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Hate crimes reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies rose from more than 8,000 in 2020 to nearly 11,000 the following year, according to updated statistics released last week. Crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Sikhs and bisexual people all more than doubled. Meanwhile, hate crimes against Black, White and LGBTQ people made up nearly half of all incidents.
The number of reported hate crimes has been on the rise since 2014, but it still represents a fraction of bias-related incidents. Most go unreported or are not policed because hate crime laws vary across the country. Despite the limitations, experts say the FBI data still captures some important trends and provides a useful glimpse into how police enforce these laws.
This isn’t the first time the FBI has published 2021 hate crime statistics. The agency initially released a report in December, but because of a recent change in how the federal government collects crime data, nearly 40% of police agencies did not participate.
Facing harsh criticism from experts, and from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the FBI went back to police departments that didn’t report data and asked them to use the old system to report hate crimes. Nearly 5,000 more agencies, including in New York City and most of California, submitted data for the updated report.
“The updated report still raises a lot of questions about the overall credibility of the FBI’s hate crime statistics,” said Steven Freeman, director of legal affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. Nevertheless, he said it undoubtedly offers “a more complete picture” of what some communities face.
Among the FBI stats, incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders rose the most — from fewer than 300 in 2020 to nearly 800.
Racist rhetoric and the scapegoating of the Asian community were some of the main drivers, said Manjusha Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that tracks discrimination and hate crime against Asian Americans.
She recalled then-President Donald Trump referring to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” and “China virus” early in the pandemic. Even now, Kulkarni said, national security and economic anxiety continues to drive scapegoating of Asian people. She cited the rhetoric around the Chinese spy balloon as an example.
Legislatively, the U.S. has also seen the resurrection of “alien land” laws that seek to ban Chinese (as well as Russian, North Korean and Iranian) nationals from purchasing U.S. farmland. Versions of this legislation have been introduced in Congress and in a number of states, including Texas and South Carolina.
Anti-Sikh incidents, although still representing a small portion of all hate crimes, also went up sharply — from 89 incidents to 185. The FBI only started tracking these in 2015, three years after a gunman opened fire in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six people.
Since then, this category has been steadily increasing nearly every year, becoming one of the most frequent religious hate crimes in 2021, said Sim J. Singh Attariwala, senior manager of policy and advocacy at the Sikh Coalition.
While hate crimes against Black people went up by a much smaller percentage than some other groups, it remains the largest category by far, making up nearly one-third of reported incidents. In recent polling, more than half of Black respondents said they fear becoming the victim of a hate crime.
Crimes against sexual orientation and gender identity also saw significant increases in 2021, and victims face some unique challenges. Experts said law enforcement, especially in large cities, has gotten better at recording these hate crimes. But many states do not include sexual orientation or gender identity in their definition of a hate crime, according to the Anti-Defamation League. People in those states don’t get counted as targets of a hate crime if they allege hate-based incidents, unless they report them to a federal agency.
Hate crime laws are common, but often leave out gender
Nearly every state defines hate crimes based on race, religion and ethnicity. But only 20 states have laws that include gender identity, covering 45% of the U.S. population.
A set of maps that shows which states have hate crime laws protecting race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Wyoming, Indiana, Arkansas and South Carolina have no hate crime laws. Race, religion and ethnicity are protected by 46 states. Only 20 states have protection for gender identity, protecting 45% of the U.S. population.
In other cases, these incidents don’t register in the numbers because they weren’t reported, or because police didn’t agree on hate as a cause. In any case, the FBI numbers are likely a dramatic undercount.
Based on a survey of hundreds of thousands of Americans, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that more than 300,000 people experienced hate crime in 2019. That’s nearly 40 times higher than what the FBI recorded that year. For gender-related hate crimes, the gap of unreported incidents is especially striking, at more than 250 times what the FBI reported.
Sometimes rising hate crime numbers or specific acts of hate can spur new laws, like in Georgia, where the murder of Ahmaud Arbery spurred the passage of long-stalled legislation in 2020, and in South Carolina, where similar efforts are underway. Some prison abolitionists, however, argue against the expanded use of these laws on the grounds that “trying to police away hate has proven to be ineffective and a waste of community resources.”