that Zimmerman was bleeding from the back of his head, as well as his nose.

In this case, proving intent is the biggest hurdle in order to prosecute this as a hate crime. The question is whether Zimmerman followed Martin because of his race, or because he was an intruder in the neighborhood.

The prosecutors need to establish beyond a reasonable doubt exactly what Zimmerman was thinking at the very moment he pulled the trigger. What complicates the civil rights case even further is that the victim cannot speak for himself or provide further proof.

Prosecuting Hate Crimes

A hate crime is normally an add-on to an existing criminal act, such as vandalism or arson. The authorities sometimes don't report common crimes like assault, property damage, and even more grave offenses as hate crimes.

In such cases, the prosecution must simply prove that the accused committed a crime without proving that the defendant had the intent or a motive to commit a hate crime.

However, if a hate crime is proven, the judge will place additional penalties on the resulting sentence.

The recent changes in the Hate Crimes Prevention Act have made a big difference by including the element of intent in hate crime laws. Courts are able to issue higher penalties for the perpetrator, which may help deter future acts of hatred.

In addition, updates to the Federal Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA) may encourage law enforcement agencies to report more hate crimes, which may help make the data more accurate.

A change in the federal laws on hate crime may also demonstrate to American citizens just how serious the problem really is through making funds available to run public events to educate people on hate crimes.

Once the police, local governments, and the community band together, it is hoped that the problem will become more manageable and that the number of hate crimes will fall.

Educating the Public

Local enforcement agencies need to educate the public on ways to combat hate crime. This could include:

Recognizing Hate Crimes — although some hate crimes are obvious, such as a swastika on the side of a building or the burning of a cross, other crimes are more subtle.

Perpetrators are good at concealing hate crimes as common crimes, so people need to know what a hate crime looks like and the warning signs to look out for.

Intervening or Preventing Hate Crimes — the local authorities need to teach people how to prevent hate crimes or deal with crimes that they come upon in progress.

For example, teenagers should learn how to intervene when they see someone bullying a classmate, and adults need to know how to handle racism or homophobia in the workplace. It may start with nothing more than a crude comment, but it can escalate to more serious acts.

If it can be stopped before it gets out of control, hate crime can be significantly reduced.

Reporting Hate Crimes — systems are needed to make it simple to report a suspected hate crime. Once in place, the public should be educated on how to use that system, and encouraged to do so.

The focus here is to make sure everyone feels safe when reporting acts of hatred to local police forces.

Dealing with Objectionable Online Content — people need to have the tools to deal with objectionable or damaging online content aimed at people and organizations based on race, religion or sexual orientation.

For example, most people don't know that they can report unacceptable website content directly to the web hosting company. Sites like Whoishostingthis.com provide a tool they can use to track down the hosting company of any website.

Armed with the proper contact information, they can then get in touch with the host to ask them to remove the content.

Everyone can do their part by picking up the phone and calling the police when they witness a hate crime. But even before that they could:

  • Call friends and coworkers to talk about the problem.

  • Hold a neighborhood meeting to increase awareness.

  • Create or sign a petition for reform of local and federal laws.

  • Print out informational brochures.

  • Share their creative talents in other ways.

Standing Up to Hate Crimes

Here are some examples of people in America who stood up against acts of hatred:

Sixth-grade students in Morgantown, West Virginia painted over graffiti sprayed over the outside wall of their local convenience store. Their teacher used the graffiti as an example to teach students about the effects of hatred and violence.

After the students viewed a video, "Not in Our Town," depicting how the people of Billings, Montana, fought hate, they decided that leaving the graffiti on the convenience store wall would contribute to more insensitivity in the community.

The actions of these students made them powerful role models in Morgantown, and they received a great deal of press coverage, as well as the congratulations of the Attorney General of West Virginia.

In 2002, Joseph Rodriguez from Sacramento, California, started a campaign to stop the selling of neo-Nazi clothing at Target stores in his community, which initiated a change nationwide.

His visited the Target store in Sacramento and discovered a line of clothing with the numerical symbols "88." The letter "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet, and the numerals, "88," are the white supremacy power code for "Heil Hitler."

The company shipped the line to 1,100 Target stores all over America. After several attempts to get Target to halt the "88" clothing sales, Rodriguez contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Target finally stopped selling the items and apologized for any uneasiness or discomfort caused by the "88" clothing line, saying they do not and will not tolerate discrimination in any form.

Chapter 4: Hate Crime Laws

Hate crime laws vary from state to state. However, state hate crime laws have a tendency to impose tougher penalties on criminals who target their victims because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

For example, if a criminal assaults a person because that person is homosexual, that crime would most likely be a hate crime. Typically, state hate crime statutes serve as penalty enhancement statutes.

This means that they increase the penalty for an offense if the victim or target is intentionally selected for violence because of his or her personal characteristics.

Each state has valuable tools at its disposal to fight bias crimes and civil rights violations. States derive their civil rights enforcement powers from case laws, as well as civil, hate crimes, and criminal statutes.

Many state hate crime laws impose enhanced criminal penalties for bias-related incidents.

The Law of the Land

Since 1968, the US federal law has covered a limited class of hate crimes, including:

  • Crimes committed on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.

  • Crimes against victims engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting, attending school, or other federally-protected liberties.

This important civil rights law does not cover crimes motivated by bias against a person's sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, or those without some connection to a federally protected activity. That is why the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was necessary.

Advocates for the law urged lawmakers to understand how all violent crimes should be prosecuted swiftly and justly, regardless of motivation.

The Matthew Shepard Act: A Closer Look

President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (P.L. #111-84) into law in 2009. It went into effect immediately as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010.

The purpose of the act was to expand on the 1969 United States federal hate crime laws to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

The Matthew Shepard act enables the government to provide grants and assistance to state and local authorities that are investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.

When Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in 1998, the Laramie, Wyoming, police department requested assistance from the US Department of Justice.

At the time, federal law did not cover crimes motivated by anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT ) sentiment, so the department could not help. The prosecution was so expensive that Laramie had to furlough its law enforcement officers.

This act ensures that local law enforcement has the resources needed to address hate crimes on a broader scale across the board. While it expands on the federally protected classes, it also provides a layer of protection within the civil rights landscape.

Notable provisions of the relatively new federal law include:

  • Giving assistance to state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials during criminal prosecutions and investigations, including technical and forensic support.

  • Expanding statistical data collection to include information on crimes committed by or directed against juveniles.

  • Through the Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, authorizing grants for programs to train local law enforcement officers how to stop hate crimes committed by juveniles.

  • Providing reports on federal mandatory minimum sentencing by the US Sentencing Commission.

Why This Act is So Important

Until the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, federal law could not fully protect the LGBT community. Instead, Congress acted or attempted to act to incorporate discrimination into federal law.

In the 1990s, Congress enacted the "Don't Ask, Don't, Tell," mandate, which codified the military's ban on service by openly LGBT people.

Soon after, it passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which excludes same-sex couples from the benefits and protections of federal law and allows states to not recognize marriages of same-sex couples.

Starting in 2004 and continuing through 2006, Congress twice attempted to enact the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would bar any state from licensing or recognizing marriages of same-sex couples. Currently, 17 states support gay marriage, with others considering changes to their marriage laws.

Hate crimes legislation and other pro-LGBT bills also face opposition, whether due to hostile leadership in Congress or presidential veto threats. At least Congress has passed legislation that affirms a basic human right for LGBT people — the right to be safe from hate violence.

Chapter 5: A Cure for Hate Crime

A Multi-Solution Approach is the Answer

The best way America can move beyond this culture of violence is to work from the bottom up, not the top down, by addressing the issues of violence and hatred on the most basic level: the community. People therefore need to address the problem of prejudice and hatred within their own communities, neighborhoods, schools, and organizations.

To really combat hate crime, people need to gather to examine the racial, economic, and psychological reasons that produce these crimes, not just the simplistic rhetoric of the word "hate."

As a result, some well-known community-based groups have emerged, including INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and FIERCE, a New York City group comprised of young people of color. Hate crime laws are a good start, but we need to continue the work in our homes and communities.

Online Resources and Tools

According to Whoishostingthis.com, if you come across something that is unacceptable or offensive while online, you should contact the website, the webmaster, and, in some cases, the police. If someone is targeting you personally, you should go to your local authorities immediately.

Some website content can be distasteful yet legal, but you can still request to have it removed. This can include text, pictures, videos, or music posted in such a way that aims to spark hatred.

Some large websites that host user content may be unaware that they have questionable material on their servers. Simply notifying them may be all it takes to get the material removed.

Taking the time to report objectionable materials is an effective way to reduce hate crime, no matter where you live or where it happens.

Identifying the owners of websites can be a difficult task, especially if they prefer to hide behind anonymity.

If attempts to contact or notify the owners are not successful, you can escalate a complaint to the ISP or hosting company. You may find that the hosting company has a policy against such material, and they may make efforts to contact the owners and notify them of these policies.

To identify the company that is hosting the questionable material, you can use this useful tool.

Groups, Associations, and NGOs that Can Assist

Many community groups and national organizations are addressing the issues around hate crimes. Here are some of the larger groups that are working for change:

American Civil Liberties Union: Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project

The ACLU's LGBT Project fights against discrimination while passing public opinion on LGBT rights through the court system, the legislature, and public education involving these five areas of concern: Relationships, parenting, discrimination, schools, and young people. Visitors to their site can become more involved through the "Get Busy, Get Equal" initiative, which provides tools to attain LGBT equality.

Anti-Violence Project

This organization is based in New York City, and it offers advocacy and counseling, as well as a bilingual hotline for victims of violence. Its goal is to end hate violence and sexual assault, especially toward the LGBT and HIV-affected communities. You can help by donating or volunteering to help in the Anti-Violence Project.

Human Rights Campaign: Hate Crimes

The goal of this advocacy organization is to achieve equal rights for LGBT people. Its website provides a variety of resources that relate to fighting hate crime, including legislative initiative reports and the latest news stories. It also has an FAQ page that covers hate crimes.

Human Rights First

Based in New York and Washington, D.C., this non-partisan international human rights organization protects people who are in turmoil, such as victims of discrimination, refugees fleeing persecution, victims of crimes against humanity, and those who have suffered other human rights violations. They also help people whose rights have been eroded in the name of national security, and human rights advocates who are targeted for defending the rights of others. Their Fighting Discrimination Program aims to fight hate crimes by encouraging the prompt and fair response from North American, European, and Eurasian governments in all cases of racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, homophobic, and other forms of bias-motivated acts of violence.

There are a number of resources available for those who want to help in combatting hate crime, and for those dealing with hate crime directly. They are as follows:

Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)

This organization promotes fair and accurate representation of people and events in the media as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination due to gender identity and sexual orientation. GLAAD's website has a 'Calls to Action' page to encourage people to report instances of media defamation and to get more involved.

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network monitors the climate in various schools for LGBT youth and offers resources for anti-bias education. The website has tools and tips for young people and educators to help schools to be safe places for every student, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Matthew Shepard Foundation

Dennis and Judy Shepard founded this organization in memory of their 21-year old son. The Foundation works within three primary areas: omitting hate, helping youth organizations create environments where young people feel safe to be themselves, and working for the equality of all LGBT Americans.

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

This gay rights advocacy organization watches hate crime statistics. They have constructed a state-by-state status report regarding anti-hate crimes legislation where visitors can learn about specific issues and actions in their state.


Although we have come a long way in recent years, America has much work to do to reduce hate crimes.

Law officials must report honestly and diligently, and they must work hard to determine if a crime is just a robbery or truly an act of hate.

Legislation also needs to be enacted to make sure no one is attacked just because of their personal beliefs, religion, affiliation, or nationality.

Parents, teachers, and religious leaders all need to work together to stop prejudice and intolerance before it begins.

We need to discuss the issue and learn to put a stop to hate crimes as a nation. We all need to speak out against hate crime, bigotry, and prejudice. Working together in this way is the only way to reduce the number of hate crimes.