Long Before Buffalo, Anti-Black Hate Crime Was Most Common
WOn Saturday, a gunman attacked a Buffalo grocery store, wounding 3 more people.
But to express shock about whom the shooter targeted—Black people living in one of Buffalo’s blackest communities—during his briefly livestreamed rampage, or why, would be to ignore an often dismissed but largely consistent fact of American life. The FBI has tracked hate crime since 1991 and reported that one consistent pattern is the most frequently targeted victims: Black Americans.
“The pattern is absolutely clear, absolutely overwhelming. And in 2020—that’s the last year we have [numbers from] right now—the FBI data showed we had the worst year ever for anti-Black hate crime,” says Brian Levin, a criminologist and civil rights attorney at California State University San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Levin is part of a group of researchers that examines multiple aspects of hate crimes. The language Levin uses to describe them is disturbing. “Just like people with cameras getting the hurricane coming in, we’re getting the data on it and it’s severe.”
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As the country publicly declared itself to be in the midst of a racial reckoning, it turns out Black Americans were being hunted and hurt at a level unmatched since 2008—the year that saw the election of the first Black president and an attendant, hate-fueled backlash. 2871 Black Americans were victims of hate crime in 2020. This is the latest year that the FBI reported national hate crime statistics. This number is almost 35% of hate crimes reported to FBI in 2020. What’s more, systems for reporting hate crime have long been flawed and limited in ways known to researchers, suggesting that 2020’s already high numbers fail to capture the full picture.
Monitoring a crisis
Prosecutors have not yet indicated whether they will pursue a hate-crime sentencing enhancement if and when the Buffalo suspect—Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white man who has pleaded not guilty to murder—goes to trial. However, the violence is a result of a rise in hate-motivated criminality within the United States over the past years. The FBI reported that hate crime has increased over the past ten years in seven cases. In that period, the FBI has seen the highest number of hate crimes against Black victims. White supremacists in America have murdered more Americans than any other extremist group since 2018.
Levin states that hate crimes began growing before the pandemic. But, it has become worse since COVID-19. In 2021, when Levin and his research team analyzed hate crimes reported to police in the nation’s 10 largest cities, residents had suffered through a nearly 55% collective increase in hate crimes overall compared to the previous year. Even though the trends in larger cities were similar, they are still significant.
Philadelphia has 1.5 million residents. The number of hate crimes against all types of people grew faster than other cities. In the city of brotherly love, the home of the Liberty Bell, and the city where the U.S. Constitution was drafted, hate crime grew by 230%, from 44 incidents in 2020 to 145 in 2021, according to data gathered and analyzed by Levin’s team. The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020, and in 2021 was a significant part of this growth. But the remainder of both years left Black Americans—sometimes targeted for multiple reasons such as sexuality or religion, on top of race—the most frequent victims of hate crime. The FBI’s 2021 data will become public late this summer and its 2022 analysis remains more than a year away. However, information from the major cities so far this year shows that hate crimes reporting is on the rise in New York and Los Angeles.
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Yet, over the past decade, many states that have large Black populations such as Mississippi or Alabama have reported low hate crime numbers. For multiple years, major cities in Florida and Alabama have had zero hate crime reports. In 2020, as in most years, there were no hate crime reports from the majority of American law enforcement agencies.
That doesn’t mean the crimes aren’t happening. BuzzFeed News reported the findings of an FBI investigation in 2018 into 10 cities with zero reports of hate crimes. Reporters found 15 incident records in which descriptions of crime and events were written by officers. These reports indicated that an incident could have been considered a hate-crime. In 2017, a ProPublica investigation found “evidence suggests that many police agencies across the country are not working very hard to count hate crimes.”
Black Americans might be more vulnerable to their suffering going unreported. For the first time, in 2019, more than half—54%—of anti-Black hate crimes were believed to have been reported to police, a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found. However, by a June 2020 PBS News Hour/ NPR/ Marist poll found that almost as many Black American adults—48%—doubt police treat them the same way that they do white Americans.
Meanwhile, the number of the nation’s nearly 19,000 policing organizations that even participated at all in FBI hate-crime reporting fell from 15,772 in 2019 to 15,138 the next year. In addition, many cities do not have access to or are not prepared to use a new crime-reporting system required by the FBI—an infrastructure problem that Levin foresees affecting the accuracy of crime data for at least the next few years.
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There are some signs that law-enforcement agencies may be taking the right steps to rectify the situation. Some police force officers partner with advocacy groups and communities to make it easier for victims to report their crimes. While there is no set of national standards for hate crime handling, efforts have been made to create gold-standard practice in certain states. Some police forces in large cities have created special teams to handle hate crime investigations and handling.
There is still much to do. Many municipalities rely on officers with no such training—some of whom are themselves people who post racist memes online or minimize the impact of bigotry in American life, Levin says.
“If you’re in a large city it’s probably better,” Levin says. “The training standards are a lot better. We have many areas where we have racist cops. And even beyond that, never underestimate ineptitude.”
Levin thinks that every police department should have to report hate crime in order to be eligible for federal funding. That would be just one step in figuring out how to keep track of hate in America—but, at this moment when the potential consequences of hate have once again become so tragically clear, understanding those numbers is perhaps more important than ever.
Hinter the hatred
The ideas that appear to be behind the violence in Buffalo aren’t new. Versions of the conspiracy theory known as the “Great Replacement” theory—the claim that the white population is at risk of falling victim to a concerted effort to numerically, politically, and socially dominate them—have animated nationalist politics around the world, says Michael Goldfield, a labor historian and professor emeritus at Wayne State University who wrote the books The Southern Key The Color of Politics. The American modern version of this idea was presented in 1947 by Senator Theodore Bilbo, a former Mississippi governor and extreme segregationist.
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And in today’s United States, the language and the focus of that theory has shifted slightly, Goldfield explains, with greater focus on the idea that white Americans are losing their influence in politics and even elements of pop culture and social norms. And, as in Bilbo’s time, the sense that white Americans no longer have sole access to the best paying jobs and life opportunities has helped the idea grow. In Bilbo’s time, white Mississippi residents, a numerical minority, were keen on maintaining what Goldfield describes as an almost feudal economy. And, because African Americans at the time made up the majority of the state’s population, particularly inhumane and brutal tactics were used to enforce it; Bilbo was a vocal advocate of lynching. Today, a deep reserve of white grievance, resentment, and victimhood seems to be contributing to the spread of the theory, Goldfield says—and he believes that a growing group of people isn’t ashamed to repeat it, espouse it, or at least operate as if it is legitimate.
“The claim today regarding the great replacement theory is not just racial but cultural,” Goldfield says. “Today the America we know and love is disappearing—you know, that sort of thing.”
A December 2021 Associated Press/ National Opinion Research Center (AP/ NORC) poll found that about 20% of Americans believe there are active efforts to “discriminate” against white voters or limit their influence. About 33% of all Americans—over 20% of Democrats and nearly 50% of Republicans—now believe in elements of the so-called “Great Replacement” theory.
And, crucially, “Bilbo was regarded as an embarrassment by other white supremacists who wanted to present themselves as more genteel,” Goldfield says, and was eventually pushed out of office. Goldfield says that the clear indication of embarrassment in today’s political climate is absent. Politicians and pundits make frequent use of similar talking points. And indeed, Biblo’s death was also marked in the pages of TIME magazine under the headline ‘“He Died A Martyr’”—a quote from a preacher’s comments at Bilbo’s funeral—along with a prediction that, “His work is finished, but his ideals will live on.”
Levin, the California criminologist, echoes Goldfield’s concern about the ubiquity of the theory—and sees additional patterns behind the rising hate-crimes numbers.
“We can’t talk about any issue today, whether it’s COVID, immigration or anything else, without it reverting back to a common denominator of this eliminationist type of rhetoric,” Levin says. “The conditions are perfect for it to be wide-ranging but also elevated. The fire season is all year long now.”
How could these conditions look?
There are the social and socioeconomic conditions of 2022, but there’s also the constant availability of conspiracy rhetoric on the Internet. A majority of Americans believe violence is a valid tool to settle political disputes. In a survey conducted by The COVID States Project in January 2022, 1 in 10 Americans (and 1 per 5 Republican men) agreed.
There’s also a relationship confirmed by Levin’s research, between acts of violence and public rhetoric about catalyzing news events; it’s no coincidence, he says, that one of the worst days for anti-Black hate crime in American history came on June 1, 2020—as Black Lives Matter demonstrations grew in cities around the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and President Donald Trump and his aides ordered peaceful protesters tear forced out of a park near the White House. That month—June 2020—generated the largest number of hate crimes overall since national tracking began in 1991.
And, underneath it all, there are four centuries of history during which Black people have found themselves positioned—never exclusively, but always in a uniquely inescapable way—as the people who are targeted when white American hate boils over.
“Many people swim in this elastic, amorphous reservoir of grievance, where a constellation of new targets are identified all the time,” Levin says. “But African Americans remain.”
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