The number of hate crimes against religious groups in the U.S. jumped more than 8 percent during 2008 — the most notable increase in a variety of hate crime statistics reported in data released Monday by the FBI.
In all, 7,783 hate crimes were included in the FBI's 2008 Hate Crime Statistics report. The report covers crimes involving a victim who was targeted because of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin or disability.
The FBI's report reflects only the information gathered by participating law enforcement agencies. Experts warned that the numbers may reflect different standards for what constitutes a hate crime, as well as the inability of some law enforcement agencies to coordinate the report because of budget constraints.
"The most frightening thing about these numbers is what goes unrecorded," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic civil rights advocacy group.
Still, the data show a 2 percent overall increase in hate crimes over the previous year, and a rise in each individual category, with one exception: attacks based on ethnic bias or national origin. Crimes based on racial hatred made up the largest number of reported incidents. Last year, agencies across the U.S. reported 3,992 incidents in which someone was victimized because of race — a 3 percent increase from 2007.
Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, said she expected to see an increase in the targeting of African-Americans because of the uptick in hate group activity before the election of President Obama.
"The anti-black numbers jumped around the elections, but we know that doesn't reflect anywhere near what [the figures] actually are," said Beirich. She said experts have noted inconsistencies in some jurisdictions, such as the relatively small number of hate crimes reports in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, where there is a large black population and a history of racial intolerance.
Blacks have historically been the most frequently targeted group. The FBI report showed 73 percent of the victims of race-based hate crimes were black.
Poor Reporting Affects Accuracy
The biggest year-over-year increase was in attacks on religious groups, which rose from 1,400 in 2007 to 1,519 in 2008. Most of the reports involved crimes against Jewish people, although attacks against Catholics and "anti-other religion" showed the biggest percentage increase. Crimes against Muslims fell from 115 in 2007 to 105 this year, according to the report.
Most of the crimes involve vandalism and intimidation, but they also range from assault to rape and murder.
The FBI figures also showed that there were 1,297 incidents of crimes against gay people, up from 1,265 in 2007. That represents a more than 2 percent increase in the number of incidents.
But that crime may be under-reported, according to professor Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, because attacks on gay people are not recognized as hate crimes in some states. In addition, many victims do not want to make their sexual orientation public.
Illegal immigrants are also wary of involving law enforcement, said La Raza's Murguia. According to the FBI data, attacks on the basis of ethnicity and national origin went down in 2008 — from 1,007 in 2007 to 894 last year. Most of the victims in that category were Hispanic.
"We look at these numbers as the tip of the iceberg, and even then, the trend over the past five years is unmistakable," Murguia said.
The FBI does not report hate crime trends, saying differences in annual reports may be attributed to the number of agencies participating in the reporting. Of the 13,690 agencies that submitted data, only 2,145 agencies reported hate crimes in their communities.
Levin said authorities won't have a true picture of the number of hate crimes in the U.S. until reporting is standardized.
"There are problems regarding lack of uniformity and consistency of reporting," Levin said, that should be addressed in order to get a true picture of the problem. A federal survey of victims in 2005 showed there were 191,000 hate crimes in the United States, he said.