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Religious Hate Crimes on the Rise: Justice Department Testimonies Cite Inflammatory Election Campaign Rhetoric as Contributor

Hate Crimes
Eric Treene, Special Counsel For Religious Discrimination, Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2017, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on responses to the increase in religious hate crimes. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

On May 2, 2017, a committee assembled to present information to the Justice Department concerning the growing threat hate crimes represent in the United States. The conclusion of key witnesses and experts points to the lingering effects of the incredibly divisive election we endured last year.

The committee was ordered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with the intention of studying the issue of hate crimes, particularly how law enforcement can better investigate and document them. The conclusion to be drawn from the information presented is clear: Hate crimes are on the rise, and factors such as the divisive rhetoric used by the Trump administration—both during the campaign and after taking office—are not helping. Additionally, everyone seems to agree that the first step in combating this rise is to be open and honest about what is happening.

As is usual in Justice Department hearings, both a republican and democratic representative make statements at the beginning of the hearing.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) cited things like the bomb threats to Jewish community centers, the arson and vandalism of mosques, murders of people that look Muslim or Sikh, and crimes against immigrants as examples of hate crimes currently on the public’s radar. While republican Senator Chuck Grassley’s statement also acknowledged the problem with hate crimes, Leahy actually called out the Trump administration’s influence on the spike in crimes.

“I have made it clear over the past many months that statements by this president and from his senior officials alarm and trouble me. I remain concerned by the hateful beliefs and conspiracy theories espoused by White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, the President’s national security aide Sebastian Gorka, and others within this administration,” Leahy said.

This sentiment was echoed by Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), whose words were reported by PBS Newshour: “It’s no accident that there is a rise in hate crimes, because we’re in an environment where the president targets Muslims with his language.”

Eric Treene represented the Justice Department’s special counsel for religious discrimination. Treene summarized the statistics gleaned by the FBI and the Bureau of Justice. There has been a 23 percent rise in hate crimes against people based on their religion, “including a 67 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and a 9 percent rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes” from 2014 to 2015. Treene made note of the fact that the number of law enforcement agencies engaged in collecting data on hate crimes rose from 11,690 in 2000 to 14,997 in 2015. However, the data reports the overall number of hate crimes has declined, when crimes based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation are included with religion-based crimes. While these other subcategories of hate crimes have decreased slightly, religion-based incidents have actually increased.

Data collection is a point Treene spent a little bit of time unpacking. He explained these first statistics were provided by the FBI, and they rely on voluntary reporting by state and local law enforcement agencies. Thus, they are “only as accurate as the identification and reporting processes that law enforcement agencies put into place and implement with all of their officers.” In contrast, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) gets its information from polling households each year. Treene says the BJS numbers suggest the incidence of hate crimes may actually be increasing, where the FBI data suggests they are decreasing overall. The conclusion to be draw from this discrepancy is that hate crimes are on the rise, but may not be reported to authorities.

One of the key witnesses involved in the hearing, Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, cited the election as driving a higher rate of incidents. Speaking specifically of crimes against Jewish communities, Greenblatt said, “Nearly 30 percent of all incidents (369) occurred in November and December 2016, spiking immediately after the election. Our Audit includes 34 incidents linked directly to the election.” Greenblatt said white-supremacists, other anti-Semites and bigots were emboldened by the divisive election campaign language which featured “anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-semiotic dog whistles.”

Danita Gupta, the incoming President & CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights says the problem with hate crimes isn’t strictly with those we typically see targeted. She gave examples of South Asians in particular who were targeted on the false perception that they were Muslim.

The general consensus of all those giving testimony can best be summarized by the words of Dr. Pabhjot Singh, a medical doctor and the victim of multiple hate crimes: “We cannot address what we do not know.” Dr. Singh offered two suggestions to abate the rise of hate crimes: to make the reporting of hate crimes mandatory and to hold politicians accountable for their inflammatory words. Chief Will Johnson, of the Arlington Police department, confirmed Singh’s words, at least regarding reporting, by saying “one of the greatest barriers to confronting and overcoming hate violence on national, state and local levels has been the lack of firm statistical data on the incidence and nature of those crimes.”

Despite being seen as a big contributor to the rising problem with hate crimes, President Trump has said some encouraging things on the topic. In his first address to congress on February 28, 2017, the president said that “while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

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Megan Briggs is a writer and editor for churchleaders.com. Her experience in ministry, an extensive amount of which was garnered overseas, gives her a unique perspective on the global church. She has the longsuffering and altruistic nature of foreign friends and missionaries to humbly thank for this experience. Megan is passionate about seeking and proclaiming the truth. When she’s not writing, Megan likes to explore God’s magnificent creation.