(RNS) — 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.
When I heard Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, speak in New York City earlier this year about the problem of hate violence in America, she was asked by someone in the audience what people could do. She made one simple ask: “Help us ensure that every state finally passes a hate crime statute.” It had been 20 years since the murder of her son, and for those 20 years, Matthew’s parents had toured the country, imploring the country to pass this legislation. It’s time we made that happen.
This matters because we only have an illusion of accurately understanding the problem of hate in America. We need better numbers to better understand hate. And for better statistics, we need better reporting methods and legislation.
Another problem that leads to underreporting is that many of those who are the most vulnerable to hate crimes don't know how or don't feel comfortable reporting them to authorities. Some don't speak English. Some decline to report because of their immigration status, fearing deportation. Others mistrust the police based on previous experiences, at home or abroad. This mistrust is understandable, of course, when we recognize that those most often targeted by hate are also the most vulnerable to police mistreatment.
The FBI's statistics are also flawed because no state requires local law enforcement to report hate crimes to the FBI when they document them. This means that the data represented in the official FBI statistics does not account for all the hate crimes reported throughout the country. In the just-released report, only 12.6 percent of police agencies participating in the FBI Hate Crime Statistics Program actually reported data. This means that numbers from nearly 90 percent of law enforcement agencies are not included.
What is not included in this report, in other words, is more damning than what is — and not only the missing statistics themselves. The underreporting of hate crime arises from all of us not wanting to know, not wanting to hear from those who suffer the most.
This may not be the America we want to know. But to get the America we want, or think we’ve lost, the first step is to acknowledge what we've become.