The social construction of a hate crime epidemic.

AuthorJacobs, James B.

    Although definitions vary from state to state, "hate crime" generally means a crime against persons or property motivated in whole or in part by racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation and other prejudices.! Politicians, journalists, interest groups, and some criminologists insist that the United States is experiencing an across-the-board hate crime "epidemic." The use of the epidemic metaphor is meant to dramatize a sharply accelerating hate crime rate. Assertions that a hate crime epidemic exists are almost always accompanied by recommendations for new "hate crime laws" that increase minimum and/or maximum punishment for offenders.

    This Article attempts to deconstruct the claim that the United States is experiencing a hate crime epidemic. Drawing on the "social construction of reality" perspective,(2) we attempt to show how the "reality" of a hate crime epidemic has come to prevail. First, we examine the hate crime epidemic hypothesis and identify its proponents, including advocacy groups, the media, academics, and politicians. Second, we examine the hate crime data collection efforts of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Southern Poverty Law Center's Klanwatch Project (Klanwatch) and the FBI; figures from these groups are widely used to confirm the existence of the hate crime epidemic. Third, we demonstrate the political and subjective nature of counting hate crimes. Fourth, we offer some contrarian observations on the status of hate crimes.


    Many commentators assert that the rates of all types of hate crimes taken individually and together have reached epidemic levels. In this section, we consider how the hate crime epidemic has been constructed. We first consider the epidemic metaphor. Then we show how some advocacy groups have used the metaphor to dramatize their groups' plight. Finally, we focus on the roles of the media, politicians, and scholars in fostering the belief that a hate crime epidemic exists.

    1. "EPIDEMIC"?

      According to Webster's dictionary, an "epidemic" is a phenomenon "affecting or tending to affect many individuals within a population, community or region at the same time; excessive, prevalent; contagious."(3) The Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention says "an epidemic occurs when the incidence of a condition is higher than normal or higher than what health officials expect."(4) Proponents of social problems, believing that the more serious their problem, the more persuasive their demand for action, have appropriated the term "epidemic" to mobilize public attention and government resources. Calling a social problem an "epidemic" implies the existence of a crisis, a calamity that demands immediate political and social action.(5)

      Hate crime is so often referred to as an "epidemic" that one might well believe that there is a solid foundation of facts documenting that this social problem is out of control and getting worse. To take just a few examples: Steven Spielberg, the movie producer, told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that "hate crimes are an epidemic curable only through education:;(6) Leo McCarthy, Lieutenant Governor of California, declared that "[t]here is an epidemic of hate crimes and hate violence rising in California";7 Mississippi State Senator Bill Minor warned, "this is the type of crime that easily spreads like an epidemic";(8) a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle declared that "hate-motivated violence is spreading across the United States in 'epidemic' proportions."(9)


      The leading proponents of a hate crime epidemic thesis are advocacy groups representing gays and lesbians, Jews, and blacks; advocates for women, Asian-Americans, and the disabled also have demanded explicit inclusion in hate crime legislation.(10) By calling attention to the criminal victimization of their members, these advocates may hope to mobilize law enforcement resources on behalf of their members, and, more broadly, to make out a moral and political claim in furtherance of their groups' agenda of social and political goals.

      The existence of a hate crime "epidemic" may be functional for groups like the ADL and Klanwatch. These organizations are committed to preventing and eradicating all bias against those whom they represent as well as obtaining symbolic and material support for their constituents. Whatever the actual number of hate crimes, these groups' assertion of a hate crime epidemic effectively gains them political support. A group uses the term "epidemic" to "focus public attention and resources and create social and behavioral changes."(11)

      Spokespersons for gays and lesbians probably have been the most persistent proponents of the hate crime epidemic hypothesis. Kevin Berrill, Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), asserts that "[t]he problem [of bias crime] is alarmingly pervasive. The real message is not whether the numbers are up or down, but rather that we have an epidemic on our hands, one that is in dire need of a remedy."(12) Similarly, Michael Petreli, a spokesperson for Gay and Lesbian Americans, stated: "[a]nytime there's a murder of a gay or lesbian person, I am concerned because our group... believes there is an epidemic of this kind of anti-gay violence."(13) After the NGLTF issued its 1993 survey report, a spokesperson for the NGLTF said that "all the anecdotal evidence tells us this is still an epidemic."(14) Ironically, the NGLTF survey report actually stated that violence against gays and lesbians had decreased by 14% in the six cities surveyed.(15) Despite this decline, NGLTF spokesperson Tanya L. Domi told a House of Representatives Committee that "[a]nti-gay violence plainly remains at epidemic proportions."(16)

      Some women's advocacy groups claim that violence against women constitutes the largest category of hate crime. According to Molly Yard, then-President of NOW, "[w]hen one realizes that rape and wife abuse are the most commonly reported violent crimes in America, it becomes clear that the vast majority of violent crime victims in this country are women. There is widespread agreement among feminists that these crimes against women are motivated by hatred [of women]."(17) Similarly, a Scholastic Update article titled "war on Women" explains: "[a]ccording to statistics from law enforcement and women's advocacy groups, crimes of violence against women are rampant, and they've been increasing for more than a a decade."(18)

      Asian-American advocacy groups lobbying for passage of the federal Hate Crime Statistics Act claimed that Asian-Americans were experiencing increased hate violence.(19) In a letter to the Senate, the National Democratic Council of Asian and Pacific Americans stated: "[o]ur members in California, Texas, Massachusetts and New York are aware of an increase in violent crimes against Asian and Pacific-Americans, most frequently new arrivals from Southeast Asia and Korean Americans, often elderly."(20) Likewise, Karen G. Kwong of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area wrote: ". . . [w]e believe that in California, as well as throughout the nation, there has been an increase in crimes committed against Asians and other minorities which are motivated by racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice."(21) William Yoshino of the Japanese American Citizens League stated: "[we] believe there has been a dramatic upward trend in violence toward Asians since 1980."(22)

      These spokespersons and organizations, among others, have successfully created the widespread belief that hate-motivated crimes based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and disability are overwhelming the United States. This "reality" has provided the foundation for political and legislative "findings" and has spawned a growing body of hate crime law and jurisprudence.


      The media have accepted, reinforced, and amplified the image of a nation engulfed by hate crime. A LEXIS search of news articles from 1993 to 1995 revealed fifty-six stories referring to the "epidemic of hate crime."(23)

      Headlines like the following are typical: "A Cancer of Hatred Afflicts America";(24) "Rise in Hate Crimes Signals Alarming Resurgence of Bigotry";(25) "Black-on-White Hate Crimes Rising";(26) "[A]cross the nation, hate crimes . . . are on the increase after years of steady decline"(27); and "[t]hroughout the country, there are increasing numbers of shootings, assaults, murders and vandalism that are motivated by bias and hatred."(28) The alarming state of inter-group relations is "news" while inter-group cooperation is not. A Newsday headline states "Bias Crimes Flare Up in City's Heat";(29) a full five paragraphs later we find out that "the number of bias-related incidents in the city dropped in the first half of this year from the same period last year."(30)

      Not surprisingly, U.S. hate crime has achieved international notoriety. The Xinhua General Overseas News Service distributed an article stating "[t]he United States is seeing a surge of hate crimes motivated by race, religion and sexual bias according to a Boston Globe survey."(31) The article further reports increases in nearly every major city in the United States. When FBI Director Louis Freeh released the results of the second Hate Crime Statistics Report during a speech in Germany, he told his hosts that hate crime murders are at least as common in the United States as in Germany, which at the time was said to be experiencing a wave of violence against "foreigners."(32) The media seem almost enthusiastic in presuming the worst about the state of inter-group relationships in American society. For example, a Florida newspaper presented a horrifying attack on an African-American tourist as "a dramatic example of the growing problem of hate crime,"(33) but the writer provided no basis for the assertion that there is a...

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