Last month, after a gunman entered a Pittsburgh synagogue, yelled anti-Semitic hate speech and opened fire on the congregation, killing 11 people, many responded with a message that was both defiant and hopeful: “This is not the America I know.”
While I understand the intention behind such clichés, I also think it’s time for us to move beyond that and face reality. The massacre in Pittsburgh is, unfortunately, precisely the America we all know.
Today the FBI released its 2017 annual report on hate crimes in America, and the data is simultaneously astounding and unsurprising. Hate crimes are up for the third year in a row, with 7,175 reported last year, representing a 16.7 percent rise from the previous year, the second-highest increase since the FBI started tracking hate crimes.
The total number of incidents on the basis of religious identity rose by 23 percent in 2017. Anti-Jewish incidents surged by 37 percent and anti-Muslim hate crimes are still far above historical averages. The official count of anti-Sikh hate crime offenses increased 243 percent, from seven in 2016 to 24 in 2017.
The official statistics come as no surprise to those who experience such marginalization personally or who work on these issues professionally. They reflect a climate of growing hate that is emboldened and indeed enacted by those at the top. To say it a bit more directly: This is Trump’s America.
It seems silly to remark that these statistics indicate a concerning regression on racial and religious understanding in our society. Though given where we are right now, it somehow feels prudent to make that statement. And to keep repeating it.
What’s even more concerning is the point that civil rights organizations across the country have been making. The hate crime data collected by the FBI only represents the tip of the iceberg. A number of problems with the collection of relevant data leads to vast underreporting.
For instance, hate crime laws vary from state to state. Without a standard definition for what constitutes a hate crime and how authorities deal with them when they occur, collecting statistics is like trying to put together a puzzle with pieces from different puzzle sets. The pieces don’t fit together neatly, and even when we force them together, the final result does not represent an accurate picture. This is why we need to standardize the laws across states – to bring coherence and accuracy.
Moreover, there are still five states that do not have hate crime statutes: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming. I found this news shocking when I first learned of it, in part because of the source who brought this to my attention.
In 1998, homophobes in Wyoming beat, tortured and murdered a young, gay man named Matthew Shepard in one of the most prominent anti-gay hate crimes in American history. However, because Wyoming did not have a hate crime statute in place at that time, the murder was not classified as an anti-gay hate crime.