When then-President George Bush signed the Hate Crime Statistics Act in an elaborate White House ceremony held in April 1990, he hailed it as a "significant step to help guarantee civil rights for every American" and suggested that it would aid the battle against hate.

"The faster we find out about these hideous crimes," the president said, "the faster we can track down the bigots who commit them."

Seven years later, a different president from a different political party echoed those words as he convened the White House Conference on Hate Crimes.

"If a crime is unreported," President Bill Clinton said, "that gives people an excuse to ignore it."

To all appearances, both presidents — men from different sides of the political spectrum — had every intention of doing what they could to assess, and hopefully root out, the chronic American problem of crime motivated by bias.

But in the end, their pronouncements made better political rhetoric than substantive policy.

On the 10th anniversary of the year that compilation of national hate crime statistics began, the hate crime reporting system is a wreck. Hobbled by the voluntary nature of reporting, riddled with errors, and even skewed by falsified data, the statistics compiled and published yearly by the FBI vastly understate the hate crime problem.

An analysis by the Intelligence Report, based on extensive reporting and a key academic study, finds that the real level of hate crimes — currently running at about 8,000 a year in the FBI statistics — is probably closer to 50,000.

Naming the Violence
The time for talk is past. As we mark the 10th year of collecting hate crime statistics — and as yet another surge of hate crime bloodies the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — we must act to cure the system's problems.

As Yale hate crime expert Donald Green told the Report, "We can't make any headway against this violence until we get high quality data."

The FBI agrees. "Historically," says the introduction to the agency's 1999 hate crime report, "the law enforcement community has recognized that valid information is central to developing effective measures to deal with crime; the same is true for bias-motivated crime."

Ronald Wakabayashi, executive director of the L.A. Commission on Human Relations, explained the importance of the numbers this way: "We found that a rash of hate crime events can lead to escalating retaliation. Now when we get an elevated experience, we can collapse resources around it very quickly."

Using L.A. hate crime data, officials even created "stress maps" to spot future problems.

Getting a handle on the real level and nature of hate crime is crucial. Even groups like the American Friends Service Committee, which opposes hate crime penalty enhancement laws because it sees them as emphasizing possibly counterproductive punishment at the expense of rehabilitation, agrees that "hate violence must be named."

A Time to Act
Since national voluntary hate crime reporting began, participation has generally risen, from 2,215 law enforcement agencies reporting in 1991 to 12,122 in 1999. That led Fulton County (Atlanta) Sheriff Jacquelyn Barrett to sound optimistic as she discussed rising participation several years ago.

"First, police had to change the way they dealt with race relations," she said. "Then it was gender relations — police didn't deal with domestic violence until the late 1960s. Now it's hate crimes, but we'll get there. It just takes time."

But the reality was that throughout the 1991-99 period, despite the almost six-fold jump in reporting agencies, the number of reported crimes remained remarkably stable — a strong indicator of a seriously flawed system.

Ten years of trying to improve the reporting of hate crimes have produced very little in the way of substantive change. Some jurisdictions do an exemplary job, of course, and for this they risk being punished with an unjustified reputation as hotbeds of hate.

Others don't report at all, for a variety of reasons, and suffer no adverse consequences. Overall, we have very little idea of what these statistics have to tell us.

Are hate crimes going up? Who is the most victimized? Who are main perpetrators?

The answers to these questions are important — they must form the basis of our response to the hatred that plagues us — and as concerned Americans, we must demand that they finally be answered. The time to act is now.