Have you ever known someone whose property was destroyed or marred with graffiti just because of their religious beliefs? Or perhaps verbally harassed or beaten because they are Latino, black or gay? Many reading this are undoubtedly thinking, “No, I don’t know people who have experienced this! I don’t know anyone who would do such a thing, either.” Indeed, I hear these arguments in conversation quite often. Well, whether or not you are aware of it, by the numbers you likely know someone personally subjected to hate or bias, maybe without recognising what actually happened. I watched, time after time, people experiencing outright abhorrent targeting from others because of a personal characteristic such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability or a host of other reasons. The commission of such behaviour is frighteningly more common in our day-to-day surroundings than we care to admit. And even if you are a member of the comfortable majority (a question itself requiring a great deal of self-reflection that I’ve commented on elsewhere), bias and hate negatively affect us all.
Bias crimes, much like other areas of interpersonal violence and public health issues, hold ill societal impacts for us all—yes, even the wealthy and majority groups.
What is a bias or hate crime?
Simply put, a bias crime (often called a hate crime) is the intentional targeting of a person for an actual or perceived personal characteristic. With this definition, however, comes considerably more complexity. For one, “crime” implies legality—where is the line between a poor behaviour and an actual crime? And, as has been the subject of great debate, where do we stop the long list of protected groups under such laws? These issues have been debated in legal and other literatures. While many questions surrounding rationales and justifications for bias crime laws abound, for the sake of public education, I want to focus on the basics.
Depending on a variety of factors (for instance, the survey method or nature of the targeted source), estimates of lifetime bias crime victimisation can vary among minority group members, often as high as one in five to one in three persons. To put that in personal terms: think of all the people in your own social bubble, be they family, friends, or the person serving you at Starbucks on your way to work. Whether they be Native American, immigrant, lesbian, Muslim, person with autism, or one of many other categories, chances are they have been victimised. You may not know it because (as data has repeatedly shown) victims often do not disclose victimisation for fear of stigma, retaliation, or lack of criminal justice system support. A great example of best available data is that major events such as 9/11 or shifts in political power often serve as precursors to surges in hate-based violence.
In a 2014 article in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, two London-based scholars demonstrated attacks in the UK and US against Arabic and Asian people escalated grossly after terror attacks, and these elevated patterns remained over time. Similar escalations may be ongoing in the US against persons of Jewish, Muslim and immigrant backgrounds, among others, since the results of the 2016 election.
Why persons commit such acts has been the matter of considerable enquiry, albeit mostly speculative. That is, reliable data is mostly lacking (a point I will return to in a moment). Theorised reasons driving bias crimes include (but are not limited to): perceptions of threat to the majority group, thrill-seeking, alcohol use, revenge, perceived mission to rid the world of an entire group of people (think Holocaust), and affirming majority group (for instance, heterosexual, masculine, or Christian) identity. Two caveats are necessary to note here. First, let me reiterate: most of these explanations do not yet have sufficient research testing or support. Second, they may also apply in instances of targeting anyone, even majority group members. In all, the big picture of understanding why people commit bias crimes is fragmented. One of the only strong sets of empirical studies demonstrating causal paths of bias crime violence can be seen in Dominic Parrott’s work, a professor of psychology at Georgia State University. His collective work has demonstrated strong support that a combination of anti-gay prejudice, trait anger, and alcohol use can jointly result in anti-gay violence. Even with this valuable example, much more work needs to be done.
Why should you care?
Bias crimes, much like other areas of interpersonal violence and public health issues, hold ill societal impacts for us all—yes, even the wealthy and majority groups. Bias crimes do not just hurt the victim, their family or even the legal system. Even majority group members may want to consider the societal impact—occurrences of bias crimes impact healthcare, tax money and everyone’s safety. For instance, a dense scientific literature documents mental and physical health concerns for victims. Extend this victim well-being toll to its logical conclusion: the healthcare system, already burdened by under-staffing and poor funding, is often faced with providing services to these victims. More medical provider time is spent serving or helping an otherwise preventable issue. A 2013 review by eminent Columbia University scholar Dr Mark Hatzenbueler and his co-authors suggests the societal impacts of stigma such as bias crimes may extend to other issues such as housing, employment, and academic outcomes. With each of these disparity issues made worse by bias crimes comes the potential for more tax money devoted to putting plaster on symptoms, rather than the issue.
If taxing many of our basic infrastructural systems and societal outcomes were not enough for you, bias crimes further already existing intergroup conflict and division. This trend has never been as obvious in in the US during my lifetime. Current divides over immigration, religion, and country of origin are hampered by policy arguments about, and occurrences of, bias-driven victimisation. While major societal events (see above) can contribute to the rise of bias crimes, the result of such spikes serve to place us all at risk for further violence and poor, emotionally driven decision making. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr forewarned: “Hate begets hate, violence begets violence.” Bias crimes are a cog in what seems to be a never-ending cycle affecting everyone, from politics and criminal justice, to public health and contentious personal conversation.
Where do we go?
Two ways to address this issue are sorely needed, one from the scientific and law enforcement communities, and another driven by the public. First, we need to understand data-driven influences to the commission of bias-based acts. Such a goal cannot happen in the absence of engagement of both the scientific and law enforcement communities. Current methods of federal hate crime tracking have their notable limitations. How can we understand causal mechanisms when we cannot effectively track incidents? Steps to address the issue need to begin with refinement of reporting systems, directly addressing barriers to victim and law enforcement reporting. In doing so, partnership between local and federal law enforcement with experts in criminology, social psychology and public health (among other academic disciplines) is a necessary starting point. My own current work, in design, seeks to contribute to this very mission, and there have been other beginning efforts and calls for increased federal support.
Arguably, there is a need to shift from punishment to prevention, and middle ground conversation. This is where the public comes directly into play. Prevention of violence arguably begins with relevant social norms. Social norms about bias and prejudice seem to have shifted with the political winds of change in the direction of downplaying or flat out refuting the occurrence or importance of the matter. The public, that is the common citizen, can help in a bottom-up shift to re-normalising the acceptability of openly acknowledging the problem.
As I highlighted, by the numbers, you likely know someone personally impacted by hate crimes. Make it permissible for them to come forward and be supported. Make it acceptable, and maybe necessary, for every one of us to discuss cross-group solutions to a problem that holds universally negative effects. Take the time to educate yourself on bias crimes, even if just clicking a link in this article.
Discuss such experiences with persons of differing religious, ethnic, sexual or other backgrounds, with an open ear and a mind for logic. Someone else’s experience does not necessarily invalidate your own. To the contrary, you can learn, and make a difference at the same time, while expanding your own experience. Such an approach to day-to-day living may be critical to changing the norms and fixing a longstanding, systemic problem.
Dr Robert Cramer is an Associate Professor of Community Health at Old Dominion University (ODU). Before joining ODU in 2016, he served as faculty/staff at the University of Alabama Department of Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State University Department of Psychology, and University of California San Francisco Department of Psychiatry. As a broadly trained social scientist, his research, teaching, and consulting applies psychological theory to social, legal and clinical-health issues. You can follow him on Twitter @