Sorry, Haters—A Handful of Hoaxes Doesn’t Debunk the Hate-Crime Reality
While skeptics fixate on a handful of false reports, the number of real hate crimes has been rising across the United States.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, news organizations across the country scrambled to cover high-profile reports of hate crimes. Now, several of the reports have been summarily debunked.
Those inclined to review all hate crimes with skepticism or outright disbelief applauded as a woman who claimed Donald Trump supporters accosted her in New York City was charged with filing a false report; Ann Arbor police said a woman’s report that a man threatened to light her on fire if she wouldn’t remove her hijab was false; and an African-American parishioner was charged with arson for burning down the black church where “Vote Trump” was scrawled on the side days before the election.
With each new false report and falsely framed one, conservative voices have scoffed that the proverbial shepherd has once again been crying wolf as part of a liberal agenda to delegitimize a Trump presidency even before it begins. But the academics, civil rights organizations, and law enforcement agencies who study and track these acts say one thing is clear: Hate crimes are on the rise in America.
While nationwide numbers for 2016 aren’t yet available, New York City has seen a 31 percent rise in hate crimes so far this year compared to the same period last year, with the number directed at Muslims going up by more than 100 percent, from 12 to 25.
In the 10 days following the presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 867 incidents targeting African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, women, and the LGBT community. Online harassment was not included in the tally, and predominantly white Trump devotees were themselves the target of some of these crimes.
“People have experienced harassment at school, at work, at home, on the street, in public transportation, in their cars, in grocery stores and other places of business, and in their houses of worship,” according to the SPLC, and alleged acts of intimidation have not been exclusive to non-whites. “Some incidents,” including violent physical altercations, graffiti, and verbal harassment, “were directed at the Trump campaign or his supporters.”
The SPLC documented several incidents, including one involving an Asian-American woman. She was reportedly told to “go home” as she left a mass transit station in Oakland, California. “I have experienced discrimination in my life, but never in such a public and unashamed manner,” she said.
“Likewise,” according to the civil rights group founded by Morris Dees, “a black resident whose apartment was vandalized with the phrase ‘911 nigger’ reported that he had ‘never witnessed anything like this.’”
The organization says that a Los Angeles woman encountered a man who told her he was “gonna beat [her] pussy.” She said she was in that neighborhood “all the time and never experienced this type of language before.” And in Sunnyvale, California, “a transgender person reported being targeted with homophobic slurs at a bar.”
“I’ve been a regular customer for 3 years—never had any issues,” the person told the SPLC.
Like actual hate crimes, hoaxes crossed the political spectrum, with false reports including the wife of a police officer in Massachusetts who finally admitted to an elaborate hoax in which she claimed burglars stole tens of thousands of dollars of jewelry from her home and then spray-painted a Black Lives Matter insignia on it, and a New York firefighter now on trial for burning down his own home who tried to frame BLM for it.
“Some of the things we see with regards to false reports of hate crimes include mental instability, people who are out for publicity or the elevation of status, or they want attention pointed to a particular [social or political] grievance that they have,” said Brian Levin, a professor at California State University–San Bernardino who studies hate crimes. “We also see insurance fraud and things like that.
“One of the things you’re going to have look for, too, is how publicized this is,” Levin added. “Once there’s a lot of publicity, you’re going to have people who just want the publicity. Or the status elevation.”
Whether concocted for political causes, motivated by a bid for public sympathy, or to cover up illicit behavior, such deceptions are exceedingly rare—between 2 percent and 8 percent of all reported cases, according to the FBI. Levin told The Daily Beast that the NYPD reclassifies about 9 percent of crimes initially pegged as hate crimes, including real crimes that investigators determine do not meet the hate crime standard.
That said, in 2015—the most recent year for which numbers are available from the FBI, which released them this November—hate crimes increased by nearly 7 percent overall, including 5,818 recorded incidents related to race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation.
Even those statistics are far from comprehensive. Levin points out that other national data aggregators come up with different numbers, and even the FBI’s state totals can sometimes differ widely from the final numbers recorded by states themselves.
Among real cases, there are generally three categories of offenders as outlined by “Hate Crime in the United States,” a special report produced by the Center for Hate and Extremism at California State University–San Bernardino, where Levin works (PDF). Thrill offenders are often teenagers, “who commit hate crimes for excitement and social engagement as an activity among peers.” Defensive or reactive offenders might be responding to “a different race moving into their neighborhood” or a political event. But so-called mission offenders, the smallest subgroup, “are the most steeped in hatred and define themselves as warriors for their cause” and are disproportionately responsible for “hate homicides” like Dylann Roof’s massacre of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.
And even then, not all hate crimes are created equal. Advocacy groups are quick to note that while the rise in hate crimes is fueled by President-elect Trump’s divisive rhetoric, that only tells a part of the story. While advocates feared that hate crimes against Latinos would go up in 2016, they remained largely flat on a national level. Instead, anti-Latino hate crimes increased in Los Angeles County, where Levin says such crimes are largely intra-racial—meaning they are most often carried out “by and between people of color.”
That’s not to say the galvanization of hate groups and the so-called alt-right has not had a significant effect. The CUSB researchers flagged what they called the “Bush Effect”—and its corollary with Trump. When President George W. Bush made a speech against Islamophobia on Sept. 17, 2001—days after the Sept. 11 attacks—hate crimes against Muslims dropped dramatically. Trump, on the other hand, used the San Bernardino attack to stoke Islamophobia, and such crimes increased thereafter.
“We saw 15 anti-Muslim hate crimes [in the next five days],” Levin said. “And those crimes were more serious.”
However, when a false report is filed and it receives widespread media attention, real victims of racially driven crimes are undermined. That leads to, among other things, fewer investigative resources deployed by law enforcement, a hesitancy by some news organizations to cover an alleged incident, and a growing cynicism among the broader public.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf Effect” refers to individuals who fake crimes because they feel invisible, Bonnie Jacobson, a psychologist and director of the New York Institute for Psychological Change in New York City told Psychology Today. By playing the victim, the hoaxer seeks attention much like “a person with Munchausen syndrome, who fakes an illness to get the attention of doctors or loved ones” or someone who repeatedly pulls the alarm when there is no fire.
As in Aesop’s fable, there is the risk that villagers won’t believe the shepherd, and when a real wolf does appear it will be written off as a false alarm. Now, as there is due cause for alarm, the question is: How many will hear and heed it?