Hate Crime Statistics Sometimes Unreliable

Some are saying the bus beatings in Baltimore should be labeled a hate crime. Mark Potok, Director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center discusses the statistics of hate crimes in America and why the numbers can be unreliable.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: how the Salvation Army is trying to keep Santa's sleigh full of toys, despite this year's massive toy recalls.

But first, we want to continue our conversation about a violent incident on a city bus in Baltimore, Maryland, about two weeks ago. We just heard from two local journalists who told us the story. Nine black middle school kids are accused of attacking a white woman on a Baltimore bus in a dispute over a seat. Now, prosecutors are deciding whether to pursue hate crimes charges in the case.

This story caught our attention less because of the particular facts - because, of course, people have been complaining about the behavior of school kids on public transportation for years, but because of the way readers, listeners and bloggers have been reacting to it - in this case, because the alleged victim is white and the accused are black.

Now some are insisting there's a double standard in the media, where violence by blacks is displayed. Others say there's a rush to judgment.

We wanted to talk more about this with Mark Potok. He's director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. It's a group that monitors extremist groups and hate crimes. He's on the phone with us from his office in Montgomery, Alabama.

Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Director, Intelligence Project, Southern Poverty Law Center): Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Mark, you've been with us before to talk about hate crimes and what constitutes a hate crime. Without asking you to pass judgment on the particular facts in this case, does this fit the pattern of a hate crime - a typical hate crime, if there is such a thing?

Mr. POTOK: Well, it sounds, from what the reporters covering this said on your show, like there are real questions. You know, were racial epithets used? Did it really start over race, or was it over a seat? And then, you know, race was drawn into it as they got into a squabble or real fight.

So I think it's very unclear. You know, the classically we sort of simple hate crime is the person who kind of walks into a bar and says, you know, I hate black people. I'm going to go, sort of, kill me one. And then, walks out and kills a person who he's never seen before. And that kind of thing does happen. This is, obviously, a lot murkier.

MARTIN: The FBI reports that about 20 percent of hate crimes are committed by African-Americans. And does that mean anything, or does that information have some bearing on the this in some way?

Mr. POTOK: Well, the FBI statistics are notoriously shaky, through no fault of their own. It's a voluntary reporting system. The numbers are known to be extremely weak. That said, I think they are indicative of something. What the numbers show is, as you suggested, is almost 21 percent of hate crimes, according to FBI numbers, are committed by black Americans, who comprise about 13 percent of the population. About 58 percent are committed by whites, who makeup about 80 percent of the population.

So the FBI statistics do suggest that blacks commit hate crimes at a somewhat higher level than whites. And that is very possibly true. We really can't know that because the FBI stats are so incomplete.

MARTIN: But what are the - what's the age of most of the assailants? Are teenagers typical? Are they typically adults? Is there an pattern?

Mr. POTOK: Yeah, most hate criminals are between the ages of about 13 and 21 -probably more than half of them.

MARTIN: And most of the…

Mr. POTOK: And that is true of all crimes. So it's not very particular to hate crimes.

MARTIN: Now, as you heard me discuss, there's some sentiment out there - which I have read a lot of on the blogs - that some people feel that stories of black-on-white crime are downplayed. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Mr. POTOK: Well, I think that, first of all, that sentiment is extremely widespread. I'd say hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans think so. And it's these kinds of cases that are constantly hauled out, you know, on the blogs, on various Web pages and so on to make this case.

Sometimes, there is real truth to the complaints. I think that there's - yeah, I think there's some truth to the idea that the media, or much of the media does tend to sort of gravitate toward a preferred narratives, or, you know, well-known narratives. You know, wicked whites attack, you know, sort of hapless black victims. You know, that said, a lot of these cases…

MARTIN: Well, let's also just be fair and say that there's parts - there have been times in our history when the sort of the black marauding, you know, rapist, whatever it was kind of a standard narrative in the media throughout as of much the century.

Mr. POTOK: That is true. And I wanted to go on to say, also, that although that is certainly true in some cases, there are very large number of cases that are picked up by real white supremacists - people on the radical right - and publicized these examples of this supposedly egregious misreporting by the quote, unquote, "politically correct" news media, and that the facts are simply falsified grossly.

You know, a classic case is the murder in January of this year of a young white couple, Christopher Newsom and Channon Christian in Knoxville, Tennessee. They were, in fact, abducted, raped and murdered by - or allegedly by four blacks - by three black young men and one woman. In fact, the murders were terrible and horrific. But these have been picked up by white supremacists and others who have added completely false details. For instance, the idea that they were both sexually mutilated. And fundamentally…

MARTIN: That's not true?

Mr. POTOK: …the idea that it was a racist attack. In fact, it was not at all. The police chief, the parents of the victims, most of the kind of opinion leaders in Knoxville who have all come out and said, you know, the facts don't support that at all. So it's being used as propaganda.

MARTIN: What about this case where - if you could talk about this - and again, I do want to caution that - I'm not asking you to come to judgment on the particular facts here, because the investigation is sort of ongoing. But what - the complaining witness here says that whitey was used, they called her - they used the adjective, you know, of white. Does that in itself constitute a sort of an indicator that there's a - that that's a hate crime? That race is a motivating factor?

Mr. POTOK: I think it really depends on the details of the state's statute, which I don't know. But as a general matter, I would say no, when you look at most of the state's statutes. I mean, simply, for a racial slur to come up sometime in the course of a battle, of a bar fight, of a fist fight, whatever it is, I think does not necessarily make it a hate crime at all.

You know, the - if two people are fighting over, you know, one stole the other's girlfriend, and that is really what the fight is about, and at some point in this battle, one or the other calls the other one a racial name, I think that's a very minor part of it.

And, in fact, you know, that's the person reaching for sort of the nastiest thing he can think of to say. But, you know, the - really, the reason that the other person was attacked was over the woman, or whatever it might have been.

MARTIN: What about the group dynamic that Sarah Kreager talked about? She told the reporter for the Summit, she thought it was like a thing where - that the other kids - some of the other kids got involved because it was like the cool thing to do, and they wanted to be a part of the group. Is that group dynamic something that you see often in cases like this?

Mr. POTOK: Well, yeah. There is a really infamous case that's quite similar in some ways to the Baltimore case we're discussing right now. This was Halloween 2006 in Long Beach, California, where three young white women who'd just attended a Halloween party were really set on by a crowd of as many as 40 black teenagers.

The women - one woman had her face fractured in 12 places, lost her teeth, lost partial sight in one eye. The other two victims, they had brain concussions. The evidence in the trial showed that the teens, as they attacked them, started to yell, you know, white bitches. We hate whites, and so on.

Ultimately, though, in this case, nine of the 10 people arrested were convicted, but were merely given probation. You know, that has kind of fed the flames of certainly many people who feel that, you know, whites are treated differently than blacks, and also of the radical right, which has, you know, picked up on that case to say, you know, look at the justice system. It's completely and utterly skewed, and so on.

MARTIN: Well, do you have any evidence on either of - that would support either argument? Because I think you hear arguments on both sides. In the Jena argument, the argument was that the criminal justice system is biased against African-Americans because in that case, the argument by African-Americans in the town was - when, that all of the teens were all acting badly. But then white kids acted badly, they were treated more leniently than black kids who also acted badly.

Mr. POTOK: And I think, certainly, blacks support that idea. I mean, the attack on Justin Barker, the white victim, was not a nice thing. But the fact is that his attackers were really charged, you know, in an utterly different way than white kids of the same town, in the same year, similarly situated.

MARTIN: Well, as a person…

Mr. POTOK: In the case of Baltimore, I just don't know.

MARTIN: And as a person who thinks about this in an ongoing bases, how would you like us to talk about cases like this? Do you think about - to be as objective as possible?

Mr. POTOK: Well - sure. I mean, I think it is important for all of us to remember that hate crimes travel in all directions. You know, there are white on black, black on white, black on Hispanic, and, you know, every other direction. And that's clearly reflected in reality - what actually happens, what makes it to the newspapers out there.

You know, there has been an argument made by some black activists that there is no such thing as being a racist if you are a black person, because you can't be racist, you know, if you don't hold the power, if you don't sort of control the levers of society as whites supposedly do.

You know, I think that's really a kind of grotesque argument. And this whole thing was argued out - these ideas were argued out very strongly in the Long Beach case. And many leading black commentators made the very same argument that I'm making, that, in fact, you know, black civil rights leaders needed to stand up and say this, too, is not okay.

MARTIN: Okay. We have to leave it there. I do have to point out that the mayor of Baltimore, a congressman representing Baltimore all issued statements sort of deploring this, as well as other city officials who are African-American, deploring this attack.

Mark, thanks so much.

Mr. POTOK: And thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Mark Potok is director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He joined us from his office in Montgomery, Alabama.

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