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Anti-Black Violence Has Long Been the Most Common American Hate Crime—And We Still Don’t Know the Full Extent

11 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

When a gunman opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., on Saturday, killing 10 people and wounding three more, the violence was shocking in its magnitude.

But to express shock about whom the shooter targeted—Black people living in one of Buffalo’s blackest communities—during his briefly livestreamed rampage, or why, would be to ignore an often dismissed but largely consistent fact of American life. One pattern has remained consistent since the FBI began tracking and reporting hate crime in 1991: Black Americans have been its most frequent victims.

“The pattern is absolutely clear, absolutely overwhelming. And in [June] 2020—that’s the last year we have [numbers from] right now—the FBI data showed we had the worst [month] ever for anti-Black hate crime,” says Brian Levin, a criminologist and civil rights attorney at California State University San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Levin leads a team of researchers exploring multiple aspects of hate crime, and the language he uses to describe recent patterns is alarming. “Just like people with cameras getting the hurricane coming in, we’re getting the data on it and it’s severe.”

Read more: The Buffalo Shooter Targeted a City Haunted by Segregation

As the country publicly declared itself to be in the midst of a racial reckoning, it turns out Black Americans were being hunted and hurt at a level unmatched since 2008—the year that saw the election of the first Black president and an attendant, hate-fueled backlash. In 2020, the most recent year for which the FBI has gathered and reported nationwide hate crime data, 2,871 Black Americans became victims of hate crimes. The number represents nearly 35% of all hate crime reported to the FBI that year. What’s more, systems for reporting hate crime have long been flawed and limited in ways known to researchers, suggesting that 2020’s already high numbers fail to capture the full picture.

Tracking a crisis

Prosecutors have not yet indicated whether they will pursue a hate-crime sentencing enhancement if and when the Buffalo suspect—Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white man who has pleaded not guilty to murder—goes to trial. But the violence follows a years-long increase in hate-motivated crime within the United States. Hate crimes reported to the FBI grew overall in seven of the last 10 years. During that time, hate crimes perpetrated against Black victims have made up the largest portion of this activity. And since 2018, white supremacists have killed more people in the United States than any other group of extremists.

Hate crime began to grow long before the pandemic, Levin explains, though the situation has gotten worse during the COVID-19 years. In 2021, when Levin and his research team analyzed hate crimes reported to police in the nation’s 10 largest cities, residents had suffered through a nearly 55% collective increase in hate crimes overall compared to the previous year. Similar, if smaller-scale, trends were seen in smaller cities, too.

In Philadelphia, home to about 1.5 million people, hate crimes involving all sorts of victims grew more than any other major city. In the city of brotherly love, the home of the Liberty Bell, and the city where the U.S. Constitution was drafted, hate crime grew by 230%, from 44 incidents in 2020 to 145 in 2021, according to data gathered and analyzed by Levin’s team. A significant portion of the growth stemmed from a surge in anti-Asian hate crime in early 2020 and again in the first few months of 2021. But the remainder of both years left Black Americans—sometimes targeted for multiple reasons such as sexuality or religion, on top of race—the most frequent victims of hate crime. The FBI’s 2021 data will become public late this summer and its 2022 analysis remains more than a year away. But information gathered for this year thus far from major cities shows that hate-crimes reporting has continued to rise in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Read more: She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today

And yet, for several years in the last decade, states with large Black populations, such as Mississippi and Alabama, have reported hate-crime numbers in the single digits or low dozens. Major cities in Alabama and Florida have reported zero for multiple years. And, in 2020, like most years, the vast majority of law enforcement agencies across the United States reported no hate crimes at all.

That doesn’t mean the crimes aren’t happening. In 2018, BuzzFeed News published the results of an investigation into the 10 largest cities that reported zero hate crimes to the FBI. Reporters found 15 incident reports where descriptions of the crime or events written by police officers included strong indications that the incident might have qualified as a hate crime. In 2017, a ProPublica investigation found “evidence suggests that many police agencies across the country are not working very hard to count hate crimes.”

And Black Americans may be particularly likely to have their suffering go uncounted. For the first time, in an analysis examining the period from 2015 to 2019, more than half—54%—of all hate crimes were believed to have been reported to police, a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found. However, by a June 2020 PBS News Hour/ NPR/ Marist poll found that almost as many Black American adults—48%—doubt police treat them the same way that they do white Americans.

Meanwhile, the number of the nation’s nearly 19,000 policing organizations that even participated at all in FBI hate-crime reporting fell from 15,772 in 2019 to 15,138 the next year. In addition, many cities do not have access to or are not prepared to use a new crime-reporting system required by the FBI—an infrastructure problem that Levin foresees affecting the accuracy of crime data for at least the next few years.

Read more: Why the FBI Won’t Release Quarterly Crime Stats for 2021

There are signs that some law-enforcement agencies are taking necessary steps to improve the situation: Some police forces work with community and advocacy organizations, which serve as a first point of contact, to encourage more victims of crime to feel comfortable reporting their experiences. There are no national rules governing how hate crimes should be handled, but there have been efforts to develop gold-standard practices in some states. And some forces, particularly in big cities, have developed teams with special training to investigate and handle hate crimes.

But much remains to be done. Many municipalities rely on officers with no such training—some of whom are themselves people who post racist memes online or minimize the impact of bigotry in American life, Levin says.

“If you’re in a large city it’s probably better,” Levin says. “The training standards are a lot better. But we have many departments where there are racist cops. And even beyond that, never underestimate ineptitude.”

Levin believes every police agency should be required to report hate crimes in order to remain eligible for federal funding. That would be just one step in figuring out how to keep track of hate in America—but, at this moment when the potential consequences of hate have once again become so tragically clear, understanding those numbers is perhaps more important than ever.

Behind the hate

The ideas that appear to be behind the violence in Buffalo aren’t new. Versions of the conspiracy theory known as the “Great Replacement” theory—the claim that the white population is at risk of falling victim to a concerted effort to numerically, politically, and socially dominate them—have animated nationalist politics around the world, says Michael Goldfield, a labor historian and professor emeritus at Wayne State University who wrote the books The Southern Key and The Color of Politics. The modern American version of the idea was outlined in a 1947 book by the extreme segregationist former Mississippi Governor and Senator Theodore Bilbo.

Read more: How the ‘Great Replacement Theory’ Has Fueled Racist Violence

And in today’s United States, the language and the focus of that theory has shifted slightly, Goldfield explains, with greater focus on the idea that white Americans are losing their influence in politics and even elements of pop culture and social norms. And, as in Bilbo’s time, the sense that white Americans no longer have sole access to the best paying jobs and life opportunities has helped the idea grow. In Bilbo’s time, white Mississippi residents, a numerical minority, were keen on maintaining what Goldfield describes as an almost feudal economy. And, because African Americans at the time made up the majority of the state’s population, particularly inhumane and brutal tactics were used to enforce it; Bilbo was a vocal advocate of lynching. Today, a deep reserve of white grievance, resentment, and victimhood seems to be contributing to the spread of the theory, Goldfield says—and he believes that a growing group of people isn’t ashamed to repeat it, espouse it, or at least operate as if it is legitimate.

“The claim today regarding the great replacement theory is not just racial but cultural,” Goldfield says. “Today the America we know and love is disappearing—you know, that sort of thing.”

A December 2021 Associated Press/ National Opinion Research Center (AP/ NORC) poll found that about 20% of Americans believe there are active efforts to “discriminate” against white voters or limit their influence. About 33% of all Americans—over 20% of Democrats and nearly 50% of Republicans—now believe in elements of the so-called “Great Replacement” theory.

And, crucially, “Bilbo was regarded as an embarrassment by other white supremacists who wanted to present themselves as more genteel,” Goldfield says, and was eventually pushed out of office. To Goldfield, the strong indication of embarrassment is missing in many quarters today, as politicians and pundits freely make use of similar talking points. And indeed, Biblo’s death was also marked in the pages of TIME magazine under the headline ‘“He Died A Martyr’”—a quote from a preacher’s comments at Bilbo’s funeral—along with a prediction that, “His work is finished, but his ideals will live on.”

Levin, the California criminologist, echoes Goldfield’s concern about the ubiquity of the theory—and sees additional patterns behind the rising hate-crimes numbers.

“We can’t talk about any issue today, whether it’s COVID, immigration or anything else, without it reverting back to a common denominator of this eliminationist type of rhetoric,” Levin says. “The conditions are perfect for it to be wide-ranging but also elevated. The fire season is all year long now.”

What might those conditions be?

There are the social and socioeconomic conditions of 2022, but there’s also the constant availability of conspiracy rhetoric on the Internet. And many Americans see violence as a legitimate tool to resolve political disputes: The equivalent of 1 in 10 Americans (and 1 in 5 Republican men) said as much in a January 2022 poll conducted by The COVID States Project.

There’s also a relationship confirmed by Levin’s research, between acts of violence and public rhetoric about catalyzing news events; it’s no coincidence, he says, that one of the worst days for anti-Black hate crime in American history came on June 1, 2020—as Black Lives Matter demonstrations grew in cities around the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and President Donald Trump and his aides ordered peaceful protesters tear forced out of a park near the White House. That month—June 2020—generated the largest number of hate crimes overall since national tracking began in 1991.

And, underneath it all, there are four centuries of history during which Black people have found themselves positioned—never exclusively, but always in a uniquely inescapable way—as the people who are targeted when white American hate boils over.

“Many people swim in this elastic, amorphous reservoir of grievance, where a constellation of new targets are identified all the time,” Levin says. “But African Americans remain.”


Correction, May 19: The original version of this story misstated whether anti-Black hate crime hit record levels in 2020. The month of June was the worst month ever for anti-Black hate crime; the year 2020 was not the worst year ever. It also mischaracterized the findings of a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. The survey considered all hate crimes in the years 2015-2019, not anti-Black hate crimes in 2019.

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