FBI Statistics Reveal a Major Decrease in Racially Motivated Hate Crimes

Every fall the FBI releases its annual report on hate crime statistics to little fanfare. The media usually ignores it, and what coverage it does get is usually both confused and confusing. But those tables of numbers contain a remarkable fact, seemingly overlooked until now: there has been a major decrease in the number of racially motivated hate crimes since 2008. While realizing that correlation does not mandate causation, I call this the Obama Effect.

Racially motivated hate crimes decreased 20 percent from the two years before Obama's election to the two years after it (the most recent data available is from 2010). This is a massive decrease, amounting to over a thousand fewer victims each year. The only shift in hate crime numbers even approaching this magnitude was the temporary spike in anti-Muslim/Arab hate crimes after the September 11th attacks. Otherwise, the post-2008 decrease in racially motivated hate crimes is the largest change of any sort seen in the posted FBI data, which goes back to 1996.

The drop in race-based hate crime is more than double that seen in crime as a whole: crime of all sorts decreased by about 9 percent from 2006 to 2010. That race-based hate crime has fallen over 20 percent in the same period as the unemployment rate has increased 5 percent is striking.

Sadly, other kinds of hate crimes have not decreased all that much, falling just 4 percent in the two years after Obama's election compared to the two years before it. In fact, sexual orientation-based hate crimes actually increased by about 1 percent in that period. So the 15 percent decrease in overall hate crime victims over the last two years of data is due mostly to drops in race- and ethnicity-based hate crimes.

As you might expect, the decrease in race-based hate crimes is due to there being fewer black and white victims targeted for their race. Comparing the two years before and after Obama was elected, there has been a 16 percent decrease in the number of black victims of racially motivated hate crimes. The comparable figure for white victims is a 30 percent decrease -- almost 600 fewer people. In the wake of Obama's election there were dire predictions of a backlash of white hate, especially against African Americans. In fact, the number of white offenders identified as perpetrating race-based hate crimes against black victims fell by 15 percent (268 fewer offenders) from 2008 to 2009, and then a further 6 percent (86 fewer offenders) from 2009 to 2010. If the FBI statistics reflect reality, then the exact opposite of the predicted backlash occurred. Sadly, this decrease in white-committed hate offenses is largely limited to those against black people: the number of hate crimes by white people targeting Hispanics and other ethnic groups was essentially unchanged from 2008 to 2010.

There have also been fewer black offenders identified as committing race-based hate crimes against white victims, with a decrease of 23 percent from 2007 to 2010. The decrease in black-committed racially motivated hate crimes is most notable for white victims, but in contrast to white perpetrators, decreases are also seen in the number of black perpetrators identified as committing crimes against most other racial and ethnic groups.

Only a portion of hate crimes are reported, and not all law enforcement agencies send their data to the FBI (about 92 percent of the population was covered in 2010). But since the decreases I'm talking about are from year-to-year within the FBI data, they are still real. In fact, the trend of more agencies reporting data to the FBI coupled with a growing and increasingly diverse U.S. population actually biases the hate crime data towards showing increases, not decreases.

The massive decrease in white-black racially motivated hate crimes, clearly evident in the FBI data, seems to have been overlooked. I can only speculate as to why, but here are three guesses. First, it's statistics and therefore boring to most people, including the media, unless someone marshals those numbers to tell a story. For whatever reason, the FBI did not tell this story (or much of any story) when it released these reports. Second, the FBI and other commentators tend to focus on either the total number of all hate crimes or the proportion each kind of hate crime represents of that total. This is not a very informative way of looking at the numbers, because it makes it easy to miss important trends. Third, many of the organizations who do pay attention to these numbers are advocacy groups dedicated to reducing hate crime. They may therefore be understandably reluctant to highlight any apparent "good news" about hate crime numbers, for fear that donors and policymakers may conclude that additional efforts and resources to combat them are a low priority.

Let me be clear: even one hate crime is too many. For the approximately 5,000 victims of racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes in 2010, it is likely no consolation at all that their ranks numbered over 1,000 more just two years prior. More could and should be done to reduce hate crimes, particularly against black people who are still more than twenty times as likely to be victimized compared to white people. But reducing hate crimes depends on having an accurate understanding of the true scope of the problem, not presenting an increase in hate groups as an increase in actual hate crime. The data are clear: there has been a major decrease in racially motivated hate crimes against black and white people, correlating with the election of President Obama. It's a start.

David DeGusta earned his PhD from UC Berkeley and served on the faculty of Stanford University where, among other courses, he taught forensic science, now his focus. He can be reached at david.degusta@gmail.com or on Twitter @BetterForensics. All the raw data in this post comes from FBI crime reports, and spreadsheets showing the relevant calculations are here.