The Effects of Political Events on Hate Crime

Over the years, the number of hate groups in the United States rose significantly. Of the many racial, ethnic, and religious groups targeted by hate organizations, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the third most targeted group in the country, behind immigrants and Blacks, is Muslims. Since the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, there has been a general increase and significant spikes in anti-Muslim activity following events occurring worldwide. These events include instances like but not limited to terror attacks, passed legislation, political speeches, and elections. Statistically speaking, hate groups are very difficult to monitor and track due to their unpredictable nature, and the inaccessibility of their records. On the other end of the spectrum, information on hate crimes is compiled by law enforcement and the federal government and is easily accessible. By looking at hate group and hate crime data together, it offers a full scope of hate activity in the United States and aides in identifying the determining factors of what causes spikes in hate activity.

Following the implementation of the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began compiling hate crime data yearly as of 1992. According to the Bureau’s Uniform Crime Report, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked drastically after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. In 2000 there were 28 anti-Muslim hate crimes; in 2001 that number skyrocketed to 481 reported hate crimes. It must also be said that in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Special Report on Hate Crime Victimization, it states that less than half of all hate crimes nationwide are reported to authorities. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center as of 2017, 113 of the 954 recognized hate groups in the U.S. were designated specifically as anti-Muslim organizations, making up over 11% of all hate groups. This number is startling due to the fact that it does not include general hate organizations like neo-nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacists. If general hate organizations that also target Muslims were included, the percentage would be much higher.

While the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes did go down in the years 2002 to 2014 to a number steadily in the mid to low 100’s, that statistic is still drastically higher than the pre-9/11 number. This reprieve did not last forever though, as in 2015 the number of Muslim oriented hate crimes shot back up to 257. The FBI’s data shows that this spike was the largest number of Muslim focused hate crimes in the United States since the September 11th attacks. This leads to the question of what causes these spikes in hate crimes, and how can we predict them?

After cross-referencing the FBI’s data with a news timeline covering Muslim related events, it can be hypothesized that a spike in hate crimes and anti-Muslim rhetoric occurs directly after negative events, such as terrorist attacks, and can be amplified by the reactions of political leaders. Evidence supporting this hypothesis can be found by looking back to the spike in 2015. The Paris terror attack happened on November 13th of that year, and the San Bernardino shooting occurred on December 2nd, less than a month later. In the 4 weeks following the Paris attack, there were 45 reported anti-Muslim crimes in the United States, with almost half of them happening after the incident in San Bernardino. Five days later on December 7th, presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed the barring of all Muslims from entering the United States for an indeterminate amount of time. Of the post-San Bernardino hate crimes, 15 of them happened within 5 days of Trump proposing his Muslim ban. This connection to discourse spearheaded by political leaders may seem like it is merely a coincidence but according to a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, the relationship is there and can act in a positive way as well. For example, after the events of 9/11, there was a notable decrease in anti-Muslim hate crimes after then-president George W. Bush gave a speech promoting peace, tolerance, and acceptance.

It seems though, that negative rhetoric has a much more palpable grip on society than positive does. The non-partisan, nonprofit think tank New America conducted a study, called Anti-Muslim Activities in the United States through the Muslim Diaspora Initiative, where they measured the effects that negative political rhetoric from politicians has on anti-Muslim activity.

According to the director of the project, Robert McKenzie, the sharpest increases in anti-Muslim activity have happened subsequent to 2015 and, “indicating political rhetoric from national leaders has a real and measurable impact.” New America’s most striking figure is their dataset that plots anti-Muslim incidents by month from 2012 to 2018, with a timeline that notes when certain terror attacks occurred. The chart shows a direct positive relationship between the occurrence of terrorist attacks and anti-muslim activity. The activity that the chart covers is the following: anti-Sharia Law legislation, the opposition of refugee resettlement, opposition of mosques, Muslim centers, and schools, anti-Muslim actions and statements made by elected and appointed officials, hate incidents against mosques and Islamic centers, and media reports of anti-Muslim violence and crimes. Severe spikes in these activities can be seen following the attacks at the Boston Marathon and Charlie Hebdo office, and in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, Nice, Orlando, Manchester, and New York City.

While these events seem to have obviously caused spikes in anti-Muslim activity, there are also spikes on the timeline that are seemingly unaccounted for since they do not match up with any events labeled on the chart. Upon further investigation, the largest spike that was unaccounted for was in November of 2016, the month of President Trump’s election. The next spike was in January 2017, the month of Trump’s inauguration. This trend continues into February and March of 2017 when a nationwide debate was sparked over President Trump signing Executive Order 13769, colloquially known as the Muslim Ban, on January 27, 2017. The ban stayed in the news cycle for months as the courts struck down various versions of it. These statistics go to show that there is a very strong and important correlation between anti-Muslim rhetoric being purveyed by influential politicians and an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

The question now is why is there a relationship between the attitudes of politicians and the actions of their constituents? This can arguably be attributed to a culture of fear-mongering in the United States. According to Harvard Professor David Ropeik, the reason that fear-mongering and scare tactics are so successful in politics is that humans are inherently social creatures. For politicians to successfully use this tactic against their base, they must make them fearful of losing control over important aspects of their life like security, finances, welfare, and their future. When individuals become fearful of losing these things, they look for their “tribe” or group of people who are fearful of the same things. When a political actor has a group of people in front of them that all have the same fears, it then makes it very easy for an individual to blame another group for causing the fears of the original group. A perfect example of this is the opportunity that the 2016 presidential candidates had during the election to rally their bases against the Muslim community in the wake of a string of tragic terror attacks across the U.S. and Europe. Certain candidates isolated that fear of Islam in their constituents and used it to their advantage.

This is what we see with Islamophobia today, and with racism and anti-Semitism in the past and present. Politicians use the misdeeds of the few to demonize the many. This gives them more power and credibility with their bases and allows them to pursue political agendas with little resistance from their constituents. The reason that this phenomenon causes such a volatile physical reaction in society is that when an individual has a very vocal group and leader standing behind them, it emboldens them to act upon their beliefs in ways that they did not have the audacity to do beforehand. Politicians may even go as far as endorsing this type of behavior, as division only empowers them more. This strategy is nothing new and dates back to McCarthyism in the 1950’s, the rise of the Nazi Party, and much further than that. This sense of invincibility and emboldenment derived from finding a like-mind group, and being encouraged by people in power, is likely a contributing factor to the recent resurgence of hate groups in the U.S.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of overall hate groups in the United States was steadily increasing from 1999 to 2011, with the no particularly noticeable jumps occurring at the same time as any important events. Only after 2011 did the number of groups fall from an all-time high of 1,018 in that year to 784 in 2014. It was going into 2015 that the sharpest spike in the number of hate groups nationwide was seen. The total increased by a staggering 108 groups to 892 and then increases to 954 by 2017. Looking at the SPLC’s data for anti-Muslim specific hate groups from 2015 to 2016, the number of organizations goes from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016, adding a jarring 67 groups in only a year.

Moreover, it can be inferred from this data that a possible cause for this spike in not only anti-Muslim hate groups but in hate organizations overall, is the dangerous and exclusionary rhetoric surrounding the aftermath of the 2015 terror attacks and the 2016 election. In accordance with the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, in 2014, 16.1% of all hate crimes motivated by religion targeted Muslims. A year later in 2015, that number increased to 21.9%, and then 24.5% in 2016. For 2017, the percentage of hate crimes motivated by religion that targeted Muslims dropped to 18.6%. This decrease is unsurprising due to the fact that the current administration’s attention has moved off of Muslims and focused more on illegal immigration from South and Central America. The effect of this change in rhetoric can also be seen in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s records of anti-immigrant hate groups. In the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, there was an average of 13.1 anti-immigrant groups. With there being 14 in 2016, that number jumped to 22 in 2017, effectively adding 8 groups in one year, an increase four times the size of the largest gain in the previous 10 years.

In conclusion, these studies show that different events, and how politicians react to them, have a direct and measurable impact on the resurgence of hate groups and crime. As citizens react to atrocities, the commonality of hate crime increases due to outrage, and then the effect is later amplified by the circulation of anti-Muslim rhetoric. This is also likely true for hate crimes related to other racial, ethnic, and religious identities. Since we now know that there is a direct positive relationship to be seen, this information could be used by law enforcement to predict when there may be outbreaks of hate crimes, and help them prevent such crimes from taking place.