The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the most important anti-immigration group in America, recently issued an angry press release denouncing those who suggest that demonizing nativist rhetoric leads to hate violence. FAIR said that this “outrageous behavior” was part of “a calculated strategy” aimed at “silenc[ing] legitimate immigration policy debate” and added that those who suggest such a link between rhetoric and hate crime “provide no proof whatsoever.” FAIR and its leader, Dan Stein, were particularly incensed that Latino rights organizations had “cynically” suggested that the recent murder of Marcelo Lucero on Long Island, N.Y., by white teenagers who had gone hunting for “Mexicans,” was related to the demonization of Latino immigrants that had been particularly heavy there.
FAIR accused the National Council of La Raza, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and unnamed other organizations of “manipulat[ing] the data” on hate crimes. But the fact is that it is FAIR that dishonestly manipulated data as part of a bid to minimize anti-Latino hate violence.
FAIR says that anti-Hispanic hate crime incidents went up by just 3.3% between 2006 and 2007, and it is right. But it completely ignores the fact — which is what La Raza, MALDEF and the Southern Poverty Law Center (publisher of this blog) have been pointing out — that that figure is only the latest rise of many. In fact, the very same FBI hate crime statistics cited by FAIR to make its case show that anti-Latino hate crimes have risen a total of 40% between 2003 and 2007 (see chart below). While the FBI statistics are not conclusive, they indicate a trend that parallels the rise in anti-immigration groups and their often-vicious anti-Latino rhetoric. As Jack Levin, the Brudnick professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University and a national expert on hate crime, told Hatewatch: “It’s not just the most recent numbers. It’s the trend over a number of years that lends credibility to the notion that we’re seeing a very real and possibly dramatic rise in anti-Latino hate incidents.”
FAIR also suggests, based on the number of incidents reported by the FBI, that the prevalence of anti-Latino hate crimes is very low — 1.3 attacks per 100,000 Latinos. It ignores the important, 2005 Justice Department study (pdf) that concluded that the real level of hate-motivated attacks on Latinos (this at a time before the anti-immigration movement and its rhetoric had really exploded) was vastly higher — 90 per 100,000 Latinos. The study, considered by criminologists to be far more accurate that the annual hate crime statistics, found that huge numbers of hate crimes are not reported to police or don’t find their way into the FBI’s statistics for various other reasons. The underreporting problem is even more severe among undocumented immigrants, who rarely report crimes to police because they are afraid they will be deported.
FAIR takes the remarkable position that hate speech directed against Latinos — allegations that they are secretly planning to hand the American Southwest over to Mexico, that they are far more criminal than others, that they are bringing dread diseases to the United States, and so on — has no relationship at all to hate crime. In addition to defying common sense, that head-in-the-sand approach completely ignores the statements that are typically made by hate criminals during their crimes. In the Long Island case, for instance, prosecutors said the suspects told police that they were “specifically targeting Hispanic males.” “Let’s go find some Mexicans to [expletive deleted] up,” they said, according to Newsday. They told detectives they were going “beaner-jumping” and they used racial epithets during their attack. The facts are similar in most such cases. “Racist rhetoric and dehumanizing images inspire violence perpetrated against innocent human beings,” Levin concluded.
Hate criminals’ sentiments come from somewhere. Just because it’s not possible to pinpoint the exact source of the Long Island attackers’ racial anger — rhetoric from their parents, nativist groups in the area, politicians, pundits or even FAIR itself — does not mean it magically popped into the assailants’ minds. But FAIR uses the fact that we don’t know precisely where their anger started to claim that the angry and demonizing rhetoric FAIR and others promote is unrelated to criminal violence.
Finally, FAIR keys in hard on the idea that those who criticize the authors of demonizing propaganda are attempting to suppress free speech. But the fact that hateful things can be said and enjoy First Amendment protection does not mean that hateful rhetoric doesn’t promote violence and it does not absolve groups like FAIR from moral responsibility for such rhetoric. In reality, as the Chicago-based human rights group Center for New Community (CNC) points out, FAIR has been active in the Long Island county where Lucero was murdered for some 10 years now. In 2001, not long after FAIR began work in the area, two young men tried to beat two immigrant laborers to death with hammers; in a later case, a Mexican family escaped with their lives after their home was firebombed in a hate attack. Perhaps, given its history, it’s no surprise that FAIR, started by Michigan nativist John Tanton in 1979, is working so hard to convince us that demonizing rhetoric — including its own — has no relationship to criminal violence.