Content warning: This story contains a graphic description of hate-inspired violence.
The news from Jacksonville, Florida, on Aug. 26 was as familiar as it was horrifying: A white gunman who had posted racist writings online takes a military-style weapon emblazoned with a symbol of hate into a predominantly Black neighborhood. Three Black people are killed.
The nation has seen this kind of attack against communities of color and LGBTQ+ people many times in recent years. The Jacksonville murders, in fact, came just weeks after the fourth anniversary of the white supremacist attack in El Paso, Texas, where 23 people were killed in a bias-motivated hate crime. As in numerous other cases, the El Paso gunman was inspired to kill by racist rhetoric based on the false “great replacement” conspiracy theory and what he claimed was a “Hispanic invasion” of the U.S. – harmful extremist ideas that are frequently echoed by mainstream politicians and right-wing media figures.
The massacre was among the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. But there are thousands of other hate crimes committed each year that never make national news. Most never get reported at all.
The FBI’s most recent hate crime report – one that counts only a small fraction of the real number – identified 10,840 hate crime incidents in 2021, the most since the agency began collecting the data in 1991. More than 60% of those were carried out because of hatred toward the victim’s race.
To highlight this deeply disturbing, ongoing series of hate-fueled crimes, the Southern Poverty Law Center is designating October as Hate Crimes Awareness Month and will conduct an annual campaign to alert the public, advocates, policymakers and politicians to the problem of hate crimes and press for action to prevent them.
“More than ever, the mainstreaming of white supremacy and hate violence today underscores the need for all of us to reject hate wherever and whenever it occurs,” said SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang. “But to do that effectively, we must understand the extremist forces we’re up against and the scope of the crisis.
“The SPLC launched this campaign to encourage difficult but essential conversations about how we prevent hate from taking root in the first place, as well as the need for innovative solutions to promote inclusion across communities. We must stop this cycle of hate that too often ends with dire consequences for the Black community and other communities of color, Jewish people and the LGBTQ+ community.”
Throughout its more than 50-year history, the SPLC has been at the forefront of combating hate and the crime it spawns – winning multimillion-dollar court verdicts against hate groups to hold them accountable for promoting violence; tracking and exposing the activities of hard-right hate and extremist groups that propagate violence-inspiring lies and false conspiracy theories; providing free anti-bias resources that foster inclusive classrooms across the U.S.; and pushing for government policies to prevent bias incidents.
In recent months, the SPLC has been working with other civil and human rights organizations to bring international pressure to bear on U.S. policymakers to enact stronger policies to curb hate crimes.
Last month, the SPLC joined a coalition of human rights groups urging President Joe Biden to fulfill the commitments the White House made during the United We Stand Summit in September 2022, including the reinstatement of the administration’s interagency working group on hate crime prevention.
Flawed hate crime data
It’s important to understand that the impact of hate cannot be reduced to mere numbers. Behind each bias-motivated criminal incident is a victim of violence, intimidation or vandalism – targeted for no other reason than their race, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability or sexual orientation. Because hate crimes are motivated by a victim’s immutable characteristics, they are very personal crimes, with special emotional and psychological impacts.
What’s more, they fray the fabric of society, leaving entire communities feeling fearful, isolated, vulnerable, suspicious of other groups and unprotected by law enforcement.
Though seriously flawed, the FBI hate crime reports, which have been issued since 1991, do provide an essential barometer of hate crime in the U.S. and can serve as an important indicator of trends. They show, for example, that hate crime has been on the rise since 2014.
The annual FBI reports understate the severity of the problem for several reasons. First, federal law does not require local and state law enforcement agencies to collect hate crime data or report it to the FBI. In 2021, just 14,859 out of 18,812 agencies nationwide reported data to the FBI. Many of those, even in large urban areas, affirmatively reported zero hate crimes. Second, according to surveys conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in almost half of all hate crimes, victims never report them to police – and, when they do, many agencies do not record them as hate crimes. The SPLC and a broad coalition of civil rights and religious organizations are now supporting mandatory hate crime reporting by law enforcement agencies.
A 2021 BJS study, conducted independently of the FBI reports, estimates that almost 250,000 hate crimes occurred each year between 2005 and 2019.
Hate groups and hate crimes
In addition to tracking and exposing the activities of hate groups, the SPLC pioneered the strategy of suing them in civil court to hold leaders and members accountable for murders and other violent hate crimes. The organization has won more than a dozen crushing jury verdicts against white supremacist groups such as the White Aryan Resistance.
In one of the most famous cases, SPLC lawyers in 1987 won a $7 million jury verdict after proving that leaders of the United Klans of America conspired with their members in the killing of Michael Donald, a 19-year-old Black man who was chosen at random, brutally murdered and hung from a tree in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Mobile, Alabama. The verdict, delivered by an all-white jury, marked the end of the United Klans, the same group that had beaten the Freedom Riders in 1961, murdered civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in 1965 and bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four girls.
In a more recent case, a federal judge in 2019 ordered neo-Nazi leader Andrew Anglin to pay more than $14 million in damages after he used his web forum, the Daily Stormer, to orchestrate a harassment campaign that relentlessly terrorized a Jewish woman and her family with antisemitic threats and messages.
While hate groups and their members have committed numerous acts of terror and intimidation – particularly during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s – the fact is that today most crimes are committed by individuals who are not card-carrying members of hate groups.
But hate groups play an important role in stoking violence by using their online forums, which are often promoted by social media sites, to spread racist and antisemitic lies and conspiracy theories, like the “great replacement” myth that has inspired numerous acts of racist violence; to sow anger and resentment among white people; and to radicalize and indoctrinate young people.
That’s why the SPLC has teamed with the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University to produce guides that help parents, caregivers and educators understand how extremists exploit online communication to target children and young adults, and to help communities confront and build resistance to the mainstreaming of hate.
In recent years, hate and bigotry have been absorbed into the mainstream as hard-right politicians and media outlets echo the ideas of extremist groups.
In a series of reports, for example, the SPLC’s Learning for Justice program documented a surge of incidents involving racial slurs and symbols, bigotry and the harassment of children of color in the nation’s schools following former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and during his administration. The SPLC dubbed this phenomenon the “Trump Effect,” because it appeared that children were emulating the racist, xenophobic and coarse language Trump was using on the campaign trail.
Even organizations and activists who do not explicitly espouse violence can make the world less safe for certain groups. These groups include children of color and LGBTQ+ students in school systems who are facing political attacks from organizations that object to inclusive school pedagogy and curricula, social emotional learning and books these organizations deem inappropriate.
These organizations and actors are not only increasing the risk of bias incidents by stigmatizing some students, they are influencing politicians who are enacting laws in some states, particularly in the Deep South, that restrict inclusive education.
The Learning for Justice program, launched in the early 1990s as Teaching Tolerance, is fighting back against bigotry in the nation’s schools by creating lesson plans, teaching frameworks and other anti-bias resources that are distributed free of charge to educators nationwide.
“While enforcement is critical, the ultimate goal is to prevent hate crimes,” said Learning for Justice Director Jalaya Liles Dunn. “We must teach truth to children and young people. As states enact laws restricting inclusive education, much more needs to be done to teach young people unvarnished facts about American history – both good and bad – so that we can learn lessons from the past to shape a better future.
“Learning for young people should be from the lens of social justice so that they are equipped as next-generation servant leaders of a democracy that is meaningful for everyone and not infiltrated with fear and hate. Our program’s social justice standards uplift identity, diversity, justice and action as a foundation for a compassionate and socially conscious citizenry.”
Learning for Justice also has produced a series of guides – including Speak Up at School and Responding to Hate and Bias at School – to help students, educators and others prevent, address and navigate bias incidents.
To counter hate crimes and mitigate their impacts, these essential questions must be addressed: What support is provided to individual victims and their communities? How prepared is the first responder who arrives at the scene of a hate crime? What training has been provided so law enforcement can effectively respond? And, especially important, what work is being done in the community to address prejudice and prevent bias-motivated crimes in the first place?
Clearly, more government action is needed.
Late last year, the SPLC offered detailed policy recommendations for the Biden administration and Congress to improve hate crime reporting and enforcement; expand community-based prevention initiatives; improve the government’s response to domestic terrorism; promote online safety; and hold tech and social media companies accountable for providing platforms where hate and extremism can thrive.
“Each of us deserves to feel safe and welcome in our communities – regardless of where we are born or live, how we identify ourselves, or what we believe,” Huang said.
“As threats of white supremacy and authoritarianism escalate here at home and around the world, it’s vital that U.S. activists collaborate with international activists to hold our governments accountable and take steps toward a multiracial, inclusive democracy.”
Photo at top: A sign at a demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, in June 2020 protesting of the murder of George Floyd in the U.S. the previous month. (Credit: Christian Charisius/dpa/Alamy Live News)